A time for everything

2008-10-20 00:00

DEAN Fred Pitout of the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in the heart of Pietermaritzburg is moving on after eight years, years which have seen enormous changes both to the institution and to the city it serves.

“I realised a year ago that I was coming towards the end of the time I needed to be here,” he says. So he took a sabbatical to give himself and his wife, Anne, time to consider. Then the bishop of George in the Cape offered him the post of dean at the cathedral there. Things seemed to be falling into place, but various “curve balls”, as Pitout describes them, made him think again. After all, taking time out to look at your options carries with it a good chance that you may change your mind.

“Anne and I had both turned 60,” says Pitout. Then their son and daughter-in-law moved to Dubai, and Pitout’s father died. “It was what I would call cumulative loss, he says. And after 13 moves in 39 years — a problem always facing the clergy — they decided to reassess their situation and decide if they really wanted to uproot themselves again.

Another problem with a move to George would be the future of Jubilate, Anne’s business which makes clergy vestments from the Pitouts’ home in Hilton. Jubilate has created beautiful, often African-inspired, outfits for clergy all over South Africa and beyond — including for Coventry Cathedral in England. “We couldn’t move the business to George. There is nowhere to run it and my workers, the beaders and people who sew, are here. And I would have had to source fabrics from Cape Town,” says Anne.

“Why must my job take priority?” says Pitout, touching on what is often an enormous, if seldom discussed, problem for the wives of clergy.

And so the move from the cathedral will not be to George, but to Michaelhouse where Pitout was a schoolboy and later the chaplain for seven years. He will be part of the school’s 2015 Visionary Process which looks at where Michaelhouse should be positioned by 2015. His full title will be community partnerships manager and old boys’ secretary. “The school has identified a need to increase its community partnerships and social actions. Both the school and the boys already work in areas of social deprivation, but they want to forge new partnerships,” he says. He will commute from Hilton and Jubilate will carry on.

It is going to be an enormous change, moving to a very privileged environment from the cathedral which, in Pitout’s eight years there has deliberately changed its profile in the community, becoming deeply involved in the life of the inner city.

“Yes, Michaelhouse is privileged,” says Pitout. “It will be a big challenge and private schools are not always very receptive to ideas of change. In a way, it aligns with what has happened here in the past eight years.” Another change is that Pitout will be moving from a church-based ministry to a non-stipendiary ministry. “But I will still be working as a priest,” he says. “I know it’s a shock for some people that I am moving away from a full-time church ministry.”

The past eight years that Pitout talks about have been momentous ones for the cathedral. “There has been a huge demographic change in this congregation — a necessary one. It now better reflects the demographics of the city. While I’ve been here, I’ve worked very hard to utilise the facilities of the church for the people of the city.”

The cathedral precinct is now a meeting place for a number of NGOs, including the Children in Distress Network (Cindi), the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) and the Landless People’s Movement. It is also used as an exam venue by the Department of Education. Pitout brought nuns from the Community of Jesus’ Compassion in New Hanover into the cathedral where two of them work with street children, eating with them and getting to know them. “It is an informal social needs analysis. Where possible, they are repatriated to their homes — there have been some children who want to get off the streets,” says Pitout. Some children are now in the Community’s Orphanage in New Hanover. Two other nuns work as sacristans in the cathedral, ensuring that everything is looked after properly and is ready for services.

Another change has been the incorporation of a congregation that used to be part of St Mark’s in Imbali into the cathedral, following the death of their priest. They asked to join and many have now become regular financial contributors to the parish. “That became a challenge to some of the wealthier parishioners,” says Pitout. “They saw people on wages of around R1 500 a month giving regularly. It gave the message that a real movement of change was coming through the community.”

Inevitably, there has been some resistance. “When I arrived in 2000, people in the city were in a depressed state and the inner city was decaying. I saw my role as one of overseeing what I saw God doing in a new spirit of democracy and freedom for the country, and enabling the people of the church to embrace that.”

Pitout admits that it has been a struggle for some people who have been in Pietermaritzburg for a long time to embrace their changing city. He admits that some white people have found it hard to come to terms with the idea that the church is for everyone.

“The task of the church is how to hold people of such different persuasions — political, economic and spiritual — together. It is a slow process, but as a parish we have largely been successful in spite of differences. We can tell people what they need to do and that they need to change, but what the church sometimes forgets is that we have to tell them how to do it. Otherwise, people are just left feeling guilty.”

Pitout’s tenure as dean has seen the parish bucking a worldwide trend. While most churches have dwindling and ageing congregations, the cathedral parish has increased considerably and has large numbers of young people. Pitout has a group of 40 young altar servers. Not that he is complacent. The most recent South African census showed that only five percent of South Africans consider themselves to be Anglicans, while almost 50% of Christians in the country belong to African Independent churches. How to make the church grow is a huge challenge.

The big issues for the church globally — matters like the ordination of gay priests — are not as huge here, says Pitout. For South Africans, the primary issues are ones of survival. The city is home to large numbers of refugees, many of whom attend services in the cathedral.

The Aids crisis is also a vital area of the church’s involvement. For Pitout, whether he is working from a city cathedral or a private school in the country, the issues and the role of the Anglican church in them will remain the same.

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