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Former Anglican bishop turned Catholic priest is star of anti-apartheid musical

Fr Mercer, centre, with Mgr Keith Newton, left, and Bishop Alan Hopes (Photo: Personal Ordinariate)

A former Anglican bishop ordained a Catholic priest is one of the stars of an anti-apartheid musical in South Africa, it emerged today.

Fr Robert Mercer, 77, was deported from South Africa in 1970 for his stand against apartheid, along with several other Anglican priests.

He and other members of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection defied segregation laws by running a multi-racial parish.

They were, says Fr Mercer, “deemed to be a corrupting influence on students” at Stellenbosch University, where they worked as chaplains. One of the Anglican priests was jailed.

Their stand has been dramatised in a multi-media pop musical called Brothers, which ran for five nights at Stellenbosch University, the country’s top Africaans university.

The musical was performed in September 2010 in a mix of Africaans and English and was directed by playwright Peter Krummeck.

Fr Mercer, who grew up in Zimbabwe, went on to become Bishop of Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, in the Anglican Province of Central Africa, in the midst of a civil war.

He was bishop for 11 years before leaving the Anglican Communion to join the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada, part of the worldwide Traditional Anglican Communion. He served as metropolitan bishop from 1988 to 2005, when he retired to England.

Fr Mercer became a Catholic in January and was ordained a priest for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham on Monday.

He said today that Pope Benedict XVI’s offer of an ordinariate to Anglicans in 2009 was “an answer to our prayers, to our dreams”.

He said he had been longing for Christian unity since the early 1980s, when Pope John Paul II and Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a joint declaration thanking God for “the progress that has been made in the work of reconciliation”.

He and his clergy in Zimbabwe began working through ARCIC documents and even met Vatican officials in Rome.

In 1985 Fr Mercer met Cardinal Johannes Willebrands and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to talk about the prospect of Anglicans reconciling with Rome.

Fr Mercer said that Cardinal Ratzinger was “the humblest, gentlest, most sympathetic person I think I’ve ever met”.
He said: “I could never understand, therefore, all the talk of ‘the Rottweiler’ and ‘Panzer cardinal’… I came away thinking if ever I had done wrong and wanted to tell someone about it, it would be him I’d want to tell.”

Fr Mercer said: “I couldn’t see then why Anglicans couldn’t be in communion [with Rome].”

Three years later he joined the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), an umbrella group of breakaway Anglicans, serving as a bishop in Canada.

There, he said, parishes had to start “from scratch”, meeting in homes and trying to build or buy churches. “I was so impressed by the commitment of the lay people,” Fr Mercer said. “It was a great pleasure and privilege to be with them.”

In 2007 Fr Mercer was one of about 30 leaders of the TAC who signed a letter to Rome asking to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

He and the others signed the letter and a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the altar during a service in Portsmouth, England.

Weeks ago, however, a majority of the TAC’s bishops announced that they would not be joining a personal ordinariate and would be staying “fully Anglican”.

Fr Mercer said more than half a dozen TAC bishops in Canada, the US, Australia and even Japan were still “in the pipeline” to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church, along with many priests and parishes.

He said that, while in a sense the Pope’s offer of an ordinariate in Anglicanorum coetibus was “wonderful and sudden and too good to be true”, it was also the “fulfilment of 400 years of prayer and aspiration and hope and idealism”. “One day,” he said, “I hope the Anglican Communion will be reconciled with the Bishop of Rome.”