bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
Fighting colonialism and oppression
by Paul Gifford, with accompanying extracts from Adrian Hastings, The Independent, The Times

Adrian Hastings

Radical Catholic theologian who fought colonialism and oppression from Africa to the Balkans

Paul Gifford

In 1973, the Catholic Institute of International Relations (CIIR) decided to hold a public meeting during the visit to Britain of Portugal's prime minister, Marcelo Caetano. The then Conservative government was planning to celebrate the sixth centenary of the Anglo-Portuguese alliance with a great show of friendship, at a time when the Portuguese were waging a brutal colonial war in Africa.

The theologian Adrian Hastings, who has died aged 71, was to speak at the CIIR meeting, and came into possession of a Spanish report, by the Burgos Fathers, of a 1972 massacre by the Portuguese army of around 400 peasants in a remote Mozambican village called Wiryamu. He had the report published in The Times just before Caetano's arrival.

The disclosure became world news; within days, Hastings had spoken at the United Nations, and the Labour opposition leader Harold Wilson called for a Commons debate. Caetano's visit became a fiasco. In his turn, Hastings used the storm for an assessment of the Portuguese government, the wars of liberation in Portuguese Africa, and the church's role in countenancing - rarely criticising - colonial oppression.


The repercussions were profound. Indeed, it has been seriously claimed that the exposure - his book Wiryamu (1974) was translated into seven languages - played a part in triggering Portugal's 1974 ‘carnation revolution’.

The keys to Hastings's life and thought were the liberal tradition, Oxford University, the church in Africa, the reforming Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) and ecumenism. History was his passion, focused on Africa and Britain. His African history stemmed from his missionary involvement, and was sharpened academically during a fellowship at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), at London University, in the 1970s.

A lawyer's son, born in Kuala Lumpur, he was raised from the age of two in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, where his family originated. Brought up a Roman Catholic, he determined, at the age of eight, to become a priest. Educated at Douai Abbey Benedictine school, Reading, he graduated in history from Worcester College, Oxford, in 1949.

In his third year, he joined the White Fathers, the main Catholic missionary society in Africa. Then, with characteristic independence and mastery of the grand gesture, he decided that the missionary life was not enough; he wanted to be a priest working under an African bishop. At that time, the only black bishop of the Latin rite was Kiwanuka, at Masaka, Uganda. Against all advice, Hastings applied - and was accepted.

Meanwhile, he trained at the College of Propaganda Fide, in Rome, from which he benefited enormously - perhaps surprising for someone who gained an anti-Rome reputation. The programme was ultramontane (favouring the centralised authority of the Pope), but it was here that Hastings steeped himself in radical Catholic theology. Living with Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, African and other students, he experienced catholicity at firsthand.

Ordained a priest in 1955, he said his first mass at the altar where John Henry Newman had said his. This was something of great significance to someone so English, who was proud of being the first Oxford man since the 19th century cardinal to attend Propaganda.

Three years later, after completing his doctorate, Hastings left for Uganda. But he was very different from the person who had made his deliberately anti-academic decision to go to Africa. He had returned with vigour to intellectual life, and had published some books already, including White Domination Or Racial Peace? (1954).

Second Vatican Council

His six years teaching in a Ugandan seminary ran into the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Once it was over, the bishops of the five East African countries entrusted him with educating the region's clergy about it. From 1966 to 1968, based in Tanzania, he steeped himself in the 16 constitutions, decrees and declarations of the council, breaking them down, explaining their major ideas.

But, from the start, Hastings was anomalous in Africa. He had gone there because he was a radical; the local clergy, trained by conservative missionaries, were not. He forged his own links with the wider church. In 1963, his thesis on Anglican ecclesiology was published, and, probably as a result, he was invited to join the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Preparatory Commission, whose meetings deepened his ecumenical commitment. The commission led to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. He might well have joined it, but, in 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, banning artificial contraception. Hastings's unbudging dissent ended his usability within official Catholicism.

Hastings became the Catholic presence in Zambia's pioneering Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation (1968-70). There, friendship with the Anglican archbishop of Central Africa led to him surveying the relationship in Africa between customary and church marriage. The result, completed in 1972, was an official report of one church - written by a member of another.

Yet it was clear that there was no job for Hastings in the Catholic church in Africa, and, reluctantly, he returned to Britain. In 1972 he taught at the ecumenical campus of Selly Oak College, Birmingham. In 1973 he joined SOAS, researching Christianity in independent Africa, and then became a religious studies lecturer, later reader, at Aberdeen University (1976-82).

He was professor of religious studies at the University of Zimbabwe, before taking up the professorship of theology at the University of Leeds, from 1985 to 1994, the year he concluded his research with his wide-ranging, elegant, yet racy, magnum opus, A History Of The Church In Africa 1450-1950.

Hastings's focus on the Christian history of Britain is best illustrated by his History Of English Christianity 1920-2000 (latest revised edition). There were also co-operative projects like Modern Catholicism, Vatican II And After (1991), and the equally ambitious A World History Of Christianity (1998), which attempted to be less church-centred and Eurocentric than some other histories. His 1996 Wiles Lectures at Queen's University, Belfast, became The Construction Of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (1997), a spirited rebuttal of accepted wisdom about nationalism, with examples from Africa to Yugoslavia.

Over 50 years, there was a remarkable consistency in Hastings's theological work, even if emphases shifted. His mature theology is best seen in The Theology Of A Protestant Catholic (1990), which grappled with the very survival of Christianity, or religious faith, the meaningfulness of God and Christ's relevance.

His reservations about the Papacy's authoritarianism had been with him from the beginning, long before the centralising shown by Pope John Paul II, whom, in his History Of English Christianity, he accused of ‘an absolutism just a little reminiscent of the Stalinism he had fought so hard against’. For such expressions, as for much else, the Catholic Church marginalised him.

Campaigning for Bosnia

Besides the advocacy in Hastings's theology - arguing for lay ministry, married clergy, intercommunion, the forwarding of Vatican II - there was that campaigning work. Twenty years after the Wiryamu controversy, appalled by the ethnic cleansing in collapsing Yugoslavia and the apathy of the television audience, he became a founder member of the Alliance To Defend Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a trustee of the Bosnian Institute.

In his interventions, he was ready to denounce individuals. In 1993, in The Guardian, he accused the then foreign secretary Douglas Hurd of ‘complicity in genocide’.

Hastings raised the Journal Of Religion In Africa to the highest standing. His willingness to help colleagues and students was exemplary. In retirement, he edited the Oxford Companion To Christian Thought (2000), a huge enterprise, for which he wrote more than 70 articles. A few days before he died, he heard that it was proposed to elect him to fellowship of the British Academy, news which gave him pleasure.

He is survived by his wife, Ann, whom he married in 1979. Amidst considerable publicity, he had renounced the obligation of celibacy, having convinced himself that the theological justification was simply wrong.

Adrian Christopher Hastings, theologian, born 23 June 1929; died 30 May 2001

This obituary appeared in The Guardian (London), 15 June 2001



‘The kingdom of God is not realizable upon earth and if we saw it we might not recognize it. But we can recognize its absence and we have at least the advantage over some ages of not deceiving ourselves in thinking that it is here, or almost here. We should, nevertheless, feel committed by both nature and grace to working for the unrealizable and to refusing to allow that human society is simply immoral. It is to an endeavour, not an achievement, that we are bound. If this is not recognized, and acted upon, if the flag is not unfurled again and again, upon even the most hopeless of battlefields, then the world will indeed have become instead the kingdom of Mammon, of the devil and all his accomplices, of the genocide of the unwanted, the multiplication of wealth for the powerful, of a systematic order of lies involving the control of all the media to ensure collective amnesia in regard to every history of successful evil, while filling each corner of time with the provision of "almost reality" to keep the masses satisfactorily somnolent.’

Adrian Hastings, The Shaping of Prophecy, pp. 19-20





A Theologian and church historian, Adrian Hastings was not content to rest in the safe confines of Western academia or the Church. He never ceased to use his enormous intellectual gifts to work for social justice and a more compassionate Christianity. In his varied career he was also a campaigner, ecumenist, teacher, journalist, letter-writer and priest.

Hastings first came to prominence in 1973 when he drew the world's attention to the massacre of villagers by the Portuguese army in Wiriyamu, Mozambique. His subsequent article in The Times, appearance at the United Nations and tour around European capitals did much to discredit the Portuguese regime and helped bring about its downfall the following year.

Two decades later, he again plunged into the fray to campaign against the genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo, helping to found the Alliance to Defend Bosnia-Herzegovina and writing a small book, SOS Bosnia, published in 1993. At one stage he found himself stranded in besieged Sarajevo and was forced to make his escape through a tunnel under the airport and up snow-covered Mount Igman. He was then 65 years old.


On his retirement in 1994 he published his 700-page-long magnum opus, The Church in Africa: 1450-1950, the best study of African Christianity to date. The Church in Africa drew together all his greatest strengths: his profound grasp of theology, ecclesiastical politics and church-state relations, but also an innate understanding of how Christianity functioned at the grass-roots. His humanity and first-hand experience of rural life led him to portray Africans in prayer and pilgrimage, exorcism and rain-making. He told simple but powerful stories of African Christians ­ catechists, evangelists, prophets ­ who spread the faith, miles from any missionary supervision. More than anyone else he transformed the way we look at and understand Christianity in Africa, and by so doing transformed the way we look at and understand Christianity in the world.


From obituary by David Maxwell in The Independent (London), 7 June 2001






Erudite, brilliant and a superb organiser

Adrian Hastings was a Roman Catholic priest who believed in going his own way, and a historian and theologian who continued to write on a great range of subjects in the face of fashionable specialisation. He spoke out against injustice wherever he found it, most notably when, in 1973, he revealed to the world the atrocities committed by the Portuguese army at Wiriyamu in Mozambique, and again during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He continued to speak out even when this entailed criticism of his own Church. Yet although he technically excommunicated himself by his decision to marry, there were many who admired his courage and integrity, and he was always able to find a priest willing to administer Communion to him. Hastings often described himself as a Protestant Catholic, while emphasising that he considered that the best place for Protestants to be was within the Catholic Communion.


Hastings remained politically active, particularly as a defender of the Bosnian and Kosovan causes. He was a pertinacious writer of letters to the press, and his many articles on current affairs in The Tablet were appreciated by its national and international readership. In private as in public, Hastings was erudite, brilliant and a superb organiser. He was generous in giving praise, if scathing in rebuke, and never held a grudge. Many younger scholars benefited from his enthusiastic support. His network of friends across the world will miss his regular correspondence and his fascinating conversation.


From obituary in The Times (London), 31 May 2001


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