One of the bigger news items last week was the suspension of Methodist bishop Paul Verryn by his ecclesiastical superiors. This came as quite a shock to many of us who know him, and one of the places I naturally looked to for information was some of my Methodist blogging friends. There are quite a few Methodist bloggers in South Africa, so one hoped to learn something from them.
Paul Verryn has been in the news lately for opening the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg to homeless refugees, mostly from Zimbabwe.
Dion Forster wrote about him a few months ago in Dion’s random ramblings: Central Methodist Mission, Bishop Paul Verryn and compassion
A couple of years ago Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu remarked that Anglicans seemed to be obsessed with sex, and were discussing sex to the exclusion of more important issues, such as HIV/Aids, Zimbabwe, and the situation in Darfur (see BBC NEWS: Anglicans ‘obsessed’ by gay issue), and indeed some Anglican blogs, not just in South Africa, but in other parts of the world, seem to focus on little else but sexual morality. I blogged about it at Notes from underground: Anglican introversion, and one Baptist blogger (Matt Stone of Australia) remarked “Consumerism, pluralism, spirituality, collapse of Christian credibility and moral authority in the media and public discourse … don’t these issues deserve some attention? I don’t recall Jesus being that sex obsessed” (the link on his blog has changed, and I can no longer find it, but he did say it).
Now it seems to be the turn of Methodists. Several Methodist bloggers have been blogging about homosexuality recently, but I haven’t been able to find any who has mentioned the suspension of Paul Verryn. I blogged about it here, and people from other Christian groups in South Africa have Twittered about it, but there seems to be a great silence from South African Methodist bloggers.
Now perhaps I’m sticking my neck out too far here, but it seems to me that Paul Verryn is the Methodist Desmond Tutu, one of those church leaders who make the “don’t rock the boat” kind of leaders uncomfortable because they “speak the truth to power”. And to me as an outsider the whole thing is beginning to look more and more like a hatchet job. When Jesus was arrested it was a plot hatched by the secular rulers and the religious authorities between them, and a very mixed bunch came to arrest him. And something similar seems to be happening here, with the addition of the media jumping in as well.
In December 2003 an informal group of Johannesburg church leaders of different denominations urged the South African government to be more active in opposing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Paul Verryn was one of the prime movers of this. The group was attacked by other church leaders who were close to the government at the time, notably Frank Chikane and Cedric Mayson, and they likened Paul Verryn and the other Johannesburg leaders to George Bush. The comparison is utterly ridiculous, because at the same time Paul Verryn was investigating possible ways of having George Bush charged with war crimes. In the very same week Desmond Tutu appeared on the front pages of newspapers, attacking the South African government for failing to criticise the Mugabe regime for human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
No one knows how many Zimbabwe refugees there are in South Africa, but very few of them have been granted political asylum, because the South African government does not want to acknowledge the gross human rights abuses that have been taking place in Zimbabwe. One of the South African groups that has been aware of those abuses is Cosatu, the Congress of South African trade unions (the Mugabe regime has been particularly hard on trade unionists), and Cosatu has recently been under sustained attack from the ANC youth league, one of its political alliance partners.
A few months ago government officials and politicans visited the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg where homeless refugees, most of them from Zimbabwe, have been given shelter, and threatened to close the church, and blamed Paul Verryn for the problems there. The real cause of the problem, of course, is the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, from which most of the refugees come, and the secondary cause is the South African government, which fails to acknowledge the problem and make provision for the refugees. People like Paul Verryn try to apply a private enterprise solution, and get attacked for it.
There have been reports of sexual immorality and criminal activity among the refugees staying in the Central Methodist Church. I am not surprised. Just because people are refugees does not mean that they are all necessarily good people.
But the announcement of the suspension of Paul Verryn by the authorities of the Methodist Church made no mention of the disciplinary charges against him, allowing, perhaps deliberately, some very nasty media speculation and innuendoes. On Friday the Johannesburg Star published the most unflattering picture of him they could find, while other press reports practically invited readers to infer that he was a criminal, running a bordello, and deliberately allowing criminals to operate unchecked on the church premises.
So I am really quite anxious to know what Methodist bloggers think of this, rather than abstract questions of sexual morality. The gays may be coming out of the closet, but why are the refugees apparently being swept under the carpet?