HARRY WILLIAMS, who died on Monday of last week, aged 86, would not have
liked the strapline over his obituary in the Daily Telegraph:
"idiosyncratic views . . . won for him a cult following". So far from being
very extraordinary, his central message was that everyone should try to find
the real God through finding the real self. So far from seeking followers, he
resigned from a very agreeable post in order to be a monk, and in his last 24
years he published nothing. Rightly, the obituary itself was very respectful.
Certainly he was unconventional, and he said that, if given another life, he
would not be a priest, although he might be a monk. But when the
Church Times had recovered from indignation about an indiscreet
broadcast, it reviewed him as "one of the most attractive and persuasive
writers on personal religion in England today". The Methodist Recorder
said about the sermons collected in The True Wilderness (1965): "this
shatteringly honest book must make a profound impact on all who read it."
The attention paid to him in the 1960s and 1970s was more than a small cult,
because his message was received as good news: "Be yourself, meet and love your
Creator and Father, don't think that you need be orthodox or perfect but live
joyfully and abundantly." And to a minority this gospel was nothing less than
liberation, because it could be sensed, before it was fully disclosed, that he
was in every inch homosexual.
Having been born in 1919, to a captain retired from the Royal Navy, and a
mother who became an Evangelical fundamentalist (partly in order to compensate
for falling in love with someone else), he did not rush to make his sexual
identity either active or public. In his autobiography of 383 pages, page 163
is reached before the heart of the story is revealed. The title of the book,
Noel Coward's Some Day I'll find You, seems to refer both to God in
his eternal glory and to the author's own inglorious failure to find a lifelong
partner, despite his delight in a few consummated relationships in his 30s and
40s. He had always known what he was.
His childhood under these remote parents was not entirely unhappy, and he
had three escapes from it: Cranleigh School under a sensibly pastoral
headmaster, Trinity College, Cambridge, without too much religion, and his own
brand of religion. This was a combination of punctilious Anglo-Catholicism with
ecclesiastical ambition inspired by hearing Archbishop Temple preach with
He trained for the priesthood at Cuddesdon College where (in his later view)
"the three great fundamentals of Christianity were fasting communion,
sacramental confession and apostolic succession." He soon found himself a
curate in All Saints', Margaret Street, then Anglo-Catholicism's crowded Mecca
in London. He played his role in the "Sunday theatre" and heard many
confessions, giving the right answers.
His next jobs suggested to gossip that one day he would be within the
bishops ' apostolic succession. He was appointed to teach the New Testament in
Westcott House, Cambridge, and, from 1951, as a Fellow in his old college.
But then his latent disquiet exploded into an intense and prolonged nervous
breakdown. One cause was that, as he taught the New Testament, he studied it
more closely - and concluded that very little could be known about the
historical Jesus. But he also became convinced that the Catholic Church, so far
from being the continuing Body of Christ, had for many centuries exploited
people's guilt and credulity. He felt this particularly because he confronted
the fact that, although hitherto chaste, he would in Catholic or Evangelical
eyes be guilty of a sin so serious as to be unmentionable if he fell in love
with a male colleague, as he now did, passionately but not fruitfully, despite
He began to feel, and say, that "religion" should be exposed as the enemy of
humanity and that the God he had worshipped was more rightly hated as a
sadistic monster, the Devil; and his despair resulted in a physical collapse as
he felt totally isolated. Then for 14 years he was kept sane, and encouraged to
be himself, by a therapist without any professed religion, Christopher Scott.
When Harry Williams wrote True Resurrection (in 1972, and again based
on sermons), that was the deliverance which he celebrated and advocated.
Years of Easter joy came. In Trinity College, which he always regarded as
his true home, he was a don convivial with some of Britain's best brains over
dinner and port; he was a tutor responsible for the admission and welfare of
many students; he supervised chaplains and counselled the distressed; he was a
preacher who fascinated; he travelled the world in many vacations with
high-spirited friends. Now he saw Jesus alive as the supreme rebel against any
religion that was not humane.
When he told friends of his ambition in 1969 to be accepted as a member of
the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, the usual reaction was that the
idea of him as a monk in Yorkshire was either a joke or a very serious mistake.
He half-thought it himself, then and later, as did his new brethren. It did not
help when Hugh Bishop, who had presided over his admission, left the community,
announcing that he could no longer live without his male partner.
And what are we to think?
After his change of life at 50, he gave as his recreations in
Who's Who "idleness and religion". He wrote some small books and the
big autobiography, but expressed boredom about biblical scholarship and
systematic theology. He produced some sermons in the chapel and talks
elsewhere, but he had no real connection with the theological college attached
to the monastery. Like his successor as Dean of Chapel in Trinity College,
Bishop John Robinson, he settled down as a lost leader for radicals in the
Church of England.
It seems that, having urged others to do this, more than anything else he
wanted peace and time in which to pray, finding God after finding his true self
including scepticism, anxiety, sexuality, and worldliness. Whether he found
what he wanted, we cannot know. Apparently no one in Mirfield got very close to
him, and he laid down his pen, except to write to friends who were not there.
But he had chosen this.
And it may not be too much to think that God chose him to be one of the
first homosexuals in church history to "come out" and to make a virtue of it
publicly. We do not know how many gay priests there had been over the
centuries, but there must have been very many. Few can have been so sensitive
as Harry Williams. None was so eloquent, as he distilled from his great
suffering a spirit of realism, of compassion for fellow humans, and of
awareness that God loved him and all the rest.
In his last years, he was bedridden, and, apart from the Bible, read novels
and biographies, sometimes voicing an unreasonable terror at being forgotten
and left alone. May he rise in glory; and may homosexual clergy make their
contribution with a steadier fulfilment and happiness.