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Obituary: The Rt Revd Roy Williamson

27 September 2019


The Rt Revd Roy Williamson

The Rt Revd Roy Williamson

The Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan writes:

ROY WILLIAMSON, Bishop of first Bradford, then Southwark, died on 17 September, aged 86. Named Robert Kerr, he was “Roy” throughout life, save on legal documents. The 14th child of a Belfast family, he left school at 14, and had ordinary jobs until promoted to selling footwear door-to-door. Faith and discipleship were taught him in early life, but flowered in a late teens experience of conversion, inspiring a great desire to preach the gospel.

Around 1954, he and his sweetheart, Anne, went to Dublin to the Irish Church Missions; and his two years there (including getting engaged) were highly formative — both in absorbing the “One Hundred Texts” of the ICM, and also in social work, open-air preaching, and apologetics vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism. In 1956, he joined the London City Mission, married Anne, a superb marriage partner, and ministered a street-level gospel and social care — doing so, amazingly, alongside Southwark Cathedral. In 1957, he was licensed as a cathedral Reader.

Friends pressed ordination on him, but he needed four O levels to qualify. He duly studied, passed the exams, was accepted for training, and, assisted financially by friends, entered Oak Hill in 1961. In 1963, he was ordained to a curacy in Crowborough, in East Sussex, where he blossomed as a footballer as well as an evangelist. In 1966, he came to St Paul’s, Hyson Green, in Nottingham, a strongly Evangelical urban church. There he — and St Paul’s — flourished, and also helped St John’s College coming to Nottingham in 1970 (and nominated me for the General Synod).

In 1972, he was instituted to St Ann-with-Emmanuel on the empty plot of a planned church building; and Gordon Jones, Director of Pastoral Studies at St John’s, persuaded the College to buy a disused pub, where Roy oversaw five single students combining their studies with work in his new parish. Meanwhile, Roy was elected chair of the diocesan House of Clergy, opening a promising door.

When five children outgrew his vicarage, Roy sought a move, and came in 1976 to Bramcote, the very parish where St John’s was located. Within two years, however, the Bishop made him archdeacon, adding this ministry to his incumbency. When the college Principal died suddenly, Roy, typically, appeared within minutes. Soon afterwards, he left Bramcote and became solely archdeacon, but he also chaired the College Council and supported me, the new Principal, with wisdom and dependability. Meanwhile, he carried great responsibilities — arguably, he was running the diocese.

As archdeacon, he joined the General Synod. He spoke rarely, but contributed most memorably to a debate on restoring capital punishment, a desire of some Thatcherites. Roy measured out the frightening implications for Northern Ireland, then torn by the Troubles. The Synod hardly needed convincing, but Roy’s advocacy was powerful; his stature was now recognised beyond Southwell. So, in 1983, when Bishop Geoffrey Paul died, several knowing Bradford representatives put Roy’s name forward to the Crown Appointments Commission. His name went to Margaret Thatcher.

Roy disbelieved her letter: “I’ve no degree,” he protested. “You can’t be a bishop without a degree.” Common sense, or divine sense, prevailed, and to Bradford he went (forgoing a sabbatical). He emerged as a brilliant bishop — a great communicator, a fine chair of meetings, a discerner of gifts, infinitely adaptable to events, and of unostentatious godliness. He also engaged seriously with Islam. When, in May 1985, the Bradford football stadium fire killed 56 people and injured many more, Roy was immediately visiting round the hospitals. Soon after, Roy and Anne hosted 150 bereaved people in their home prior to the civic service of commemoration which Roy was leading.

In 1987 came a serious heart attack, arguably caused by Roy’s unrelenting work, unalleviated by that sabbatical. This did entail rest — and an order to walk (with his dogs); an assistant bishop started; could he now slow up?

Roy’s prospective 19 years in Bradford were interrupted — in 1991 came the call to Southwark, where he encountered a contrasting context. His predecessor, Ronnie Bowlby, had recently inaugurated an Area Scheme, wherein three Area Bishops were duly establishing their individual episcopates. Roy, very much the hands-on bishop, now judged that he had to be hands-off. To step outside his house was to enter an Area Bishop’s territory! He redeployed his gifts, not least on Radio 2 and in writing about practical Christian living. Learning from Bradford, he walked. He walked round his diocese and then through it, setting foot in many parishes, thus fulfilling his deep desire to meet the people.

But how would an Evangelical bishop lead a diocese well known to be home to gay clergy? In brief, Roy slowly affirmed this significant constituency, cautiously admiring their parochial work and pastorally caring for their persons. But there was a cost: some friends now deserted him, while liberals breathed more easily.

Roy notably helped swing the General Synod in favour of the ordination of women as presbyters. But, when the ordinations began in 1994, David Hope, not ordaining women himself, asked Roy to ordain his London women candidates also. Roy did ordain them, interviewing each individually — a massive job, splendidly carried through.

Roy retired at the age of 65 in January 1998, returning to Nottingham, where three of his children still lived. Anne, after battling courageously with cancer, died in 2004, and Roy lived on, a widower. He was loyal to his parish church, and clergy and people regularly sought his counsel. But his health declined, and his public ministry decreased. Meanwhile, his five children bestowed on him ten grandchildren and, thus far, seven great-grandchildren.

How to summarise so well-lived a life? Roy was a wonderful Christian leader — whatever he undertook, his presence made all around feel secure, and thus empowered them for their own Christian responsibilities. His zest for life embraced a great gift of humour — not least with Irish jokes — which eased all his relationships. He made friends everywhere. His love for Jesus Christ was no professional front, but a life-force that carried him through everything in life, and now into fullness of life.

His funeral will be in St John’s, Beeston, in Nottingham, at 2.30 p.m. on Friday 4 October.

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