The Right Rev Richard Wood: Anglican bishop in Namibia expelled for his opposition to apartheid
Monday 20 October 2008
Richard Wood stands high, with Michael Scott and Colin Winter, among those on the roll of Anglican churchmen who stood up against South African white racial supremacy.
Like Scott and Winter, Wood was expelled from Namibia for his active opposition to the Afrikaner Nationalist regime's harshly maintained illegal occupation of its former mandated territory of South West Africa. The Undesirable Persons Removal proclamation of 1920, dating back to the League of Nations days, was used to bring Wood's campaigning to an end in 1975, only to have him, like Winter, continue it from abroad.
Wood had come to South Africa 20 years earlier with his Afrikaner wife whom he had met in London in 1946. After Oldham Hulme Grammar School, Wood undertook electrical engineering training at Regent Street Polytechnic, followed by war service with the RAF. He and his wife then moved to Sri Lanka where he inspected electrical installations on tea plantations.
An encounter with a Tamil priest persuaded him to enter the Church and after Wells Theological College and ordination, the Woods went to South Africa in 1955. After 15 years in parishes in the Cape Province, where their twin son and daughter grew up, Wood's wife died during his incumbency at Fort Beaufort and Wood decided to enter monastic life as a Franciscan.
He first offered a year's service to whichever diocese in the Church of the Province might use him. Colin Winter, Bishop of Damaraland (covering the whole of Namibia), responded at once from Windhoek and Wood found himself Rector of Keetmanshoop in the south of the territory. He toured the region, living out of his blue Combi, which became a familiar sight as he preached the gospel among black farm and factory workers and miners as well as to his town congregation.
His Franciscan future was set aside when he married a young American spending her "gap year" in Namibia. Cathy stood with him in his priestly commitment to the poor and politically oppressed in Namibia, which became central to their lives with the deporting of Bishop Winter in 1972 and Wood's subsequent consecration in Pretoria as Suffragen Bishop of Damaraland.
South Africa, under increasing UN pressure to hand the territory over in preparation for independence, put together a facade of self-government, which was vigorously opposed by the South West Africa People's Organisation (Swapo) and other groups. Puppet Ovambo chiefs in the north took action against members of Swapo and of the small Democratic Co-operative Movement, who endured public floggings with the makalani palm branch, at which the South African administration connived.
Wood, with the Ovambo Lutheran bishop Leonard Auala, and Thomas Kamati of Swapo, a victim, won a Supreme Court action to stop the floggings. This was set aside but won again on appeal – a morale boost to the Namibians and a serious blow to the "self-government" propaganda exercise, having been widely covered by the world's media. In June 1975 the Woods were deported, Richard telling the local press of his expulsion that he "happily accepted their judgment. I would be quite ashamed if I had not been a 'troublesome priest' to them... I have been privileged to stand with the blacks as far as I was able to and offer them support".
In England he continued that support as Secretary of the Africa Bureau, created by David Astor in 1952 as a base for the Rev Michael Scott. He also worked with the Swapo London office and the Namibia Support Committee before returning to parochial work in York and then Hull. He also served as chaplain to the Hull College of Higher Education where he ministered to many Namibian students sent there.
Back in Africa in 1979 Wood taught at the Dar es Salaam theologial college before becoming Honorary Assistant Bishop of York in 1985, later retiring to a Hampshire village. A man of quiet charm, humour and good looks, he was well liked by Namibians and their supporters, who valued his service to their country.
Richard James Wood, priest: born Oldham, Lancashire, 25 August 1920; ordained deacon 1952, priest 1953; Rector, Christ Church, Beaufort West, South Africa 1958-62; Vicar of St Andrew's, Riversdale 1962-65; Chaplain, South African Defence Force 1965-68; Assistant, St Alban's, East London 1968; Rector of St John's, Fort Beaufort 1969-71; Rector of Keetmanshoop, Diocese of Damaraland, Namibia 1971; Priest-in-Charge of Grace Church and St Michael's, Windhoek and Canon of St George's Cathedral, Windhoek 1972; Vicar General and Suffragan Bishop of Damaraland 1973-75; expelled by South Africa 1975; Priest-in-Charge of St Mary, Lowgate, Hull 1978-79; Chaplain, Hull College of Higher Education 1978-79; Honorary Assistant Bishop of York 1978-79, 1985-99; staff, St Mark's Theological College, Dar es Salaam 1979-83; married 1946 Elsa Magdalena de Beer (died 1969; one son, one daughter), 1972 Catherine Roark (two daughters); died Itchen Abbas, Hampshire 9 October 2008.
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