Our Ministers, Past and Present

Our Ministers, Past and Present

Posted 1 Aug 2010 - 00:02 by helen

WILLIAM  FORBES (1900-1911)
William Forbes came from England and served as minister of the Caledon Square Church in Cape Town for ten years.  He resigned in 1898 because of ill-health and returned to England.  There he recovered and came back to South Africa and worked for the Colonial Missionary Society, until he was called to be minister of the proposed new congregation at Rondebosch in 1900.  It was under his leadership that the work was begun and consolidated, and a place for worship was built in Belmont Road.  He served the church as its minister until his death in September, 1911.

J. MARTIN  DOWER (1911-1912)
J. Martin Dower’s ministry in Rondebosch lasted only a matter of months, as unfortunately ill-health made him resign.  But in spite of the shortness of his ministry it was remembered for the particular interest he took in young people and their training in the Christian faith.  Fortunately for the denomination, he later recovered to become the General Secretary of the Congregational Union in 1933.

J. GOULD-LAYTON (1913-1914)
J.Gould-Layton ministered for many years at Bedford in the Eastern Cape.  He had already retired from the active ministry by the time Mr Dower resigned, but took over the ministry at Rondebosch for a year on an interim basis.

MEARNS  MASSIE (1915-1917)
An American by birth, Mearns Massie came to South Africa and held this pastorate for three years.  He then went on to Australia, where he died.  His ministry is remembered for his gifts as a preacher.

FREDERICK CONQUER (1918-1920)
(No photograph)
Frederick Conquer had been a fishmonger by trade. Called to the ministry, he served pastorates in England before coming to Rondebosch. It was during his time that a Diaconate replaced the old Committee of Management which until then had served to supervise the church along with the Church Meetings. In 1920 Mr Conquer returned to England.

J.H. ATKINSON (1921-1926)
Mr Atkinson served pastorates in Northern Ireland as a Methodist minister before he was called to Rondebosch. He was referred to as ‘padre’, because he had also served as a chaplain in the First World War. He arrived a bachelor, but was much liked, and it was to the chagrin of several single women in the congregation that he married a widow in 1923! He was a great pastor. A report written in 1922 describes him as ‘our Pastor who has gone in and out amongst us with his sympathetic, loving and tactful manner, which won all hearts, and has made him the friend of each one of us’. It was felt that the church made ‘real progress’ under his leadership and that his sermons brought ‘instruction, encouragement and help’ to people in their daily duties. During 1925 he apparently became depressed and spoke of resigning, but after ‘prayerful consideration by Pastor, Deacons and Management Committee’ he was persuaded to stay on. Later that year, however, he took ill, and he remained ill for some months. This led to a fall in enthusiasm and attendance. His recovery and resumption of pastoral duties were welcomed. But in 1926 he finally did resign. He went on to serve the Claremont Congregational Church and later founded the independent United Church at Hermanus. His ministry at our church was still remembered with affection by older members 50 years later.

GEORGE FERGUSON (1927-1931)
George Ferguson was a somewhat more stern-looking man than the friendly Mr Atkinson. He began his ministry with a statement of intention that could be inscribed above every pulpit:

I know I will be judged by the standards I set up in my preaching, and I ask you to submit to the same measure. ‘Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only.’ As an essential part of your fidelity I must ask you to regard attendance at the Sunday services as a first duty. A full church is itself a sermon, and a church with half its benches empty is a protest to the world that the members only half believe the Gospel they profess….  I hope to visit regularly and systematically. If I can be regarded as a personal friend whose visits bring comfort and inspiration, I shall be rewarded.
Within a year he had built up the average Sunday attendance from 60 to 100. In 1927 he was elected Moderator of the Western District. He was also twice elected to the chair of the Congregational Union. A report in 1929 stated that George Ferguson was ‘a man full of zeal for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom’ and that ‘his sermons always bear the stamp of culture and devotion to high ideals’.

Unfortunately Mr Ferguson’s last two years at Rondebosch were plagued with illness. In 1931 he fell gravely ill. His health was slow in returning, and he felt compelled to resign the pastorate. Later he recovered and in 1940 published a history of the Congregational Union in South Africa, which was particularly useful for its account of the early LMS missionaries and the growth of the Independent churches in South Africa. His daughter, Kitty Abbot, remained a member of this church until her death in 1970.

THOMAS AND LILIAN DOWNHAM (1932-1938)
Thomas Downham was an Irishman who had pastorates at Que Que in Rhodesia, Ladysmith in Natal and Florida Park before coming to our church. After accepting the call, with his wife and five children in mind, he sent a telegram to the consulent or minister who had looked after the church during the vacancy reading: ‘Hold the fort for I am coming when you can accommodate us.’ To this the consulent replied, ‘After your large mansion you will find five rooms a tight fit, but the garden in front of the house is very spacious, and if you like tents can be erected to take the overflow.’

The congregation, including the young people in it, came to know Mr Downham as ‘Tassie’. He had a great knack for building his evening sermons around objects he borrowed from homes he visited to use as visual aids. Young people flocked to these services. He would regularly visit the church badminton club and remind the members to be in church on Sunday!

In 1935 Thomas’s wife, Lilian Downham, was ordained and appointed co-pastor in the congregation. She was one of the very first women ever to be ordained in South Africa.

In 1938, however, the Downhams resigned because of Thomas’s ill-health. The church recorded their obligation to both the Downhams for their magnificent service, their wholehearted response to their Master’s call and their untiring efforts to build up and maintain the cause that was so dear to both of them. They later served a small Congregational Church at Great Brak near Mossel Bay.

NOEL TARRANT 1939-1968
After serving in a pastorate at Brentford in England, Noel Tarrant came to South Africa in 1924. He first served the Pearson Street Church in Port Elizabeth for 15 years. He began his long ministry at Rondebosch the very week World War II was declared. With it the congregation entered a long period of consolidation and growth. He and his wife, Jess, brought the old English style of parish ministry to Rondebosch. He was often seen striding around Rondebosch, visiting his congregation on foot. The door to the manse, in Weltevreden Avenue, was always open, with a constant coming and going of his ‘flock’. His sermons were scriptural but related to everyday life and Christian living. The congregation waited with anticipation on Sunday mornings for his children’s talk, which the parents enjoyed as much as the children. He would bend down in the pulpit and lift up an old-fashioned brown leather bag, and as he talked to the children produce a diverse and often amusing array of objects to illustrate his story.
Noel Tarrant was by nature shy, quiet and almost austere. He smoked a pipe, and would sometimes sit with a kindred spirit in almost completely silent relaxation. Even at Diaconate meetings he never tried to influence the discussions but just sit quietly and let the others talk or argue until a decision was reached. But he held strict Christian views and had a depth of compassion and understanding for human frailty. He and his wife Jess engendered great warmth and affection among those who knew them. One member from that time who is still alive describes him as ‘a darling’. He was a strong ‘temperance’ man, but Jess always accepted a sherry. When she then commented, ‘Oh, he is an old fuddy-duddy!’, he would just smile.

Mr Tarrant was highly respected in the wider Church. The Congregational Union of South Africa elected him its Chairman in 1934, in 1946 and again in its centenary year of 1959. He was for many years the leading Congregational figure in the land, representing the denomination in contacts both with the Government and with other Churches. When the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa was formed in 1967, he was elected honorary life chairman of it in recognition of his services.
Mr Tarrant was the longest-serving minister the church has had to date, with a ministry that spanned 40 years. He retired in 1968, and was then appointed Minister Emeritus in the congregation. Early in 1976 Mrs Jess Tarrant died. Noel did not long outlast her: in May that year he died and his funeral service was held in the church.

GEOFFREY DUNSTAN (1968-1978)
Geoffrey Dunstan was born in 1937 and ordained in 1963. He first served a Congregational Church at Cockfosters in north London for 5 years. When Noel Tarrant retired John de Gruchy (then ministering to a congregation in Durban) was recommended to the Diaconate, but, being used to an older minister, it thought John too young. It decided instead to call a Congregationalist from England to add to the small pool of white ministers in the Congregational Union of South Africa. It approached Vernon Miller, a member at Rondebosch who had become the General Secretary of the denomination, and he negotiated with the Congregational Church in England. It recommended Geoffrey Dunstan, who was serving a church in Cockfosters, north London. The congregation agreed to call him – even though it turned out that he was only a year older than John de Gruchy! 

 Geoffrey accepted the call and came out with his wife Jocylen (‘Jo’) and their 2 daughters, Jane and Kate, before the end of 1968.  (A third daughter, Philippa, was born in 1970.) His ministry at Rondebosch was characterized by strong emphases on a liturgical order of worship, stewardship, divine healing, ecumenical relations, joint activities with other local churches and the application of the gospel to the political situation in South Africa. He was a good liturgist, blending the traditional and the contemporary in fresh orders of services each week. He read widely and prepared conscientiously and has been described as a thoughtful, often entertaining preacher. His sermons were mainly ‘apologetic’ (in the good sense of the word) rather than expository and delivered well with a good command of language. People testified to the help they got from his preaching; others unfortunately found it too provocative, partly on political issues. He was at the height of his effectiveness at midpoint.
From 1971-75 Geoffrey exercised oversight over the Pinelands Congregational Church as well as Rondebosch. In 1976 he became the first chairman of the newly created Peninsula Region of the United Congregational Church. For 5 years or more he and an Anglican priest, Roy Barker, took turns in writing a regular religious column in the Saturday Argus. A collection of these articles was published in 1977 under the title Man Where Are You?

After almost 11 years at Rondebosch Geoffrey resigned to accept a call to the Bryanston United Church in greater Johannesburg. There, unhappily, his marriage with Jo broke up. He left, remarried and went to Windhoek to take up the position of Director of English Religious Programmes on English radio in South West Africa. After a few years he returned to England, where he now lives with his wife Sandra in Lewes, East Sussex, and is the minister of the local United Reformed Church.

JOHN W. DE GRUCHY (1973-1975)
John Wesley de Gruchy studied for his BA and BD degrees at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, his MTh at Chicago Theological Seminary and his DTh through UNISA (1973). His doctoral thesis was on the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He and Isobel Dunstan married in 1961 and their three children, Steve, Jeanelle and Anton were born in 1961, 1965 and 1967. He first served the Sea View Congregational Church in Durban, then the Bryanston Congregational Church and St Mungo’s United Church in Bryanston, then the South African Council of Churches in Johannesburg as director of Ecumenical Studies and Communications. While on the staff of the SACC he was Secretary of the Church Unity Commission and also wrote his first book, The Church Struggle in South Africa. He was appointed a lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Cape Town in 1973. In the same year he was appointed a self-supporting associate minister in Rondebosch Congregational Church and served officially in that capacity until 1975. In 1980-81 he was chairman of the UCCSA (or ‘King Cong’, as he called it!) In 1985 he became Professor of Christian Studies. In 1996 UCT awarded him the degree of DSocSci. In 1998 he was reappointed a self-supporting associate minister at Rondebosch United Church. in 2000 he became Director of the Graduate School in Humanities at UCT. In the same year, at a special service in the Berlin Cathedral, he was awarded the prestigious international Karl Barth Prize as an intepreter of Karl Barth’s theology. 

John has published numerous articles and books including The Church Struggle in South Africa, Liberating Reformed Theology, Christianity and Democracy, Christianity, Art and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for JusticeIcons as a Means of Grace and John Calvin: Christian Humanist and Evangelical Reformer. 

John’s wife Isobel led and taught in the Sunday School for many years. She served as a deacon for most of the time she was at the church and as Church Secretary/Church Council Secretary for many years. For 21 years she was mainly responsible for organizing and running the Centre of Concern. She also led a Bible study group for many years. John and Isobel’s children, especially Steve and Anton, were also important youth leaders in the church.

JIM COCHRANE (1976-1978)
Jim Cochrane was a member of the Sea Point Methodist Church under the ministry of Theo Kotze. When Theo left Sea Point to start the Cape Town office of the Christian Institute in Mowbray in 1968, Jim went to work with him. From 1972 to 1975 he studied in the USA. In July 1975 was ordained in the Chicago Metropolitan Chapter of the United Church of Christ USA and later seconded and transferred to the UCCSA. In 1976 he was appointed part-time Youth Pastor in Rondebosch Congregational Church. He built up the teenage church as a group that met in the minor hall and the gallery on Sundays and laid the foundations for what it later became under Di Scott-Saddington. He also sometimes preached.

At the end of 1977 Jim left his job in our church to become lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at UCT. From there went to lecture in the School of Theology at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, where he later became Assistant Professor and then Head of the Department. Since 1997 he has been back at UCT as a professor in the Department of Religious Studies. He is also Director of the Research Institute on Christianity in South Africa, Editor of the New South African Outlook, and Editor of the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. He has a DMin from Chicago and a PhD from UCT. His publications include Servants of Power and Circles of Dignity. He is married to Renate, who is also an ordained minister, and they live in Hout Bay with their children, Thembisa, Thandeka and Teboho.

DOUGLAS STEPHEN BAX (1979-2002)
After graduating with a BA and a BD from Rhodes University, Douglas Bax served two small Presbyterian congregations in Bedford and Somerset East for 18 months. He then studied overseas, first at Princeton Theological Seminary and later at the Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany. He returned from overseas toward the end of 1965 and a year later accepted a call to St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Cape Town. In 1971 he married Betty Vintcent. In 1973 he became a lecturer in New Testament and in social ethics at St Bede’s Theological College in Umtata and pastor at St Andrew’s Church in that town. Later, for two years, he served as a temporary lecturer in systematic theology and ethics at Rhodes University.

Douglas was called to Rondebosch at the end of 1978, and the Bax family, including their 4-year-old son Michael, arrived on New Year’s Day 1979. Besides his work in the congregation he has been active in committees especially of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. One example was in 1981, when he piloted through the General Assembly a notable decision to embrace civil disobedience against the political policy of apartheid. By this decision the Assembly resolved to:
 disregard the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act by marrying people across the colour bar,
 refuse to apply any longer for permits for multiracial church meetings and
 flout the censorship law in quoting banned people like Dr C.F. Beyers Naudé.

Douglas was elected Moderator of the Cape Town Presbytery and for 1989-90 Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. As such he went to Britain to represent the Presbyterian Church at the General Assemblies of the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. He took with him the Cannondale touring bicycle the Rondebosch congregation had given him. When he arrived on his bicycle at the little hotel in Wolverhampton that was to provide him with accommodation for the United Reformed Church Assembly, however, the proprietor refused him admission: he could not believe that the cyclist at the front door could be the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa! He later cycled around Wolverhampton and in the Lake District and parts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Douglas and Betty’s son Michael was very active in Charisma and in leading a youth club while he was at school and at university. Douglas himself published several articles and the booklet, A Different Gospel. A Critique of the Theology behind Apartheid (1979).

ROBERT STEINER (2003-present)

Born in Germany, Robert studied theology in Göttingen and Giessen. In 1994 he married Tina Schön. They decided to go abroad to further their studies and arrived in South Africa early in 1995. In 1996 Robert and Tina’s son Luca was born. In 1998 Robert graduated with distinction from Stellenbosch as a Master of Theology in New Testament and then enrolled at the University of Cape Town to write a Ph.D. thesis on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, supervised by John de Gruchy. In due course he became a teaching assistant to John. In 2001 their daughter Lola was born. In December 2004 Robert graduated with a PhD at the University of Cape Town. Meanwhile, Robert decided to seek ordination in the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa and was appointed a probationer in the congregation in 1997, co-ordinating the children, youth and student ministry, starting a marimba and soccer ministry, running Christian clowning and magic workshops and organising regular 'tango & relationship' courses with Rosemary Shapiro. Early in 1999 he was ordained and then formally appointed a part-time assistant minister in the church.  At the beginning of 2003 Robert was called by the congregation to follow Douglas Bax as the new minister. In 2004 he was appointed Presbyterian chaplain to UCT, the Red Cross Children's Hospital and Pollsmoor Prison. Since 2007 he has also worked as a part-time lecturer for Old Testament studies at Cornerstone Christian Institute. Tina is currently working as a lecturer in the English Department at Stellenbosch University, having completed her PhD thesis on East-African literature in 2007.