Obituary: The Most Rev Bill Burnett
Friday 09 September 1994
TWO major climacterics in Bill Burnett's life give some clue to the inner dynamic of the man. The first was his decision in 1967 to leave diocesan episcopal ministry in Bloemfontein and become the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. This response marked his strong commitment to church unity and united Christian witness in public affairs. The second was in 1972 when, in the private chapel of his episcopal residence in Grahamstown, he was baptised in the Spirit. This profound charismatic experience was to dominate the rest of his ministry before and after retirement.
Born in the Orange Free State, Burnett became bilingual in English and Afrikaans and was schooled at Bishop's College in the Cape and at Michaelhouse in Natal before entering Rhodes University. He taught for a short time in 1940 at Umtata before joining the South African Defence Force. He was captured in North Africa and became a PoW in Italy. He escaped and in 1944 came into the care of the British forces. The exigencies of war as they affected public worship kindled his dissatisfaction with denominationalism.
His ordination training was at St Paul's, Grahamstown, and he went as deacon in 1946 to St Thomas's, Durban. In 1950 he became Chaplain at Michaelhouse and there wrote Anglicans in Natal (1953). In its prologue he writes significantly: 'It was a divided church that eventually planted the gospel in southern Africa.'
He became Bishop of Bloemfontein in 1957 and led the work there for 10 years. His work with his episcopal colleagues, notably Robert Selby Taylor, who was to precede him as Archbishop, brought him into the debate about the future of the then Christian Council and decisions to take forward the church unity process. The change to the SACC was both geographical from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and also structural. Between 1967 and 1969 Burnett as General Secretary led the reconstruction.
It was close to the time when the influence of the World Council of Churches and the Programme to Combat Racism made public headlines. Burnett's contribution to the dialogue at home and overseas was important. But it was evident that his labours also brought great tension to one who was fundamentally a shepherd of souls. In 1969 his own church called him to become Bishop of Grahamstown and he readily accepted. He said: 'It was a relief to return to a real fellowship in Christ.'
Burnett had always been an outspoken critic of apartheid. What began at Bloemfontein, when he had spoken against the policy and doctrine of race separation, was carried forward in the five Grahamstown years. Always his critique and protest were based on his commitment to the word of God. Undoubtedly his continued devotion to scripture influenced his 1972 experience.
Just before his enthronement as Archbishop in 1974 Burnett took part in a great charismatic renewal campaign which swept across much of the Republic of South Africa. This marked the confluence of his zeal for ecumenism and pentacostalism. It is remarkable that these influences found root in a bishop of a province with deep formal traditions.
Many hopes were raised when in 1974 this indigenous bilingual bishop was called to Cape Town. It was a coming-of-age for South African Anglicanism. He was destined to be a forerunner of the time when another indigenous bishop, Desmond Tutu, would succeed to the throne. At his enthronement Burnett called for a new Pentecost. At that time South Africa was debating the problem of conscientious objection to national service. The SACC had published a resolution about the injustice involved. In the presence of the President and the military he gave the resolution his support knowing that he had himself taken a comparable stand as a young man. His passion steeped in ecumenism, charismatic renewal and traditional ecclesial faith was unmistakable.
Burnett's retirement in 1981 left him free to offer his services to the renewal movement. He had led the charismatic bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1978. He travelled world-wide in the campaigns for renewal and established friendships with kindred evangelists. He edited their publication By My Spirit in 1988 and in 1993 his autobiography The Rock that is Higher than I was published.
He had married Sheila Trollip at the end of the war and she survives him with their two sons and daughter. He returned to his beloved Grahamstown in retirement and there he died, knowing that the land he served had achieved democracy for all its peoples. For him structured traditions ecclesiastical and secular needed constant transformation.
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