St Luke, Nxarhuni

Diocese of Grahamstown

Bishop David Russell, former Bishop of Grahamstown

By Maggy Clarke

David Russell (1938-2014) was born into a life of comfort in Cape Town, but in following his vocation did not hesitate to identify with the poor and oppressed, and challenge the powerful.        

After studying at UCT, and Mirfield theological college in the UK, he began his ministry in the Diocese of Grahamstown with curacies at St Matthew’s Mission and Zwelitsha. He learned Xhosa, and became remarkably fluent. He attracted the attention of the Nationalist government, and the world, while in the Eastern Cape, by attempting to live on the meagre R5 per month which was all a widow in Dimbaza would have received from the government at the time, and writing regular open letters to the Minister in charge describing his condition.

Returning to Cape Town, he served as a chaplain to migrant workers, and worked in Crossroads and Nyanga which at that stage were informal settlements. There he was among a group who courageously lay down in the path of the bulldozers which were about to demolish shacks. The Government responded by banning him from 1977 to 1982.

Crossroads brought David Russell joy as well as pain, for it was there that he met Dorothea, a Roman Catholic nun. They married in 1980.

In 1986 the Diocese of St John’s (now Mthatha) elected David Russell as Suffragan Bishop, and barely a year later he was elected Bishop of Grahamstown.


Turbulent years

The years of Bishop David’s episcopate were among the most turbulent in South Africa’s history. He chaired the national Dependants’ Conference of the SACC, which looked after the families of those detained without trial. Describing himself as being like the “importunate widow” of the Gospels, he believed in never giving up asking, as the Nationalist cabinet ministers who were on the receiving end of his faxes discovered. He was often at the front of the historic marches which took place in the late 1980s, and on a number of occasions fasted and prayed for peace, including in Grahamstown Cathedral on the eve of the 1994 elections. After the dawn of democracy he continued to draw attention to the need for good governance and accountability.


Ordination of women

Bishop David believed passionately that women as well as men could be called by God to the ordained ministry. He showed the way in 1991 by obtaining permission from the Archbishop of Cape Town for a woman priest from the USA, Suzanne Peterson, to minister in the Diocese of Grahamstown. When Provincial Synod in 1992 passed the resolution allowing the ordination of women to the priesthood, it was Bishop David who conducted the first such ordinations, of Nancy Charton among others.

After he and Dorothea retired to Cape Town in 2003, Bishop David repeatedly challenged his Church on the issue of blessing of same-sex unions.

We give thanks for the contribution of Bishop David Russell to the life of this Diocese, the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, and the nation, and pray for Dorothea and their sons Matthew and Andrew.