Sermon for Matins

7 May 2006 at :00 am

Fr Harry Williams was a monk at Mirfield for almost 40 years until he died in January of this year. He was, to my mind, one of the more interesting and unusual theologians of the last century, not least of all for some of his writing when, before he moved to Mirfield, he was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. It was in that capacity I first met him some 43 years ago when I went to be interviewed by him for a place at that College. That he offered me a place is only one of the many reasons I have to be grateful to him, for he became my tutor, my Director of Studies and my supervisor in New Testament studies. It is, therefore, out of a sort of tutee's respect that I want this morning, and possibly on some other Sundays in my residence this month, to reflect on some of the themes of his theological writing. But first, something of the man.

He was born in 1919, the son of a naval captain, and was educated at Cranleigh School and then Trinity College, where he got a first in theology. He decided to train for ordination and he served a curacy near here in Pimlico, and then at All Saints Margaret Street near Oxford Circus, then, as now, a major focus of the catholic end of the Church of England. From there he returned to Cambridge as chaplain of Westcott House, one of the two theological colleges in Cambridge, and from there was appointed Dean of Trinity.

That may sound like the comfortable path of a clever clergyman into academic life, but in fact those years were far from comfortable for him. In his early years as Dean at Trinity he suffered a major psychological breakdown, from which he only emerged with the help of lengthy and skilled psychoanalysis. It was a breakdown occasioned at least in part by his having to come to terms with his homosexuality, then a very taboo matter in the Church of England, and it was out of that experience of breakdown and psychoanalysis that he wrote some of his major theological works. He was a contributor to two very influential collections published in the early 1960s; 'Objections to Christian Belief' in which he wrote the essay on 'psychological objections' and 'Soundings' where his contribution was entitled 'Theology and Self-awareness.' And there then followed a book of sermons and lectures, mainly ones given in Trinity Chapel, entitled 'The True Wilderness', which many consider to be one of the spiritual masterpieces of the 20th century, and which I believe is still in print.

In the introduction to that book he explained what he was trying to do. He was at the time teaching people like me theology, but he wrote: 'Academic theology is as essential for a knowledge of Christian truth as a house is to my home. But only if it becomes part of what I am, like my home, can it be the living truth which Christ came to give. Christian truth, in other words, must be in the blood as well as in the brain. If it is only in the brain, it is without life and powerless to save'..I decided, therefore, that alongside of teaching academic theology I would try to ask myself how far and in what way a doctrine of the creed or a saying of Christ had become part of what I am. The pulpit seemed to be the obvious place from which to expound what I had discovered. And I resolved that I would not preach about any aspect of Christian belief unless it had become part of my own life-blood. For I realised that the Christian truth I tried to proclaim would speak to those who listened only to the degree in which it was an expression of my own identity'.I said I decided on this course. But that is misleading. The decision was taken for me in some area of my being over which I had no control. I found it became impossible to propound an official point of view like a political speaker taking a party line. Such a procedure appeared so false to myself that the words would not come out. Unless what I proposed to say came from the depths of my own experience I was struck dumb.'

In that book of sermons and addresses it is, I suspect, that personal honesty that gives them their power. Listen to what he wrote in the sermon for Lent that gave the title to the whole book; The True Wilderness.

'It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it is more than a pity, it's a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a psuedo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are.'

In that quotation you can see something of the struggles through which he went in his breakdown and that infused the next part of that same address.'Lent' he wrote, 'is supposed to be the time when we think of Jesus in the wilderness. And the wilderness belongs to us. It is always lurking somewhere as part of our experience, and there are times when it seems pretty near the whole of it. I am not thinking now of people being ostracised, or without friends, or misunderstood, or banished in this way or that from some community or other. Objectively, as a matter of actual fact, these things happen to very few of us. Most people's wilderness is inside them, not outside'our wilderness ' is an inner isolation. It's an absence of contact. It's a sense of being alone - boringly alone, or saddeningly alone, or terrifyingly alone. Often we try to relieve it - understandably enough, God knows - by chatter, or gin, or religion, or sex, or possibly a combination of all four. The trouble is that these purple hearts can work their magic only for a very limited time, leaving us after one short hour or two exactly where we were before.'

To see how he suggests you can escape from that wilderness, or perhaps more accurately not to escape from it, but to use it constructively, you will have to read the rest of his sermon. But it illustrates the essential principle that underlay his work, that Christian theology has to reflect and make sense of our actual experience and not simply be an intellectual game or an exercise in rationality. That, of course, is not original to him; indeed you could even say that it was the essence of Jesus' teaching. And it certainly ties in with something that the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard wrote when he was being critical of intellectual systems. 'In relation to their systems most systematisers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack close by. They do not live in their own enormous systematic building, but spiritually that is a decisive objection. Spiritually speaking a man's thought must be the building in which he lives, otherwise everything is topsy-turvey.' Harry Williams would have agreed with Kierkegaard on that. He sought a theological building that was true to life he lived, and life in which the largely twentieth century phenomena of psychoanalysis was critical. It was that which made him something of a prophet, and I for one am sad that he is now dead.

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