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Friday July 26 2019

Looking Back: Desmond Tutu at the General Assembly

Looking Back to 2009, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave a compelling speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

When it was announced to Commissioners that the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu was due to attend the last day of the General Assembly, there was a spontaneous ‘Oooh’, like the noise a game show audience makes when prizes are announced, followed by laughter. “You won’t be leaving early, then,” said the Business Convener, the Rev David Arnott.

It was a funny moment, but also spoke of the esteem in which Tutu – Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, famed anti-Apartheid campaigner – is held. The General Assembly is not easily impressed, and had barely raised a collective eyebrow when it was announced that Scotland’s First Minister would also be addressing it, but for Tutu there was not a spare seat.

The star guest did not disappoint, treating the Commissioners to a masterpiece of oratory: arms waving, voice swooping and diving around the rafters, loud proclamation one second and tiny squeak the next.

Flattery and praise of his hosts combined with gentle teasing at Scottish reserve, and heartfelt thanks for the Kirk’s support during the anti-Apartheid campaign and its record more generally in Africa.

He appealed on behalf of the marginalised, and made an impassioned plea for unity.

“We are family,” he said, “We have only one who we call father. And this one who is our Lord, speaking about his coming and the blessing on the cross, said ‘I, finally lifted up, will draw not some, will draw all - an incredibly revolutionary, radical, assertion - will draw all, all, into an embrace that will not let us go’. For in this family there are no outsiders. All, all are insiders, all are children, all are held up…

“We are family. We are sisters and brothers. How in the name of everything that is good can we justify going on spending obscene amounts on death and destruction, when we know that just a minute fraction of those so-called defence budgets will make sure that God’s children everywhere will have clean water to drink, will have enough food to eat, a decent home, affordable healthcare? How can it be that we representing this God can look on while there are those who go to bed hungry? Who can spend only one dollar a day? How can we? How can we? How can we?

“Our God says ‘I have no-one, I have no-one except you. Help me, help me, help me to make this a more compassionate world. Help me please, help me so that we can make it more generous, caring. I have no-one except you. Help me, help me, help me, help me’.”

The Commissioners were putty in his hands. It was the undisputed highlight of the 2009 gathering: in fact, one seasoned Assembly-goer described it as ‘the moment of the decade’.

Afterwards, rapturous standing ovation still ringing in everyone’s ears, the Archbishop relaxed in the Moderator’s Rooms with a coffee while various former Moderators and Church of Scotland bigwigs clustered around like star-struck teenagers, all hoping to get a word, a photograph and a handshake.

Tutu had stayed in Edinburgh for one night, and would later receive an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University before flying out again. It was an itinerary that would tax anyone, never mind a 77-year-old, yet he was vivacious, mischievously amusing, and never far from a throaty laugh.

He explained that this had been his first time at the General Assembly but far from his first time in Scotland.

“My first visit to Scotland was in 1965. I was driving with my wife and we visited Glasgow, which we thought was not the prettiest city but had what we believe to be the friendliest human beings we have ever encountered anywhere. They were just amazing.

“We were out on a drive and we got lost, and we met up with a young guy, who was somewhat under the weather, and asked him if by any chance he knew this address, and he said [switching to a passable impression of a drunk Glaswegian] ‘yeah, yeah, I know that street very well, I used to have a girlfriend who lived there but she married another man’.” And he laughs uproariously.

“Before we got to Glasgow we were in the countryside. We drove into a farmyard and asked them whether it would be alright for us to park our car and sleep in the farmyard, and they said ‘of course’.

“The following morning, we were still snoring away in the car when there was a ‘tap tap tap’ on our window, and we looked and lo and behold it was the owner carrying a of tray piping hot coffee. Then they said we were free to use their bathroom and to have a shower, which was just amazing.

“We didn’t know him from a bar of soap. He would have said the same about us. Yet there was this incredible open, warm welcome and hospitality. That was our first and lasting impression of Scotland.”



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