Archbishop Gwilym Owen Williams — “G. O.”: His life and opinions by D. T. W. Price 

by
08 June 2018

David Wilbourne on an Archbishop of Wales

“G. O.” WILLIAMS was just 16 when he determined both to be ordained and to be Welsh. Attracted to the threefold order of ministry while reading English at Oxford, this former Calvinist Methodist was conditionally baptised, confirmed, admitted to St Stephen’s House, and ordained, all within one year. Apparently, the chapel deacons back home judged that their boy David’s lacklustre preaching was better suited to the Church in Wales.

In his meticulously detailed biography, Canon William Price describes how Williams, as assistant curate of Denbigh, honed “a remarkable imagination and sure mastery over words”, regularly writing in the Welsh journal Tir Newydd. He reviewed a Nazi tome (actually concocted by him) recommending that Welshmen purge their nation of Jewish traits by marrying only English women, and award Eisteddfod prizes for the best use of poison gas. Written in the terrible year of Kristallnacht, it seems a very sick spoof.

Williams went on to be chaplain at St David’s College, Lampeter, where he hated the backbiting and lack of Welsh; he was happier as Warden of Bangor University’s Anglican hostel. Appointed Warden of Llandovery College at just 35, Williams drove its re-Welshification. “The Warden never forgot he was a priest,” Price reassures us; and yet, when no culprit owned up to a misdemeanour, Williams caned the entire school. As Bishop, Williams took R. S. Thomas to court for reading banns incorrectly; Thomas was lucky to escape a beating.

Elected Bishop of Bangor in 1957, Williams joined a convivial Bench consisting entirely of Oxford Firsts. Sadly, his desired golden age for the Church in Wales never materialised. Keen to up his game in a diocese where only 20 per cent of Christians were Anglican, Williams implemented a root-and-branch review, but two-thirds of parishes never even completed the survey.

Clergy numbers halved during his episcopal tenure, not helped by a dearth of ordained Welsh speakers; and yet a cathedral canon resigned when Williams imported a cleric from neighbouring St Asaph to be Dean. Williams indefatigably argued for an organic unity, only to be thwarted by a Welsh denominational scene of Byzantine complexity, uneasy with threefold order.

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Elected Archbishop of Wales in 1971, he chaired production of a new Welsh Bible, preaching before the Queen in St Asaph and Westminster Abbey to mark its publication. Committed to bilingualism, Williams claimed that he would rather churches close than the Welsh language become extinct. He threatened Margaret Thatcher with civil unrest unless she implemented a Welsh TV channel; faced by this Celtic tiger, Thatcher wisely gave in.

For two decades, Williams’s wife nursed severe ill-health, finally dying in 1976, a month after their only son’s wedding. Only days after her funeral, Williams attended an Anglican Consultative Council conference in Trinidad.

In 1980, his own health failing, he admitted that exhaustion made him incapable of putting one sentence after another. Retiring to Criccieth, Williams happily made marmalade for the church fête, collected for charity, and even rang the bell before services led by the personable new incumbent, one Barry Morgan. As one David falls, another rises.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.

Archbishop Gwilym Owen Williams — “G. O.”: His life and opinions
D. T. W. Price
Church in Wales Publications £10*
(978-0-85326-083-7)

*Copies available from the author (add £3 p&p) at 57 Kynaston Drive, Wem, Shrewsbury SY4 5DE.

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