Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Gonville, Aubie ffrench-Beytagh

Anglican Communion
South Africa

Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh was born on January 26, 1913, in Shanghai, son of an expatriate Irish alcoholic cotton company executive and a South African mother.[a] After the family had broken up, the youth returned to South Africa to live with his mother.[b] While there he underwent a religious conversion on Christmas Eve in Johannesburg Cathedral, where the dean had locked the door to keep drunken revelers from the Midnight Mass:

It was a hot night [December is midsummer in South Africa] and as the doors had been closed, the air was completely still. I knelt at the communion rail, and as I knelt there I felt a very strong cool breeze – and that was all. I do not think that at the time I had any idea what the word “breath” or the word “wind” means to the Christian, or even that the Greek word for the Holy Spirit means breath. I did not even think of Jesus breathing the spirit on his disciples. All I know is that this breath, or wind, which I felt, had a meaning and a content for me which I have never been able to communicate to anyone else, and still cannot describe,[1]

Deciding to enter the ministry, in January 1936 at age twenty-four he enrolled in St. Paul’s Theological College, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape Province, and was ordained in 1939. After serving in a mining town, ffrench-Beytagh became increasingly disillusioned with apartheid schemes for “separate development” and “partnership,” for both systematically excluded blacks and coloreds from full participation in the life of South Africa. An interlude as dean of the cathedral in Salisbury, Rhodesia, from 1954 to 1964 removed him from the growing maelstrom of South African politics, and when he returned in 1965 it was to a world where almost all whites who had spoken out for freedom had been imprisoned or exiled. In 1971 ffrench-Beytagh publicly called the “South African way of life” the “South African way of death,” and in January 1971 the dean was arrested. He spent his fifty-ninth birthday in jail, was brutally interrogated, and on November 1 convicted and sentenced under a state terrorism act for allegedly possessing African National Congress leaflets with titles like We Bring You a Message, These Men Are Our Brothers, Our Sons, The ANC Says No to Vorster and His Gang, and * Freedom.* (He was later expelled to England, where he died twenty years later.)

A United Nations report stated, “The charges against the Dean were that he opposed apartheid – a policy which all member states of the United Nations have described as a criminal affront against the conscience and dignity of mankind – and that he had provided humanitarian assistance to people imprisoned for their opposition to apartheid and their families.” [c]

In his prison diary the Dean wrote:

Early that morning (and every morning afterwards) I stood in front of a piece of wall between the two barred and grilled high windows, which was the nearest thing to a cross that I could find in the cell. I faced it as I would an altar and said what I could remember of the Mass. Later when I had my office book [a * Book of Common Prayer, with the daily Bible lessons for matins and evensong], I could read part of an Epistle or Gospel as well, but from the first morning I said the Creed, and prayed generally where the Prayer for the Church comes, and made a short confession; then I said the *Sanctus by heart and made a spiritual communion. This is something I have never really experienced before, though I have read about it and advised people to do it. But I can say with complete certainty that the communion that I received then was as real as any communion that I have ever received sacramentally [2]

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat. This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” After supper he took the cup of wine and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you. This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.” – Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal, 362-363

Frederick Quinn

Author’s Notes:

  1. Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, Encountering Darkness (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), p. 41.

  2. Ibid., 144, 276.

Editorial Notes*:

a. Gonville’s mother was not South African: “She was an Englishwoman, born in Yokohama, Japan to English parents who were in business there. After her separation from Gonville’s father in around 1919 she moved to live in South Africa, which may be where the error has occurred. She died in South Africa in 1959 as Mrs Buchanan, having remarried an Englishman, George Buchanan.”

b. “Gonville did not ‘return to South Africa.’’ He was educated in England and in New Zealand, after which he went to live in South Africa.”

c. For more information on Ffrench-Beytagh et al., see attached email correspondence: Ffrench Beytagh sources

Source*: Email to the editor, dated 9 May 2022, received from Jacqueline Burrows, archivist at Monkton Combe School, near Bath in England where Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was a pupil from 1926 to 1927.

This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved. Editorial update added April 10, 2023.