Archbishop Worlock in South Africa

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

To celebrate this year’s Black History Month, our trawl through the archives takes us to South Africa when it was on the verge of great change. Archbishop Derek Worlock visited that country in 1989, shortly before the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the end of the racist apartheid system. The Archbishop’s papers include a number of files on this visit.

He went together with the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard. The two had struck up a great friendship and offered a media-friendly public face for the city during a time of social and economic turmoil and regeneration. It seems to have been this public profile that led to an invitation from Christian leaders in South Africa to visit their country to discover what living conditions were really like. Sheppard and Worlock – always together, as in their memorial between the two cathedrals on Hope Street – did not want to go unprepared, so they attended several briefings and conferences on South Africa. A significant part of the archive consists of printed pamphlets, reports and propaganda absorbed by Archbishop Worlock during his research.

On their visit they saw many of the principal cities and were taken to several townships, which the Archbishop described as ‘not small impoverished suburbs but vast sprawls of inadequately housed black men, women and children’. The poverty and sense of oppression experienced by disenfranchised black people was inescapable. However, the momentum for change was already gathering pace, so, in this sense, the visit of the two bishops did little to hasten the end of apartheid. Yet the purpose of their mission was achieved, as they were able to report back on what they had seen: ‘Everywhere we came up against the evil of apartheid causing fundamental blocks in people’s lives.’ Indeed the Archbishop promoted a resolution of the Bishops’ Conference to offer support for change in South Africa and solidarity with Christians there. 

The archives show how the Church in South Africa played a significant role in resisting apartheid, which does not seem to have been fully acknowledged yet. The variety of organisations in correspondence with the Archbishop also illustrates that Merseyside’s support for the anti-apartheid movement was vocal and widespread, and seems worthy of further research. The archives will be on display at the Cathedral during October, with the reading room open from Monday-Friday. To avoid disappointment, please book your visit by contacting me at