When Robert Gray arrived in South Africa in 1847, it was as Anglican bishop in a diocese of over two hundred thousand square miles and with only a handful of clergy. Within a quarter century the number of dioceses had increased to six, and educational institutions were built, including Diocesan College (Rondebosch), St. George’s Cathedral Grammar School (Cape Town), and the “Sunflower” (Zonnebloem) College for African and Colored Students.
On January 30, 1847, Gray, at that time secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, was invited to accept the bishopric of either Cape Town or Adelaide, Australia, by the Colonial Bishoprics’ Fund. Gray picked South Africa and was consecrated in Westminster Abbey. He spent nearly a year raising funds and missionary personnel for South Africa, arriving there on Sunday, February 20, 1848.
Shortly after arrival, he purchased a wooded estate not far from Cape Town, which became Bishopscourt, the home of subsequent clerical leaders of the diocese. As was true of so many missionaries, his wife was an immense asset. In addition to running the large estate, she raised their children, entertained a stream of guests, answered much of her husband’s correspondence, designed several mission churches, and kept their personal and church accounts. Gray was often absent. One episcopal visitation took four months and another nine months, while covering four thousand miles, earning Gray the sobriquet “the post-cart bishop.”
Mrs. Gray sometimes accompanied her husband. A description of her in one such visitation is contained in Robert Gray, First Bishop of Cape Town:
Dressed in a dark green plaid dress, with a large gray felt hat, trimmed with an ostrich feather, she accompanied the Bishop on his long exacting journeys through the immense diocese …. With her she took her little sketch book, pencils and paints, and her delicate little pictures of the country may still be seen. As they went up, she painted the little, high-shouldered Gothic churches, which she had designed and which stand to her memory today.
Gray returned to England in 1852 and preached over three hundred sermons in support of fund-raising for his expanding diocese. He also arranged for the vast territory to be divided into smaller dioceses, which presented both opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, new dioceses and mission stations proliferated, and in 1870 South Africa’s first provincial synod was held. On the negative side, Gray was faced with the kind of power struggles endemic to church hierarchies. Bishop Gray became involved, through no desire of his own, in a famous heresy trial. In 1863 he excommunicated the bishop of Natal, J. W. Colenso, who had been presented on charges of heresy. The bottom-line issue was that Colenso, in several published works of biblical commentary, had disavowed much of the content of traditional sacramental theology and also denied that there was eternal punishment. Moreover, reflecting the biblical criticism of the mid-nineteenth century, he disputed the authorship of some books of the Bible and, for good measure, did not actively insist on the divorce of the wives of polygamous males when the men converted to Christianity. Colenso, clearly, was one huge target for his opponents.
The doctrinal squabble was never the real issue. It masked a struggle for power. Colenso argued that Gray had no authority to deprive him of office. Meanwhile, he scrambled to take title to church lands and monies, something allowed by local courts. Not to be outdone, Gray appointed another bishop as bishop of Maritzburg and Natal, a “new” diocese that by design was coterminous with the diocese Colenso claimed. The case took several years to thread its way through the courts, but the Privy Council found that Gray lacked authority to take the actions he did.
Gray’s health was failing, and he died in 1872. He is most remembered as a solid builder of the church but, as sometimes happens to bishops, bedeviled by power controversies brought on by opponents.
Alleluia! Christ feeds his flock in every age.
O come, let us worship.
–Preparation Prayer, Feast of Bishops
- “Robert Gray,” in Davies,* Great South African Christians*, 53.
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.