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REVIEW — I beg to differ: ministry amid the teargas

Retired South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey’s autobiography evokes on one level the chaotic and heroic struggle of the churches against apartheid in the second half of the twentieth century. But on a deeper level it is a profound meditation on conscience, courage and what it is to be human writes Anthony Egan SJ.

I BEG TO DIFFER: MINISTRY AMID THE TEARGAS, by Peter Storey (Cape Town: Tafelberg 2018); ISBN: 978-0-624-0-7968-2; Pb, 496pp.

Why read biography or autobiography? For some it is out of an interest in the person whose life is being recounted. For others it is a more personalised way into understanding a zeitgeist — the human face of history. When the subject is a religious figure it may even be an urge, conscious or subconscious, to understand the faith behind the human face.

And as in any fine book whether fiction or non-fiction, readers will seek (and hopefully find) a ‘pattern recognition’ of themes and experience that reflect and even challenge their own experience.

Those (many, I hope) who read Peter Storey’s autobiography will read it for some or all of these reasons. They will not come away dissatisfied by this multi-layered book, even if much of it may already be familiar to them. Few will not resonate with at least some of Storey’s own life experience.

Book Cover: I beg to differ: minsitry amid the teargas by Peter Storey

On one level, this book mirrors, from the perspective of a progressive white person, the definitive and traumatic period from the 1948 electoral victory of the National Party and the systematisation of apartheid until its fall in 1994, and the tense (and ongoing) attempts to unpick its legacy. Storey’s autobiography also reflects the role that the Christian Church in general had in this process: the courage of those who resisted and the compromises and sometimes outright failures along the way.

The ‘church struggle’ in South Africa (as theologians John and Steve De Gruchy put it) was as much an internal struggle to recover and live the heart of the Gospel as it was against apartheid. Storey’s narrative presents an account of one part of the Church Universal’s difficult struggle between economically powerful minority interests and the prophetic call of faith itself.

In telling these stories at a parish and synodal level we see the tensions in taking such a stance. The risks and compromises and the battles to include and convert supporters of the status quo. To secular outsiders this may seem to confirm the inherently bourgeois nature of religion (a position with which the political animal in me agrees). On a theological level (in which I also have a stake) it addresses themes like salvation and the possibility of conversion which places political liberation firmly within the ambit of salvation history.

The book tells of the author’s personal experience of great events in the nation’s history. The painful political awakening of a South African Church, religious engagements with protest politics, mediating conflicts in the run-up to the 1994 Election and attempts to support conscientious objectors, while not abandoning young white men conscripted into an immoral war and illegitimate war machine.  

But beyond this there is also an account of Storey’s own spiritual journey.

He was a ‘son of the manse’. His father was a sometime President of the Methodist Conference, in present terms the Presiding Bishop. Peter Storey wanted originally to be a Navy officer. A ‘South African Englishman’, the last generation he suggests (but, as one much younger than him who resonates with his experience, I ‘beg to differ’), whose youthful experience of Africans at Kilnerton near Pretoria challenged a typical white childhood.

Storey was not directly inspired by his father into ministry. His calling came as a flash while a naval cadet, something vague and unclear but ultimately compelling. Something that resonates with many of us, I suspect. If you have any doubts, consult a fellow named Saul of Tarsus.

The normal life as a pastor (if indeed such a term is appropriate!) in an abnormal society and his evolving, often complex faith drew him into the public arena. In ethical terms, an awakened conscience drove him to public commitment. And even in that public life, the pastor side was ever present and never split from the increasingly ‘political’ role — in both church and state — that he took on.              

Historians of Methodism in South Africa and the clash between religion and the apartheid state will be familiar with the grand narrative patterns. Christianity in South Africa established at the often ambivalent pleasure of colonial authority, with its theology sending forth mixed messages: the universal equality of all people under God versus the ‘supremacy’ of European culture which underpinned Christianity’s theological expression.    

What deeper insight they and others – be they theologians, pastors, religious laity and even secular readers – will hopefully draw from this book is a kind of emotional and spiritual depth to this history that more analytical studies often miss. Behind great events are human agents who act not as automata but within the bounds of their strengths and frailties, and sometimes transcend them.

Call that conscience. Call that courage. Call that grace, even. It is the depth-dimension to history. In Storey’s life as he recounts it, it was summed up for me by a comment he made about one of his sons who was a conscientious objector. He, says Storey, “had made the biggest discovery of all: being real was to be loved, to love and to refuse not to love – even though…’it might hurt sometimes’” (p 273).

This comment captures the essence of religion and true humanity stripped of the dogmatic and ideological — and sums up this book for me. More, it lays down a challenge to religious and non-religious readers alike to at least test this proposition in our lives.

Beyond all the fascinating details and personal experiences, it may also be the single thing that pushes this ‘struggle auto/biography’ into a different place.

It deserves to be read by everyone.  

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Anthony Egan SJ
Anthony Egan is a Jesuit priest who works at the Jesuit Institute South Africa. He teaches at Steve Biko Ethics Centre Faculty of Health Sciences at WITS University. He also teaches in the Ubuntu Programme for Fordham University at the University of Pretoria. He writes for various journals and publications and regularly offers analysis and comment on politics and the Catholic Church.

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