Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 23rd June 2013
23 June 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
In this sermon series on twentieth-century Canons of this Abbey this month I have already talked about one Canon who went on to be a Bishop and then an Archbishop, William Temple. This week I am considering one who, remarkably, came here as an Archbishop. Joost de Blank was Archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa, but came here in 1964 as Canon and died in office just over three years later. He was a remarkable man.
He was born in Rotterdam in 1908 to a Dutch family but the following year his parents moved to London, his father being a financier who worked for a major Dutch company, and Joost spent most of his early life in England, although he did not formally take out British citizenship until he was nearly twenty. He was educated at Merchant Taylors School, and then went to Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he read English and Law. As a twelve-year-old boy he experienced an evangelical conversion, of which he was later to write ‘it was an incredibly bigoted, partial and puritanical religion with which we were presented – but as with so many at the time of adolescence it spoke to my needs, and I responded to the best of my understanding and ability.’ Nevertheless, despite that criticism, he also wrote ‘the reality of Christ was brought to me then and has never left me since.’
At Cambridge he remained in that tradition and went to Ridley Hall, an evangelical theological college and was ordained to a curacy at Bath. During his early years as a clergyman he was strongly influenced by the Oxford Group Movement, which turned into what became known as Moral Re-Armament, a strongly moralistic movement in which it was alleged young men were encouraged to confess their sins to one another. De Blank was then an enthusiastic supporter and was offered the post as Vicar of Forest Gate in the north-east of London on the understanding that he was devote much of his energies to developing Moral Re-Armament’s work in that parish, which he did.
But then came the outbreak of the second world war and de Blank offered for service as a military chaplain and served through most of the war in that capacity. That inevitably let to him meeting clergy from other traditions than the rather narrow evangelicalism in which he had been nurtured, and during the war years he undoubtedly moved to a much broader and more tolerant Anglicanism, and at the same time he encountered rather more Catholic and even High Church practices with which he developed some sympathy. More personally in November 1944 while in Antwerp with the military forces he was very badly wounded by a V2 bomb that dropped nearby with the result that he spent some time in hospital recovering, including have a metal plate fitted into his head which was to cause him considerable physical suffering through much of the rest of his life. After his death The Times obituary writer noted ‘he had few of the physical attributes that tend to bring ecclesiastical preferment. He was small in physical stature, quiet in voice, at times almost sinister in appearance as a result of wounds in Hitler’s war. Nor was he a scholar. But’ said the obituary ‘he was possessed of personal qualities that made him an impressive figure in every piece of work to which he was called.’
After the war he served for a couple of years with the Student Christian Movement, which was a far more open and liberal body than he would have been comfortable with before the war, and he then went to be the Vicar of a Church near Harrow, where he served for some five years and, among other things, introduced the communion service as the main service on the Sunday morning long before that practice was developed more widely in the Church of England. He was an immensely successful parish priest, and in 1952, at the age of 44, he was appointed Bishop of Stepney in London’s East End. Shortly after that some wondered whether he might have become Bishop of London, but that was not to be and instead in 1957, he was elected Archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa.
He was a strong, not to say at times even autocratic Archbishop, with a somewhat flamboyant and by then definitely Catholic style, and he was not naturally given to forming any consensus. But he maintained one firm and ultimately decisive view, he was an implacable opponent of apartheid and was always quite sure that the Church in Africa would only retain the confidence of black Africans if it maintained a staunch and principled opposition to the apartheid policy of then South African Government. That inevitably brought him into active disagreement and even opposition to the Dutch Reformed Church, which opposition caused some concern in wider international ecumenical circles, but from the perspective of today and even much earlier many saw him as being on the fundamental issue absolutely right. When he left Africa the moderate black South African leader, Chief Buthelizi, said ‘Black Africa can never forget our wonderful shepherd.’ It was a significant compliment.
His perpetual conflict with the South African Government of the time had a debilitating effect, but most of all it was his health, damaged by the war time experiences, which combined with a restless nature that meant he could never stay anywhere for many years in the same role, made him conclude he should not stay in Cape Town. At the age of 54, when earlier others had considered he might have even succeeded Geoffrey Fisher as Archbishop of Canterbury, he accepted a Canonry here at Westminster.
In a way it was a strange move, but he threw himself into his new role with as much energy as his broken body could sustain. In the mid-1960s there was much questioning of traditional Christian Faith within the church itself, with books such as Honest to God drawing a great deal of attention, and de Blank threw himself into those discussions and he very much wanted to the Abbey to be a place where such questions could be faced with honesty and integrity. In that he was much supported by one of his fellow canons who was to become Dean, Edward Carpenter, who personally warmed enormously to this new canon. And despite de Blank’s reputation for an autocratic flamboyance in South Africa he evidently became a popular figure with the staff here, who did not see too much evidence of the bishop in his character, in particular when he threw himself into helping organise the 900th anniversary of the Abbey being founded by St Edward the Confessor in 1065. As part of that he was very happy to be a generous host to all manner of convivial gatherings at his home and elsewhere. But it was not just jollity; he shared with Carpenter a growing commitment to inter-faith discussions and a passion for universalism, which had the effect of deepening his irritation with the Church of that time. He wrote then ‘I am constantly exasperated by the Church and its unchristian self-concern.’
Now all of that might have given the impression of an immensely successful and confident clergyman, but there were other sides to his character that only became more well-known towards the end of his time here and especially during his final illness.
As I have explained in his early life as a priest he was much taken by Moral Re-armament, and under the influence of that movement in the 1930s, what attitudes to such matters were very different from today, he felt as a young man that he had to confess to his parents that he was homosexual by nature, which caused them immense distress. There is no evidence at all that in his private life he was anything other than celibate, but he did say later in his life that he much regretted the moralistic atmosphere of his early years as that might have prevented him finding fulfilment with another person. It was an immensely honest and in many ways personally brave thing for him to admit.
But also in the final few months of his life, after suffering a cerebral thrombosis, he started to question his faith more deeply and more personally than at any time of his life. Bishop Wand, who as Bishop of London had appointed him Bishop of Stepney, said at his funeral that many there would have been thinking of the inner struggle that he faced particularly towards the end of his life and Wand commented ‘Sometimes the trouble is so great that we wonder whether we have indeed lost sight of God or whether he has actually forsaken us. Of this stress and trouble Joost had his fill.’ And the writer Monica Furlong, who first got to know de Blank when she was a young girl in his parish near Harrow, wrote ‘His last illness was the greatest achievement of his life. He was not able to hold on, and he just sat and cried. It was so brave accepting this and not pushing it away … I’ve never felt greater respect and love for him.’
So it was a tortured and anguished soul that finally died here in 1968. His ashes are interred in front of St George’s Chapel, where the Coronation Chair now sits, and the inscription in reference to his time in South Africa describes him, correctly, as ‘an indomitable fighter for human rights.’ He certainly was that, but perhaps it was his vulnerability that makes him seem an even greater man now.