The Revd John Burrell spent a quarter of a century working for reconciliation in Africa, the highlight being his help in engineering a historic meeting between Robert Mugabe and Ian Smith in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, surrounded by men wielding AK-47s. At that time, John had been working in the country for Moral Re-Armament (MRA), and befriended Alec Smith, the son of Ian, former Prime Minister of Rhodesia. That friendship led Smith junior, who had become a Christian and was looking to put his faith into practice, to suggest to his father that he meet Mr Mugabe, who had just won the 1980 general elections. Many experts today judge that encounter as ensuring that Zimbabwe avoided a civil war. John’s friendship with Alec Smith, who had been a heavy drug user, demonstrated what would be hallmarks of his later ministry: patience, a non-judgemental approach, and a desire to see personal conversion.
Along with Zimbabwe, this work placed him in war-torn Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Africa. In the latter, he took considerable personal risks by talking to people on both sides of the apartheid divide in trying to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy. It was during this period that he met his wife, Suzan, the daughter of George Daneel, a former Springbok rugby player, who was one of the first ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church to speak out against apartheid. Their wedding, in January 1977, generated press attention, as it was attended by both black and white guests.
Later, he decided to go back to England, to train for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, and then served a curacy in Didcot, Oxfordshire. Not long after, he returned to South Africa as a chaplain of St Alban’s College, Pretoria, months before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. At St Alban’s, John was influential in ensuring that it became one of the first boys’ schools in the country to stop using corporal punishment. It was a move that many others followed.
After school ministry, he became the Rector of Trinity Church, Lynnwood, and then Archdeacon of East Pretoria. But, in 2001, he swapped the lively, colourful church life of South Africa for a more sedate and rural ministry in Lighthorne, Warwickshire, where he took charge of four parishes. Despite what must have been an initial culture shock, John developed an impressive ministry, which, in true Anglican tradition, included the whole of the local community. Some of his best friends in the area never darkened the door of a church. He later became Area Dean of Fosse, and continued his reconciliation work by forging close links with Coventry Cathedral’s work in this area.
His final move was to return to the diocese of Oxford, to St Helen’s, Benson, where he spent four happy and productive years. He died suddenly, aged 66, on 28 May , after officiating at a funeral.
First published in the Church Times, 3 July 2015