Priests’ Lib

C.H. Sisson

  • Some day I’ll find you: An Autobiography by H.A. Williams
    Mitchell Beazley, 383 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 85533 448 7

‘Few people,’ said the Mothers’ Union Journal, speaking of Harry Williams, ‘can make being human more thrilling, more worthwhile, and more fun.’ It is something to live down. It might be thought that a former lecturer in theology, now a member of a religious order, would have a better chance than most of doing so. The matter hangs in the balance, however, when one opens this autobiography at random to find that one is in that delicate territory in which saints have fun. The vicar of St Barnabas, Pimlico, here characterised as one of that exalted order, had it – loved it, in fact. When one learns that this vicar, on his birthday, ‘used to give us all a lavish dinner at Kettner’s’, one may, without being a great connoisseur of the clergy, think that one begins to have some clue as to the sort of priest he was. It was in this parish that Williams elected to serve his first curacy. Open the book again, however, and one finds: ‘I believe that the Religious (monastic) Life can be lived fruitfully only if those who enter it are constantly aware that they have done so, not because they are more spiritual than others, but because they are less so.’ Perhaps the Mothers’ Union Journal has not got the whole story. At any rate, one would have to read the book to find out.

The story that unfolds is a complicated one. Not that the narrative is at all intricate in design – it is, indeed, all bits and pieces – but the intended range of reference is wide. On the one hand, the book is, as the author says, ‘a description of people and places’ he has known. On the other hand, he has had troubles not of an ordinary kind, and this ‘transposes the book into another key and makes it more like a pilgrim’s progress’. The combination is not made any easier by the fact that the pilgrim has not only ‘been lucky in often finding people amusing’ but has – to judge by some of the trivial or even inane remarks which have somehow stuck in his memory – often been rather easily amused. That is no doubt a winning characteristic, within limits, in ordinary life, but it has dangers for the autobiographer. ‘As a boy at home and at school people were not so amusing.’ It is the way of the world, and it must be said that the ways of the world at large have had rather a small part in Williams’s life, as recorded. For some years of his childhood his family were members of the English colony at St Malo, in the days when ‘servants, food and drink were all cheap for English people.’ ‘But it was Cambridge without doubt that was the richest soil for amusement, since dons’ – and Williams was one himself for a good many years – ‘for all their intelligence, can frequently be possessed by folly, some of it positively sublime, some with an edge on it which the uninitiated might mistake for malice; while the naïveté of undergraduates can on occasion seem very funny if also very touching.’ There were also those years at London churches which, to put the matter no more strongly, seem to have had rather special relationships with the world in which they were planted. Indeed it struck me, reading Williams’s story, that in some respects the sober and workaday life at Mirfield, where he finally became a monk, was more like the ordinary laborious world than anything he tells us of his life before he went there ‘In Community you have to live at close quarters with people some at least of whom you will find temperamentally incompatible. You must be prepared to associate constantly with at least a few people who get on your nerves.’ Just like the office or the Army, one might say.

Williams’s father does not appear very vividly in his son’s narrative: he seems to have been a sensible, perhaps slightly humdrum, naval officer who retired earlier than he would have liked, having failed to get his promotion. Mother is the dramatic figure of these early years. She seems to have a been pleasant, rather scatty lady who became less pleasant and more scatty after falling in love with a neighbour’s son considerably younger than herself. In those far-off days the affair did not immediately – or indeed at all – lead to fornication, but there were inevitable domestic tensions which the naval officer bore with some stoicism. Mother, however, hardly had the temperament for philosophy, and she took to a militant form of Evangelical churchmanship: she became ‘a keen Christian out and out for Jesus’. It was, no doubt, as her son suggests, a complication resulting from her feelings of guilt about the young man. She concentrated on this Clifford ‘to make him, like herself, out and out for Jesus. Not only did he become a keen Christian but, before many months had passed, said he wanted to be a clergyman,’ much to the annoyance of his parents who, however, in the end made the best of it and said that at least he should do it properly and go to Oxford. There was a Christmas party for local children at which Mother, unable to ‘trust her French to give a religious discourse’, instead ‘stood silent and still like a tableau vivant of Britannia, except that, instead of holding a trident, her arm pointed to, and her hand touched, the crib in the most melodramatic of gestures. It didn’t matter. The French children were clearly prepared for anything from people who were bourgeois, English and Protestant.’ Harry records his mother’s symptoms with what I suppose must count as filial piety. ‘When praying her eyelids covered her pupils, but an area of white below remained uncovered. In this posture she would hold half an aspirin in a glass eyebath with a stem and call down upon it the divine blessing.’ It was, Harry says, ‘all very far from being unattractive’.

The family moved to Cranleigh where Harry went to school. Hardly surprising that, after the ravages of ‘out and out for Jesus’ Christianity, between the ages of ten and 12 he became very High Church. He invented an imaginary church of St Joseph’s and All Saints, and a parish magazine to go with it: for this he wrote ‘Vicar’s Letters urging people to go to sacramental confession... to pray through the Virgin’ and to recite Compline. He pored over a catalogue from Mowbray’s which had pictures of ‘candle-sticks and candles of all sizes, censers and incense containers, tabernacles, aumbries, pyxes, bottles with holy corks and holy spoons for holy oil, chalices, patens, crosses, crucifixes, statues of the Virgin, pries-dieux, copes, chasubles, albs, girdles, cottas, birettas, soutanes – the lot’. In a revealing and I think discerning phrase Williams describes these things as having ‘a compulsive attraction as if they were a kind of ecclesiastical pornography’. Religion in the Senior School at Cranleigh seems to have been free of the excesses alike of Mowbray’s catalogue and Mother’s Evangelicism. Harry felt ‘the sweet and attractive reasonableness of sober Anglican piety’ by the time he left school, but somewhere inside him he had still ‘a sneaking feeling that only people out and out for Jesus were really Christians.’ No wonder he says he was ‘in a religiously divided state’. One learns with relief that when he went to Cambridge he decided that he would go to college chapel on Sundays and that would be that: he would not have ‘anything whatever to do with any religious concern – be it groups of pious people or of ordinands, or societies, or missions, or talks or anything’.

This precaution worked, in the sense that Williams’s religious anxieties were put into what he rather aptly calls ‘hibernation’ and his undergraduate years were the happiest of his life. These must have been the immediate prewar years, but there is no word at this point about the political anxieties of the period. It may be merely that the terms of reference Williams has chosen for his autobiography preclude any mention of them, but one wonders whether there was not an element of moralisolation about the author. How not notice the armies preparing on the other side of the Rhine? Surely this might imply a certain retraction from the world, a turn of mind which tended to excessive preoccupation with what went on inside the mind itself? When the war came Williams was declared to be medically C3 because of bad eyesight, and he was told that he would be called up only for home duties. So he reasonably enough availed himself of ‘the permission given to ordinands by the Government to continue their training’. Wanting to get away from Cambridge, he went to the theological college at Cuddesdon, eight miles from Oxford. The last words from the Master of Trinity, then G.M. Trevelyan, were to the effect that as a clergyman it would be his duty to be ‘a guardian of British culture and civilisation’. One can understand the author getting ‘a great deal of amusement’ from this, though one cannot but wish that the clergy of the Church of England had done a little better than they have lately done in this direction.

‘Cuddesdon was Anglo-Catholic, but in a sober, restrained Anglican way.’ They did not buy much from Mowbray’s catalogue. They did, however, ‘bludgeon’ people – the word is Williams’s – ‘into the practice of sacramental confession’ and encourage various forms of scrupulosity. Later reflections are so mixed up with the narrative, as elsewhere in this book, that it is hard to be clear how Williams viewed the place at the time. There is perhaps a hint in a curious story which exudes a horrible atmosphere of clerical fun. Three ordinands were in a bathroom, preparing for bed. One of the number was a future overseas bishop who was ‘extremely self-conscious about keeping the rule of silence after Compline’. The third man indicated that he had an important message for this spiritually superior person, then loudly whispered ‘Balls!’ in his ear. There is a peculiar tone in Williams’s comment: ‘It was a supreme moment for which the only possible sequel was the recital of the Nunc dimittis.’

The next stop was St Barnabas, Pimlico, one of those Anglo-Catholic town parishes where the clergy seem to be not so much from another world as from an altogether different part of this one. The vicar was not only a saint, as already reported, but ‘a tremendous dear’, and the social atmosphere must have had more than a touch of 19th-century Oxford and Cambridge clerical slumming. It is true that the vicar was so disillusioned with Anglo-Catholic frolics that he once threw a lace alb across the vestry floor, but the local ‘dustmen, charwomen, roadsweepers and so on’ – everyone seems to have ben employed by Westminster City Council – would hardly have grasped the import of such a gesture. There was a certain Wartime matiness to make contacts easier, but they cannot have been very easy for a curate ‘stuffed full of ideas learned at Oxford and Cambridge’ and temperamentally needing more shelter than most. Williams had even to be a scoutmaster, which must have been agony for him. He once took the boys camping in Berkshire, but was granted some respite from the burnt potatoes or whatever it was the scouts ate, for the vicar of this rural parish had been a chef at Claridge’s. But then, it was a Trinity living.

Williams’s second curacy was at All Saints, Margaret Street, near Oxford Circus. The congregation was ‘entirely eclectic’ – that’s to say, All Saints wasn’t really a parish at all. People came to listen to the music, odd ones popped in for confession. There seem to have been lots of jokes about religion, pulling the legs of the ‘nauseatingly religious’, and so on, while the clergy congratulated themselves that they were Cambridge men. You have to be a specialist to care for this sort of thing, or not to have some sympathy with the dull people who thought that to say that ‘the only way to get through Holy Week was on champagne’ was hardly becoming for a clergyman. It is surely a silly thing to say? Whatever it may indicate about the speaker’s spiritual condition, it certainly indicates a lack of public reference. That such a place as All Saints is reported to have been should ever have been thought a proper place to train a young clergyman is grotesque. What has happened to that ‘sober Anglican piety’? What has happened to the Church of England? But this, of course, is an institution that silly ecclesiastical clubmen are dogmatically not interested in, so long as they can giggle among the ruins.

Anyway, matured by these experiences, the young Harry Williams is offered posts at two theological colleges. These he turned down, but he did in the end accept an appointment at Westcott House, a theological college in Cambridge, headed by Ken Carey who was no use at all ‘if a young man was not particularly attractive physically and came from a lower middle-class background’. Here the aroma of clerical homosexuality begins to assert itself, with the complication of snobbery or at any rate a lack of the social sense which should be among the minimum requirements for the head of a theological or any other sort of college. After three years Williams was offered, and accepted, a fellowship at Trinity. He was home again. He found ‘this friendly and congenial atmosphere almost painfully enjoyable’, but – and here we are approaching the psychological difficulties which are crucial to the book – ‘it often overexcited’ him. He found that his feelings ‘became too hectic for them to be unwound properly’. It is impossible to follow the subsequent course of events more than superficially. There was ‘an increasing load of guilt’, life was so ‘pleasant’, and fits of ‘apparently uncaused terror’. There was a crisis of homosexuality: he ‘fell in love with a colleague; totally, hopelessly and catastrophically in love’. His phobias mounted alarmingly. There was a complete breakdown, which left him under the hands of an analyst for some years.

What Williams says of the behaviour of the clergy towards him at this juncture is not reassuring from any point of view. ‘They felt that they must be able to do something for me,’ he records. ‘So they wheeled out various pieces of ecclesiastical apparatus with the intention of using them for my good. They wanted to choke me with Holy Communion, to persuade me to make a good confession, to have me anointed with oil. When the clergy had tried out all these devices and saw that the effect was nil, they began to get shirty.’ The Bishop of Ely anointed him in his private chapel, and celebrated Holy Communion, but all he got from this ‘combined operation was severe ear-ache’. He reserved his confidence for his more or less non-Christian and certainly non-church-going analyst. Yet he says: ‘if I never went to church or said my prayers’ – as became the case with him for some time – ‘there remained in me none the less a Christian insight without which I don’t think I could have passed through the worst period of pain, when everything was a black nothing.’ No doubt this is true, but it cannot be said that, as the story is told, any reader who is not already some kind of Christian is likely to feel that he should put himself to school.

When he was, by whatever means, ‘raised from the dead’, Williams began to consider ‘what to do about sex’ and during the next few years he ‘slept with several men, in each case fairly regularly’. This was ‘one central area’ of his life in which he ‘told all babbling churchmen to go to hell’. He ‘fell deeply in love’ twice after the disastrous affair that ended in his breakdown. He says: ‘I longed desperately to share my life with another person, which for me had to mean another man.’ In this he never succeeded. Nonetheless, his last l2years at Trinity were ‘a very happy period indeed’. He was tutor and Dean of Chapel. This meant, as he says, that he ‘was never entirely certain’ what his position was ‘in terms of ecclesiastical law’. At least he was not under the jurisdiction of any bishop, as apparently college chaplains in general are not: this is one of the curiosities of the Establishment, and presumably where there are no ecclesiastical superiors there can be no indiscipline. There is a good deal more about these Cambridge years, parties, fun with ginny clerics at a folk mass, the arrival of Rab Butler from the great world outside. Butler could be felt, it seems, as ‘a bit of a threat’ to the assumption that ‘the scene to which you yourself belong is superior to all others’.

What does it all amount to? A mass of anecdotes, swirling around a figure who is perceived rather dimly making his way through them. One has, so to speak, to eat a lot of superbly served cucumber sandwiches at Trinity, to admire more than one wants to the moral superiority of the English community in Tangier and smile with a lot of liberated clerics, as well as read one’s way through a number of restatements of Christian belief which amount to precious little in the end. Williams makes great play throughout of being the enemy of every kind of churchiness, but really this can keep you going only if you have a large stock of churchiness – as he had – to begin with.