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Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Theologian

The Very Rev. Dr. Michael Battle remembers the day well, even though it was almost 30 years ago. He was reciting Morning Prayer with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa when an assistant to the archbishop interrupted the service to inform Tutu about a church bombing.

“When we got into the car, he let me drive,” Battle recalls. “As we were driving, he picked up with Morning Prayer where we left off. As we were driving to this church that was bombed, he expected me to give the same responses in the canticle as I was driving.”

That “existential” experience, as Battle describes it, is fundamental, Battle believes, to understanding Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning Anglican Church archbishop who, more than almost any other person, symbolized the long and ultimately successful struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

“Because he was saying his prayers every day, he was able to speak truth to power. So I wanted to show in this biography what was underneath his longevity, his powerful effect, and his leadership.”

Michael Battle Book Cover
Westminster John Knox Press

While still in his late 20s, Michael Battle spent two years in South Africa, serving as chaplain to the archbishop, who ordained Battle to the priesthood in 1993.  Battle is now Herbert Thompson Professor of Church and Society and Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at The General Theological Seminary in New York. Battle’s latest book, his 11th, is Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Autobiography of South Africa’s Confessor. 

“Most people don’t take him seriously as a theologian, they take him seriously only as a political actor. This biography was trying to get into the spirituality of the Arch [the term of affection used by virtually all South Africans in referring to Archbishop Tutu] so I didn’t do a chronological biography but a theological framework for his life.”

Thandeka Tutu Head Shot
Courtesy: Thandeka Tutu

Dr. Battle will join in conversation about that book, and the man at the center of it, at Trinity Church Wall Street Friday, December 10. His guest will be Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, one of the archbishop’s four children. She is also CEO of the Desmond Tutu Tutudesk Campaign Centre (DTTCC).

“I’m sure things will come out, hopefully, in our conversation that I didn’t know about, especially her being a child and how fragile that must have been as your father was on the hit list to be assassinated, and just the fear of that and what does that do to you. And just to talk about her own ministries, her own vocation.

“One of the key things I want to talk with Thandi about is the Arch’s legacy and what we can do to further fan that flame as well as educate others about the Arch’s work.” 

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu celebrated his 90th birthday in October. Michael Battle’s book, which he began writing as a graduate student in 1994, was released a few months earlier, in March 2021. It includes a foreword by the Dalai Lama and an afterword from Desmond Tutu himself.  

1993 Photo of Desmond Tutu; Michael Battle on right
1993 Photo, Michael Battle on right

“That experience living with Tutu, living in South Africa,  giving witness to this first democracy in South Africa, basically gave me enough material for my vocation. My experience with South Africa has been pivotal for my theology, for the career I have as a professor. 

“I just hope that younger people know what he did, the courage, the wisdom, the way he brought spirituality and politics and culture together, the way he rallied the international world.

“I think it’s really good for folks to come out on the 10th and hopefully to the Discovery series [at Trinity], because Archbishop Tutu is not going to be with us forever, to pay homage to him now, to learn about a profound theologian.”