Fr Harry Williams was a Cambridge don, tutor to the Prince of Wales, who, aged 50, entered an Anglican religious community. This is his autobiography. It is fair to say that it caused a stir when published. He was very much an establishment figure, and the frank tone doubtless shocked. That said, little would be shocking now, but back in 1982 it was not common for priests of the Church of England to publically declare that they were gay.
It is not really necessary to give a complete review of this book. It is an easy read. It has often been criticised for name dropping, and Harry Williams has been called a snob. I did not really notice that. He was well connected, but most of the names he drops are now forgotten. Sic transit gloriamundi and all that, I suppose.
The real story of this book is how Harry Williams fell for a false god, how he “mixed up God and the devil, not knowing which was which. It was a muddle which needed a severe breakdown before it could be slowly sorted out. The sorting out led me to discover that in order to love God I often had to hate religion and I began to catch glimpses of God’s glory in places where, on any ecclesiastical estimate, that glory had no right to be.” [p. ix] In this he discovered that “what passes for virtue has been a far more destructive force than what passes for vice.” [pp. 44-5]
His family was what would probably be called upper middle class, though not wealthy. His mother was neurotic and that neuroticism found a focus in an intolerant and joyless Protestantism. He notes that “one of the important functions of religion is to give people something to do with their lunacy.” [p. 81] That holds true for other brands of religion as well, not just the Protestant variety. Lunacy can take many forms, and there is a religion for each one of those forms.
Despite all this he became a clergyman, though naturally of a higher church disposition than his mother’s religion. As a curate at S Barnabas, Pimlico, London, during the Second World War he came to see that goodness, and God, could be found in all sorts and conditions, and often more clearly outside church than in it.
A curacy at the famous Anglo-Catholic church of All Saints, Margaret Street followed. It was here that he started to realise that the god he served was a false god, a god who demanded constant propitiation, an idol of his own creating:
“It was with the idol that I conceived my relationship to be one of contract. Keeping his back scratched was not at all a labour of love. It had nothing about it of a free, loving, joyful obedience. It was a disagreeable and exhausting chore which made me in my heart of hearts hate the taskmaster who imposed it – that is God, my idol.
“For my idol-God was a neurotic. How could he help being that? For a projection cannot be more healthy than the projecting agent. So my God felt unloved and insecure unless he was constantly the centre of attention. And when he felt insecure he would take it out on you by refusing to speak to you until you had formally apologised by going to confession, and sometimes not even then. So to prevent his feeling insecure you had to jabber at him at regular intervals.” [p. 130]
It is sadly true that if God has made human beings in his image, since that time human beings have been remaking God in their own fractured image. In this they (we) have been aided by a Church which has often been in the hands of the most fractured and neurotic.
But for Fr Harry Williams, now at Cambridge as a fellow of Trinity, this all came to a head. And, needless to say, the issue was his sexuality.
“Thus it was that my deepest, most tender, and strongest feelings were felt by me to be monstrously horrible, something to be utterly condemned, as well as being, I felt, the legitimate target of ridicule deserving to bring down on me the cackle of Cambridge. Had I not been in thrall to my idol I might have been able to liberate myself from these conventional estimates. But with the stranglehold upon me of the god the priests had encouraged me to believe in, even the smallest degree of liberation was quite impossible. I was little more than the puppet of the savage hypnotist I had dreamt about, little more than the dupe and slave of my own guilt-feelings.
“… I fell in love with a colleague; totally, hopelessly and catastrophically in love. The sexuality which the savage hypnotist [the false god] had so far compelled me to ignore, at last exploded. It was, as I saw later, the victory of my humanity over the forces bent on destroying it, the victory of health over sickness, of good over evil, of the true God over the idol.” [p. 164]
Grace, we are told, builds on nature. And Irenaeus of Lyons tells us that “the glory of God is humanity alive” [Ad. Haer. 4. 34. 5-7]. How can a denial of humanity get one anywhere, least of all closer to God?
This is a lesson which many of us have to find for ourselves. Often it is painful. Often it means the rejection of false (but comforting) certainties. Often it leads to charges of self-indulgence, of taking the easy option. But as Harry Williams notes, it is about integrity. The alternative is not just continuing unhappiness, but often self-destruction. How many gay Christians seeks solace in the bottle? Or guilt-ridden casual sex? Or it can destroy others, when projected onto them.
God is love. That we know. But so often love is replaced with rules. The Religion of the Scribes and the Pharisees is easier, in some ways, than the Religion of love and perfect freedom which Christ offers us. For all its destructiveness it gives one a sense of belonging. And as Williams quotes, “as Benjamin Jowett remarked, what is truth compared with anespritde corps?” [p. 196]
Harry Williams dies in 2006, aged 86. His Church Times obituary noted that in the 1960s and 1970s his message – “Be yourself, meet and love your Creator and Father, don’t think that you need be orthodox or perfect but live joyfully and abundantly.” – was greeted as Good News. That is because it was Good News. And it was, and still is, needed today.
This review (by ‘Ian’, a scholarly blogging friend of mine) of the biography of well-known Anglican priest and Mirfield Religious, Father Harry Williams, though issued some time ago, is very relevant to this time in which the Church of England is seeking guidance on how to deal with the LGBTI people who inhabit its membership – and, indeed,the ministry and membership of every other Church in Christendom.
Father Harry, one-time tutor and spiritual mentor of the Prince of Wales, is well known as a spiritual writer in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition, who also happened to be intrinsically homosexual – though committed to celibacy as an Anglican Religious of his day.
Here is a notable paragraph that sheds light on his own struggle for self-acceptance:
“The real story of this book is how Harry Williams fell for a false god, how he “mixed up God and the devil, not knowing which was which. It was a muddle which needed a severe breakdown before it could be slowly sorted out. The sorting out led me to discover that in order to love God I often had to hate religion and I began to catch glimpses of God’s glory in places where, on any ecclesiastical estimate, that glory had no right to be.” [p. ix] In this he discovered that “what passes for virtue has been a far more destructive force than what passes for vice.” [pp. 44-5].
The circumstance of the background to this story is common to many Anglican clergy, whose own lives have been beset with the struggle for self-acceptance – of the fact that they are both sexually ‘different’ and also faithful believers in Jesus Christ in the Gospel. How to accommodate the seeming paradox is a continuing concern for many clergy and laity, who have had to accustom themselves to the problems of ‘coming out’ to a hostile Church.
I can’t wait to get hold of a copy of this book, which no doubt will be on sale somewhere.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand