Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man

United Reformed Church online (UK)

Desmond Tutu, Rabble-Rouser for Peace by John Allen.
Pub Random House, pp480, ISBN 1844135713, £18.99

Desmond Tutu, 75 this year despite three cancer operations, has lived through, and crucially contributed to, the second most dramatic change in a social system in the 20th century after the fall of communism.

This authorised biography is almost a warts and all portrait, though the quoted criticisms are usually answered. But no-one lives such a life without making enemies and drawing exasperated comments even from friends. Allen paints a sensitive picture of his childhood, his mothers influence and his father’s drinking. His acceptance by the Community of the Resurrection and Trevor Huddleston in particular, his bouts of polio and tuberculosis (God must have wanted him to live!) and his educational progress to become a teacher in 1954. Desmond married Leah in 1955 though there is not much about family life in this book. Tutu was ordained around the time of the Sharpville massacre in 1960. He did further study in London 1962-66 and again worked there 1972-75. His reputation was rising both within the church and on the world scene.

The drama of three contentious elections for Anglican posts is carefully and entertainingly told, as is the story of his emergence onto the international scene, until Tutu was elected in 1986 as Archbishop of Cape Town: cometh the hour, cometh the man. By this time there had been plots on his life and he had won a Nobel peace prize though his most effective peace-making was yet to come.

His leadership years are well documented in three stages. The struggles of the late 1980s tested his public and private gifts almost to breaking point. The make-or-break years between Mandelas release and democratic elections in 1994 were extraordinarily demanding for Tutu, struggling to mediate at a time of frequent massacres and inter-tribal strife. Then came the unforeseen highest peak of achievement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the carrot & stick of post-war restorative justice, neither Nuremburg nor amnesty.

Others will write more considered and analytical books about one of the great Christians of our time. But here is the life of a man called and kept close by God. His longest lasting legacy will not be his rabble-rousing but his faithful integrity. Desmond Tutu held out to the world an African model for expressing the nature of human community, truth and reconciliation, what we might call justice and peace, the word of Christ for our vulnerable century.