Obituary: The Most Rev Bill Burnett

Bill Bendyshe Burnett, priest: born Koffiefontein, Orange Free State 31 May 1917; ordained deacon 1946, priest 1947; Chaplain, Michaelhouse 1950-54; Vicar of Ladysmith 1954- 57; Bishop of Bloemfontein 1957-67; General Secretary, South African Council of Churches 1967-69; Assistant Bishop of Johannesburg 1967-69; Bishop of Grahamstown 1969-74; Archbishop of Cape Town and Metropolitan for South Africa 1974-81; married 1945 Sheila Trollip (two sons, one daughter); died Grahamstown 23 August 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker