Tributes are pouring in for Rowan Smith, the groundbreaking and iconic gay former Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
Smith passed away at the age of 74 on Wednesday after a long hospitalisation following a fall in which he broke his hip at the cathedral on Good Friday. While he appeared to be recovering, his health took an unexpected turn for the worst.
He will be remembered by many for coming out as gay in the late 90s after he was named the Dean of Cape Town. His coming out was supported by his congregation and he was highly respected in the city throughout his life.
“This cathedral is an icon of unity to the greater community,” he said in 2003. “I like to think that that is its appeal, ahead of people seeing my sexuality first.”
Smith was ordained Deacon in St. Nicholas’ Church, Matroosfontein in 1967 and a Priest in St. George’s Cathedral in 1968. He served for a period as Chaplain to St. Martin’s School in Johannesburg. He was Dean of St George’s Cathedral from 1996 until his retirement in 2010.
He was a proud member of the LGBTI community, and publicly supported the Out in Africa South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Cape Town Pride and campaigns to end discrimination and violence against LGBTI people.
Smith was on the inaugural board of the Pride Shelter Trust, Africa’s only LGBTI shelter. He will also be remembered as an anti-apartheid activist and for fighting for the rights of people living with HIV and Aids.
In 2000, he was forced to apologise after appearing in a cheeky, highly controversial advert for the LGBTI film festival wearing liturgical clothing and a devil’s tail. The ad, which was shot in the cathedral, ended with a voiceover that proclaimed: “They say that homosexuals are the devil’s spawn, but I don’t believe that.”
As per the rules of the Anglican Church regarding gay clergy, Smith said he was celibate. In 2005, ahead of the legalisation of same-sex marriage in South Africa, he commented that he would have liked to have had the option to marry. “So far, God has not provided me with a partner. If I did, I think I would.”
“Father Rowan Smith was among the gentlest, kindest, most open-hearted and loving human beings whom we had the good fortune to call our friend and colleague,” said Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah.
In a statement, Cape Town’s LGBTI rights group Triangle Project said: “Rest in Power Dean Rowan Smith. His legacy in the Anti-Apartheid movement and for LGBTI rights will never be forgotten.”
Smith’s funeral will be held in St George’s Cathedral on Saturday 2 June at 9am.