‘Some Day I’ll Find You’ by H.A. Williams C.R. (London: Mitchell Beazley, 1982)

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 gloria mundi 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 an espirit de 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.

The Holy and Great Council: or Have the Orthodox blown it?

After about a century of off and on preparations and discussions the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church opened yesterday in Crete with an impressive concelebration of the Divine Liturgy. The Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne, who seems to be the English Language press officer, gave a very upbeat assessment of everything it is going to achieve. But we all know that the facts are rather different.

I wanted this to work. I really did. I think Orthodoxy has a great deal to give to wider Christianity. The idea that all theology is mystical theology – that one cannot divorce the study of God from prayer, that it belongs in the liturgy not just (or even at all) in the lecture room – is a vital idea. In the west, since scholasticism, we have obsessed too much with angels and pinheads.

But Orthodoxy seems to prefer its own internal squabbles and power struggles.

I am no authority (thank God) on Orthodox Church politics. I know that the Patriarchate of Antioch threw a strop because the Patriarchate of Jerusalem erected a bishopric in what it considered to be its territory (at the same time that the said Patriarchate of Antioch was erecting a bishopric in the United Kingdom for a group composed mostly of ex-Anglicans …). For some reason this gave Moscow the pretext it doubtless wanted to stay away too. Now the Church of Russia represents about three quarters of world Orthodox. So this is a major blow.

At least when Anglicans have public spats it is about doctrine. About something which actually matters.

Orthodox unity, even in faith, is actually a smoke and mirrors business. They are deeply disunited. OK, I know Anglicanism is too, and the RCs, and everyone else. But this was Orthodoxy’s big moment. A chance to act like grown ups, rather than squabble like children.

But it seems to me (correct me if I am wrong) that they have blown it.

Our Lady’s Immaculate Vagina

Today, in the Kalendar of the Roman Catholic Church, is the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I only have a dim idea of what this is about. I suppose it has something to do with Mary’s sinlessness. Fair enough. But in truth it is not her heart, immaculate or otherwise, which really concerns the RC Church. It is her vagina.

I recall an antiphone from the Roman liturgy: “After the birth of your child, Mary you remained a virgin”. This is a dubious proposal at best; but the real question is, ‘why does it matter?’ Why should anyone care if Mary had sex after the birth of Jesus? The Gospels, of course, speak of Christ’s brothers and sisters. The RC Church explains it away as a reference to cousins or somesuch. Maybe that is so, but why bother? Why does it matter?

Mary was married to Joseph. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion.” [para 2360]. Why, after the birth of Jesus should Mary and Joseph have abstained from this “sign and pledge of spiritual communion”? Quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Gaudium et spes the Catechism asserts  that “the acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable.” and further that “sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure.” It quotes Pope Pius XII saying “the Creator himself … established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them.” [CCC para 2362].

So according to the official teaching of the RC Church, sex in marriage is not just permissible, but good, God’s will, a spiritual communion. So why is Mary’s perpetual virginity necessary? Or even right? Should she and Joseph not have “accept[ed] what the Creator … intended for them”?

In truth, of course, the dogma of mary’s perpetual virginity points to the reality of the RC Church’s teaching and praxis. Whatever Pius XII and Vatican II and the Catechism may say, sex is dirty. It is tolerated because, well, if married Catholics didn’t have sex, where would the next generation of priests come from, to say nothing of the laity to pay for them? But we all know that that is a concession to human weakness. Denying your sexuality is the higher good.

Thus Mary is the greatest human being ever, the closest to God, because she was Virgin and Mother, yes, but because she also remained a virgin. This is the example the Roman Catholic Church holds up to the faithful.

God became human. In Jesus he took on our humanity. But he did so, we are told, in the womb of a woman who denied a vital part of that humanity, and a part which is “noble and honorable”.

Of course it won’t wash. In stripping Mary of her humanity, the Catholic Church diminishes her. Far from becoming ‘most blessed amongst women’ she becomes a plaster statue in church, a focus for sexual neuroticism and heaven knows what else.

The Catholic Church has backed itself into a corner over human sexuality. And it’s approach to the Immaculate Vagina of Mary is a large part of that. So on this Feast of Our Lady, virgin mother, yes, I accept that; But true woman, true human being too; I ask her prayers that we may find and accept our true humanity, the humanity which God created and gave us, and which includes our sexuality, and rejoice in the good things God has given us.

Holy Mary, Theotokos, Woman of Flesh in which God delighted to dwell, Pray for us.