‘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 New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, by Sarah Coakley (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Sarah Coakley is Norris-Hulse professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a canon of Ely Cathedral. This book is a collection of essays which have previously appeared elsewhere, and are now ‘lightly revised’. The overarching theme is gender and sexuality – neuralgic issues for Anglicans and other Christians. But I suppose that, unlike Roman Catholics, who, at least officially, bury their heads in the sand about them (which is no cure for neuralgia!), Anglicans are able to have a reasonably mature and sensible debate.

The great thing abbot Professor Coakley’s book is that she takes all strands of Anglican opinion seriously, but is beholden to none of them. Rather she seeks a creative way of cutting through the debates, finding a via media – not so much in terms of a simple midway position between extremes, nor even in terms of a dialectic in the Hegelian sense, using thesis and antithesis to create synthesis 9though there is some of that), but in using new approaches to inject new life into tired old debates. She succeeds marvellously, and I cannot praise this book too much.

Arranged in five chapters – the five original essays – with a substantial introduction, Professor Coakley moves effortlessly and impressively from Gregory of Nyssa to von Balthasar.  A primary aim is to recover the concept of desire. Professor Coakley wants us to understand sexual desire as being really about God and our desire for Him. This enables us to see sex, and God in different tones to those in which Freud painted them. Ultimately it is liberating.

We tend, from our human perspective, to judge that things in heaven are live things on earth. Thus we think of the relationship between Christ and the Church as being ‘like’ a marriage, or the relationship within the Trinity as being ‘like’ human friendship and love. But of course we have this exactly the wrong way around. It is the things of God which are the ultimate realities, and the things of the earth which are ‘like’ them. And it is from the perspective of human marriage being ‘like’ the relationship between Christ and the Church that one must consider the ideas of gender and priesthood. It is from the reality of human desire, sexual or otherwise, being like the inner life of the Trinity that one must consider human sexuality.

Professor Coakley’s strongly Patristic and Trinitarian theology invites us to look in new ways at the causes of the Church’s neuralgia, ways which are theocentric; when too often we look at God in ways which are anthropocentric.

I would like to consider each of the chapters of this book in a separate reflection, as it has so much to say on seemingly incidental matters, such as orientation (in the literal sense – facing east) in prayer. I commend the book to you most heartily. It is Anglican theology at its very best.