Brothers from St Benedict’s Priory at Volmoed recently visited the Andrew Murray Centre of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. It was a wonderful trip. First and foremost, the drive from Volmoed to Wellington is breath taking. This region of South
Africa is a mix of great, rocky mountains and lush, vineyard-filled valleys. We drove through many post cards…
There is something much more profound than just beauty going on at the Andrew Murray Centre. The Centre was built as a seminary for the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and that was its life – until the Dutch Reformed Church moved their seminary to be at Stellenbosch University. The Centre continued to be a training center for mission workers, but that dwindled over
time. As the use dwindled, the buildings and grounds were left for a period of near dormancy. Rising from that is the Andrew Murray Centre.
Murray himself is a fascinating figure. Some of the astute might be wondering how a good Scots name like Murray winds up on a bastion of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa… In the 1800s, the Dutch control of South Africa gave way to English domination – and for the English, that meant dominating the tribal peoples AND the Dutch. To tweak the Dutch, the English stopped the movement of clergy from The Netherlands to South Africa. Dry up the clergy, dry up the Church, dry up the spirit of the people seems to have been the plan.
The leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church were a resourceful bunch. They turned to Scotland, always interested in tweaking the English, to import clergy. These were theologically well-trained folks in a sympathetic reformed tradition. The Rev. Andrew Murray, senior, came with his family to South Africa. His son, Andrew, became a major visionary leader within the Dutch Reformed Church. It appears that the English attempt to strangle the Dutch Reformed Church succeeded in giving it one of its greatest leaders and ushering in its richest epoch.
Through efforts of leaders like Andrew Murray, seminary education at a high level
became standard in South Africa so there was no need to send folks to Europe – which was an arduous journey back in the day. The foundations for the Murray Centre were figuratively and literally laid in this time.
At the Murray Centre there are several wonderful original buildings that have been inventively renovated for this new purpose. A stable has been renovated into a chapel – the symbolism of this deserves a great deal of reflection… And the house built as Andrew Murray’s residence is now a
center of instruction.
Andrew Murray would be a significant figure if this were all there was to his story, but it’s not. Murray, it appears, was that thing that the reformed tradition in its various expressions, is quite uncomfortable with – he was a mystic. This puts him in good stead – Luther was, arguably, a mystic. Charles Wesley was certainly a mystic. Mother Ann Lee of the Quaker Movement was a great mystic. Still, in the reformation world, it’s a bit uncomfortable to talk too much about mysticism.
But Andrew Murray was intrigued enough with mysticism that he named his house
Clairvaux. What a statement. This name still remains on the building – etched in stone above the gate. This is the instruction building of the Murray Centre, so anybody participating in a program at the Murray Centre will be steeped, perhaps subliminally or more overtly, in Murray’s mysticism.
I could not help but focus on the notion of death and resurrection embodied by the Murray Centre. During the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, the Centre had a purpose within a church, the Dutch Reformed Church, which also had a purpose. But as the disease of Apartheid took root in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church took its place on the wrong side of history. At some point (the history is all easily available) new visionaries of the church began to call for change, and the Dutch Reformed Church (along with many other denominations) began a process of repentance and amendment.
Still, Apartheid and its aftermath have taken their toll – with the result that the Dutch Reformed Church is not the powerful institution it once was.
So, the visionary move of the Andrew Murray Centre is all the more astounding. It is a
collective dedication to the idea that we cannot continue on or near the path we have been on. Jesus calls us to transformation of life, to fundamental and existential change; Not just a different path, but a different way of travelling.
I left the Centre feeling really motivated and excited, not because of something I could see, but because of something I could sense and yet not see. The mystical spirit of Andrew Murray has a hand in things. And the Murray Centre is a thin place where something new is working to enter our world.