Nicholas Stebbing remembers this St Francis-like character, a great champion of the African poor
Arthur Shearly Cripps is now not much known outside Zimbabwe, alhough his work was published and read in England where he numbered Charles Gore and Laurence Binyon among his friends. In Zimbabwe he is venerated as a saint, particularly in the area of Mashonaland where he lived and died 65 years ago. His particular kind of sanctity derived from his St Francis-like character, living in poverty, giving everything away. Yet he also had a combative streak which brought him into constant conflict with the diocese and with the state. He fought for the rights of African people long before it was fashionable to do so, and African people have never forgotten him.
Baba (Father) Cripps was born in Tunbridge Wells (that home of ‘Disgusted’, who would probably have been disgusted with Cripps!) and learned the faith at St Barnabas Church, which I am delighted to see from its website is still a pillar of the Catholic faith. He followed the common route of a devout, middle-class boy of his time: Oxford to read classics, where he discovered a love of the Greek pastoral poet Theocritus and wrote much poetry himself; Cuddesdon, then a curacy in Essex where he showed his love for the poor, and his love of walking. Suddenly in 1902 he left and went to Rhodesia as a missionary.
Why did he go? Well, a hundred years later his great-nephew discovered a scandal. Cripps had got a local girl pregnant. The girl’s father would not allow marriage, so Arthur left for the other side of the world and Zimbabwe gained a saint. I have met his grand-daughter and she is delightful.
Fr Cripps was sent to live in the hot, dry Charter district as one of the first missionaries amongst an uneducated people (Fr Andrew sdc. later worked in that area too). Here was this classical scholar from middle-class England with his love for Greek and Latin poetry and with a considerable poetic talent himself, living among people who could not read and did not speak English. He chose to live as they did, in a simple hut on the simplest kind of local food. He walked everywhere, refusing even a horse. His Bishop, Billy Gaul, wrote in 1904 of All Saints mission ‘where dear Arthur Cripps lives and works and loves by night and by day’. Cripps was disgusted with the racist attitudes of the Whites in his church. After twenty years he found money to buy his own farm where Africans could live free of Government harassment. He built his own eccentrically-styled church, which later fell down, and called it Maronda Mashanu, The Five Wounds. That title spoke of the suffering he saw in the people around him, the pain he bore for them. He felt the Church had compromised its standards and so he refused a licence or a salary from the diocese. The great Bishop Paget said, “I know a saint when I see one”, and went to Maronda Mashanu every year to confirm Cripps’ candidates, ignoring his irregular status.
A Roman Catholic missionary wrote of Cripps in 1906,”He is a most exemplary and fervent man, austere to himself while most kind to others, and a great lover of actual poverty. To save money for his Station he walked from Enkeldoorn to Gwelo (90 miles), he travelled third class to Cape Town, and probably had he been asked why he travelled in so much discomfort, he would have replied, ‘because there is no fourth class’”. He came back to England occasionally, chiefly to raise money for his work. Invited to stay at Lambeth Palace, he arrived with his belongings in a biscuit box. When he knelt for communion people saw his boots were mended with bully beef tins.
I never met Fr Cripps. I was six when he died and I lived in town as part of that White community he so rightly criticised. Stories of him abound. One priest, Fr Michael Zambezi, who was rescued as an orphan by Cripps, described him as “a grand old man”. Another priest, Richard Holderness, told me that people from Charter who moved to other parts of the country were recognised at once as exceptional Christians. Today the Bishop of Masvingo says that part of his diocese where Cripps lived is by far the strongest in its Anglican presence. There are stories of how Baba Cripps, about to bury a body not wrapped in the traditional blanket because the family were too poor, took off his own cassock and wrapped it in that. Another story tells how he once ran thirty miles to the next town to find medicine for a sick White boy in Enkeldoorn, and ran back with it the same night. A catechist, in the spirit of the middle-ages, told how Fr Cripps went to remonstrate with a White farmer about the brutal way he treated his workers. The farmer was rude to Cripps, got on his horse to ride away and a snake leapt up, frightening the horse, which threw the farmer and broke his leg. That, said my Shona catechist, proves Cripps was a saint!
Fr Cripps was a poet and a devoted priest, but also a political agitator. He fought for decades to protect African rights. White farmers were taking all the best land, chasing the Africans off to other poorer areas, or, if they let them stay on their traditional lands it was to work for the farmers under bad conditions. The recent take-over of White farms by Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, which has caused such misery on all sides, is an evil fruit of an evil policy a hundred years ago. Cripps wrote tirelessly to the Governor, to the mission societies, to the Aborigines Protection Society and to the newspapers in defence of the African people. His close friend, Bishop Frank Weston (another saint of Africa), was doing the same thing in Tanzania, protesting at labour laws that forced Africans to work for Whites. In those days Anglo-Catholic priests fought for the poor. Do they still?
Baba Cripps was an Anglo-Catholic of the very best sort. He gave himself selflessly to his people. He taught them, visited them, rebuked them for their sins, heard their confessions and absolved them, and fought for them against their White masters. He walked from village to village, sleeping under a tree or in a tumbledown hut. “The holy mass is surely the highest act of worship in all the living creation”, he wrote to his mother. He said mass wherever he could. “After washing in a stream we had our eucharist. I celebrated on a rock with my head upstream towards the new sun…”. His vestments were probably scruffy. He never wore lace! He was opinionated, compassionate, tough-minded but loving. He kept reading poetry and writing poetry till his eyes gave out and he went blind. In his last years a young English teacher, Noel Brettel, also a poet, used to cycle out from Enkeldoorn once a week to read poetry to him. I did know Noel and he had something of Cripps’ character of quiet culture and cussedness! Noel said of Cripps’ relentless political agitation, “I myself thought we were drifting in the right direction….The last twenty years (1945-1965) have proved his exaggeration more right than our complacency”.
Fr Cripps spent all the money he could raise on the people. White, Black and Indian friends tried to look after him but he would not leave his mission. Even when blind he would grope his way into church to say mass by memory, often with his faithful disciple, Leonard Mamvura, serving him. (Leonard too became a much loved priest). He died as he had lived, in poverty.
Fr Cripps’ own poem provides a fitting epitaph for one who walked so many miles through the hot, dry African veld (Bush, in Afrikaans):
Now dust to dust! No dust-cloud whirls about
That white cloud over hills you went so far.
Now all is grey: set is the last red star:
Ashes to ashes! Your last fire is out.
Now go, a veldsore in each lifted hand,
Go with two blistered feet your altar’s way.
With pity’s wound at heart, go, praise and pray!
Go wound to Wounds! Why you are glad today –
He, whose Five Wounds you wear, will understand.
Does the Catholic Anglican world still produce priests like him?
Readers who would like to know more about this servant of God are likely to enjoy “God’s Irregular” by an American Quaker, Douglas Steere, and “Dust Diaries” by Owen Sheers, a Welsh poet who is a great-nephew of Cripps. His writing catches the magic of the African bush better than anyone I have ever known. There are several volumes of Cripps’ poetry available through a search on the internet. A fellow Franciscan and poet was John Bradburne, an Anglican turned Roman Catholic who was martyred in the Zimbabwean civil war.