Cornflakes TheologyI have the great privilege of having in my possession a large quantity of material which is in the form of documents, some typed, some handwritten from Bishop Richard Wood. Richard was a close friend and Bishop of Namibia during the 1970's. Sadly he died about 10 years ago. These papers came into my hands by the kind permission of his widow Cathy Wood. I intend to publish this fascinating material on this group in the coming months so I first introduce Bishop Richard to you now.
Bishop Richard James 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 being educated at 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.
The government of 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, Chief 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. Richard Wood, with the Ovambo Lutheran bishop Leonard Auala, and Thomas Kamati of Swapo, a victim, lost a Supreme Court action to stop the floggings. They appealed the decision made by the judge in Namibia, to the Supreme Court in South Africa, that the local decision was wrong, and they found in favour of the three. A fat lot of good it did in the end. They continued to flog people; but it at least put a huge international spotlight on both events going on and the corrupt nature of the courts in Windhoek.
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. He was also the ‘Priest in Charge’ of St. Mary’s church in Hull during this period.
Back in Africa in 1979 Wood taught at the Dar es Salaam Theological 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. Bishop Richard died in Itchen Abbas, Hampshire 9 October 2008.To end with some words spoken by Cathy;“I suppose I think of him as having started life as Richard Wood and ending his life as Richard Wood. Throughout his own journey in life he had a long and happy relationship with the church. He admired, and was friends with, so many people in the Church, starting with Fr Thomas in Sri Lanka to Sister Jocelyn of the Community of the Resurrection; right up to devoted Bishops and Archbishops such as Desmond Tutu. He never regretted the career choice he made to join them. But he just moved on; and he was deeply satisfied with that choice too. He was always moving and growing!”