Bishop Richard Norgate or The Oratory of the Good Shepherd in Tanzania: Whitterings, December 2008

I was privileged to be part of the Partners in Missions team that went to the Diocese of Masasi this autumn. Although I was interested in seeing all aspects of the Diocese, there was one thing I already knew I wanted to do before I even left. I wanted to meet Bishop Richard Norgate, the retired Bishop of Masasi who lived at St Cyprian’s Theological College in Rondo. On the day scheduled for our visit to the college we were told to be ready to leave first thing in the morning. We eventually left after lunch – five hours late. We had hoped to have a full day and stay at the college overnight. However we were told that another two villages would be added to our itinerary that day and Rondo was only the first stop. Those who heard about our travel plans simply rolled their eyes in disbelief at the hectic schedule planned.

Rondo is on a plateau far out in the countryside and is reached by the worst road I have ever seen. I am not surprised that this long road with huge ruts and pits (no not holes – pits) it is only passable for part of the year. After over an hour of climbing steeply and frighteningly up the side of the plateau we reached Rondo. Bishop Trevor Huddleston CR had purchased the property in the 60s for a secondary boarding school and a theological college. The boys, and a few novice sisters of the Community of St Mary, are given the best education in the region with their time regulated by the Angelus three times a day and interspersed with daily sung Mattins and Evensong and Mass. The theological students study and farm small plots of land with their wives as they prepare for ordination. As time was short we were raced through the complex at breakneck speed. When I reminded the Bishop that I wanted to pay my respects to Bishop Norgate he said that we had no time. When I made it clear how much I wanted to see Bishop Norgate he finally agreed but said that we could not spend long. He did not join us but waited for us beside the Episcopal landcrusier.

In the middle of all of the dormitories, classrooms, the chapel and administration offices is a small sparsely furnished two roomed bungalow. This is the home of The Right Reverend Richard Norgate, Sometime Lord Bishop of Masasi. An old fashioned Anglo-Catholic Englishman of 87. He sits in continual silence as he is almost completely deaf with both his ears and a part of his face eaten away from skin cancer caused by prolonged exposure to the African sun. Wearing Episcopal purple with a great pectoral cross he sat completely still staring out of the window. The current Bishop’s wife, the Principal and the College, Fr Mark, Maida, Penny, and myself dressed in my order’s habit for southern climes, walked into his sitting room for our visit. He looked up, saw me and exclaimed in a booming voice “Ah, A Brother! And properly dressed!” My heart leapt. There are few in the church today that could take one look at me in my habit and know immediately what I was and what my order stands for, let alone be flooded with loving memories of my brothers. There are even fewer who would react with such joy.

After hurried greetings he continued “I have so much to tell you, Bishop Briggs was a great friend of mine” (Bishop George Briggs OGS had been a priest of the Diocese of Masasi for 36 years beginning almost at the very foundation of the Diocese, as a Canon, an Archdeacon, and the Principal of St Cyprians Theological College, before becoming the Bishop of the Seychelles: he died at the age of 93 four years ago). “Did you know that one of your Superiors was once the Principal of one of my schools here in the Diocese?” he asked. When I told him that I did not, he seemed deeply puzzled and disappointed that the current Bishop had not informed me. Fr George Tibbats OGS, sometime Father Superior of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, had indeed been in the Diocese of Masasi for many years and had even tried to start an Oratory House there.

While he was speaking to me I noticed on the wall behind him a yellowing photograph of Bishop Edward King (Bishop of Lincoln, Feast Day in the Anglican Church of Canada March 8th) tacked to the wall. It is the same photograph that I have framed in my sitting room. I was about to say that I have the same photograph until I realised that I did not. His was an original signed by Bishop King himself. It had been passed down to him from his father who had been ordained by Bishop King. There that small isolated bungalow on the Rondo plateau in the wilds of Tanzania under a huge African Sky, while looking at that photograph, I was overwhelmed by the smallness and the interconnectedness of the church throughout the world. I felt at home.

We had been there for a about five minutes when we were told that it was time to go as we had no time. Bishop Richard was confused and surprised that it was such a short visit. I waited until the others filed out of the room before telling him that I was sorry the time was so short. He looked at me sadly and said “I have so much to tell you, but - no time, no time.” I knelt to ask for his blessing and he began to cry. He insisted on rising from his seat with the aid of two canes, and then letting both of them drop to the floor, grabbed my head with both hands and gave a beautiful blessing, while tears ran down his face. As I took my leave he grabbed my hands and said quietly “I am dying you see. I know we shall not meet again on this side, but I have still much to share with you so I shall wait for you patiently on the other side until you join me.”

Everyone must make decisions about the way they live their lives and must continually decide whether to keep the old ways or abandoned them for the new. I have always found this balancing act difficult. All of us have been taught the ‘right’ way to do things from parents and grandparents and we must choose whether we abide by these customs. I am one of those who tries to keep the ‘right’ way as I was taught it as much as I can. This is not so much because of the rational behind the customs as the fact that they tie me to a community and a collective history which is still alive for me. For me it is about loyalty. So many of the customs I keep are only recognised by a select group swiftly passing out of this world. In many ways it makes me a bit of a dinosaur.

I believe it is as much because the church today seems to have little historical context or awareness. We do not take the time to investigate and feel a connectedness to those who have gone before us. Time moves so quickly that even the immediate past disappears into the shadows swiftly let alone the collective memory of twenty five or fifty years ago. The current Bishop of Masasi had no recognition of the part my order had played in the development of the Diocese of Masasi, although I must say that the old Mother Superior of the Sisters of Saint Mary did. I remember when Father Cyrus Lang died a few years ago. He had spent most of his ministry in the Laurentians serving a few different parishes, but when he died only one person in the Laurentian Deanery Clericus remembered him. Our continuity with the past is ebbing away at a frightening speed. It was a joy to be walking with my Rector’s Warden through the snow earlier today reminiscing about Archdeacon Naylor and his life. Neither of us knew him but if you had overheard us you would have thought we were speaking about a close friend. He left the parish of Rawdon in 1925.

All of us are brothers and sisters in Baptism. Yet the emotional reality of meeting one who you immediately recognise as one of your own and who also recognises you is profound and life affirming. For me this almost never happens. Bishop Richard’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and respect for my Order and therefore for me was humbling as well as deeply melancholic. Will I ever get this again? Most people seem to be entirely ignorant of the rich history of the religious life in the Anglican Communion as well as profoundly uninterested in it. I have learned to expect indifference at best in regards to my religious family. Fifty years ago the Anglican theological landscape was dominated by members of my order: Fr Eric Milner White OGS, Fr Wilfred Knox OGS, Fr Eric Mascall OGS, Fr Alec Vidler OGS. Now it seems as if, even with almost a hundred major theological works between them, no one recognises their names. So I felt an instant and powerful connection to that old and dying Bishop on a remote African plateau in the middle of the jungle. Perhaps it is because as he is approaching death he let down many of the ‘normal’ barriers that one keeps when engaging with others, especially strangers. Many elderly are able to sweep away irrelevancies and get right to the point. Then again, maybe it is because of what St Paul says in the letter to the Thessalonians. Perhaps both of us shared a recognition, not of our individuality but rather of our brotherhood in the deeper sense because we had both ‘received the word with joy’ and become ‘imitators’. We both have given our lives to the same God, the same Gospel, and promised to follow this same path all the days of our lives.

At first I felt that it was cruel to break in upon the loneliness of this old man with such a fleeting visit. It felt like giving a hungry man only one biscuit. Upon reflection I believe that any chance meeting of kindred souls is what makes life liveable. In reality his was a gift to me, one that will see me, God willing, through many years in the desert. He saw me, affirmed me and reminded me what it is like to be greeted with joy. He made me proud to be an Oratorian and he made me proud of my brothers that had found their way into the heart of at least that one solitary man.

"We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia."
1 Thessalonians 1:2-4