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Some Day I’ll Find You by H.A. Williams

August 27, 2015

SDIFYI knew Fr. Harry in his final days at Mirfield. He’d been a dogmatic Anglo–catholic priest who, hearing confessions of gay men at All Saints Margaret Street, where he was vicar, realised the ‘disconnect’ and was plunged into a mental breakdown – which was a breakthrough.

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.

Harry was the Chaplain at Trinity College, in Cambridge University, and was loved by generations of students, even atheists. One day he had a vision of the God he’d been inwardly cowering before for years and realized that the cruel tyrant of his imagination wasn’t, and couldn’t be, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus the

Christ. He rejected the God of Fear and turned to the God of Love and was transformed psychologically. The fear was real: the God of whom Harry was afraid was not. That God was something he’d conjured up in his imagination. It was like the demons that haunted the man in the Gospel reading.

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.

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.

This book exposed his experience to others to help them confront their fear too – interestingly, it was published within a week of Bishop Mervyn Stockwood’s autobiography. The latter was all whitewash and show whereas Fr. Harry’s book is scrupulously honest. He describes a very serious period in his life when he was incapacitated by phobic anxieties.  He was afraid to go into open spaces with lots of people – eventually he became so overcome with fear and anxiety that he was physically partially paralysed.  His journey back into recovery and life was a slow and painful one.  It is no accident that these experiences inspired some of Williams’ most powerful insights into Christian living.  Strength often emerges out of weakness.

SDIFY 2Quotations:

“Religious establishments invariably give me the creeps……Religion is to a large extent what people do with their lunacy, their phobias, their will to power and their sexual frustrations.”

(about the Church of England’s revised services: “Clumsy constructions in flat, tired English made from assorted pieces of doctrinal Meccano.”

“I slept with several men, in each case fairly regularly. They were all of them friends.

“Cynics, of course, will smile, but I have seldom felt more like thanking God than when having sex. I used in bed to praise Him there and then for the joy I was receiving and giving.”

“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.”

 

“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.” [

“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.”

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From → Biography, Sexuality

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