I was born in East London, South Africa to a British father and a French Huguenot and British descendant mother, and baptised at St Andrews Presbyterian Church in 1958. My parents began my real Christian nurture in the first multi-racial Presbyterian Church in South Africa, which we joined when I was four years old, because they, together with their minister, the Revd Robbie Robertson, could not reconcile segregated worship with the message of Jesus. When we moved to Kimberley when I was 12, they found another kindred spirit in the Methodist Minister, the Revd Sydney Friedland, and so we as a family became Methodists.
I attended a very mediocre state boarding school but had the privilege of coming under the influence of the Revd Canon George Pressley, my English master, who was frequently locked up because of his anti-apartheid activities. Together with the support of the school Chaplain, I ‘converted’ to the Anglican Church and felt called to ordination (and possibly the monastic life) in my penultimate year at school. I came under pressure to read law, and so did so for a year, but was more influenced by a sojourn in the Community of the Resurrection (CR), the onetime home of Trevor Huddleston, which confirmed my desire to begin the path to ordination. I moved to the University of Natal, during which time I was accepted as an Anglican ordinand. The bishop told to me to complete my degree and then do compulsory military service first, and then return for further vocational advice. I found this a bit strange and disappointing, because I was hoping for some advice as to how, as a Christian, I could deal with the crisis of conscience military service under an apartheid government, presented!
A very effective way of deferring national service was to be a registered full-time student. I had met Trish at an Anglican / Methodist youth group, and we had decided to get married. Trish is a cradle Methodist raised in a family where all people were accepted without reservation and so experienced much of Asian African as well as the traditional Zulu culture of Natal. Her Father was a fluent Zulu speaker and was much loved by these people.
On graduating, I explored the possibility of a vocation as a teacher before ordination, as I saw the importance of education in the liberation of the people. In addition, if I trained as a teacher, I was offered a bursary which was just enough for us to live on, and so I completed a diploma in education specialising in History, Biblical Studies and Religious Education. I was then invited to do a postgraduate history degree, which meant deferring military service for yet another year. By now, Trish had qualified as a teacher and was able to support us, even though, as a married woman, she was never allowed to hold a permanent position and earned significantly less than any male teacher with the same qualification!
On completion of this degree, I planned to continue with further post-graduate work, but was refused deferment and landed up in the training unit for officers in the Military Intelligence Corps. After some abuse during basic, second and third phase military training, I refused a commission and was eventually allowed to work as a social worker in a poverty stricken Griqua and so-called ‘Coloured’ community, as a non-combatant. While here I was licensed as a sub-deacon in the Anglican church and began to preach reasonably regularly. On completion of National Service, I returned to the Church for vocational advice, but found my ministry fulfilling as a school teacher and lay minister in the Church, and so was happy to wait. However, I became increasingly uncomfortable as history teacher especially teaching exam classes, because of the pro-apartheid propaganda that was so central to the syllabus. As a result, I left teaching and worked with an archaeologist researching Zulu history on a contract. I briefly returned to my alma mater teaching RE and non-examined History, until I was invited to be head of the History division of a research institute associated to Rhodes University in Grahamstown. My new employers encouraged me to publish my misgivings about the schools’ history syllabuses, and to do research into the Xhosa leadership in the region from the late Iron Age to the release of Nelson Mandela (leading to two minor volumes). While doing this, I also worked on a thesis on Methodist and Anglican mission history and theology (eventually graduating with a Master of Theology degree) and felt drawn back into the Methodist fold.