02 November 2006

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 enviable assurance.

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 his longing.

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.

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