By Fr. Sean McDermott
Being an election year, politics are ramped up and virtually inescapable. Yet, one can readily admit that, even without an election, we live in a hyper-politicized world in which all actions are considered equally political actions. It is hard to do anything without being labelled as one party or another. Criticism is readily available, charity is harder to come by. This environment is certainly not Christian, nor does it reflect the many joyful, loving, and thriving Anglo-Catholic parishes and priests around the world. I highly recommend looking back at the life of a wonderful, albeit forgotten Anglo-Catholic priest, Fr. Joseph Williamson.
Re-reading his autobiography, Fr. Joe, during the tumultuous 2020, I was struck by his commitment to the kingdom of God over and above the political and earthly kingdoms in which he lived. Fr. Joe is a great reminder that charity moves us to action to help our fellow man rather than politics and that our commitment to God’s kingdom comes before any other kingdom. With his life rooted in prayer and the liturgy, Fr. Joe transformed the parish in which he worked: the same neighborhood in which he was born.
Fr. Joe grew up in poverty in Poplar, a suburb on the East side of London, in 1895. After his father died in a shipyard accident when he was three, his mother raised eight children in a tiny apartment, working a variety of jobs to provide for them. Even though he went to school, he was so malnourished and hungry, little learning happened. The neighborhood kids passed time playing street games such as rugby and boxing and Fr. Joe, scrawny and short as he was, proved to be a tough boy -- he recounted the story of holding off the school bully for five straight nights boxing. This toughness helped him as he joined the army in WWI, where he learned discipline and a good work ethic.
Fr. Joe’s account of his childhood and poverty, however, are not given in order to raise sympathy but to help the reader understand the people he wanted help and the sheer improbability of his own priesthood. At the time Fr. Joe lived and worked, it was extremely difficult to become clergy if you were not born into a certain class and had certain educational opportunities. He explains: “On the whole the clergy were respected and feared. As a body they belonged to the privileged classes, being gentlemen by birth and education. Real education was a closed shop and a formidable barrier separated the haves and have-nots. Against every kind of social convention I was put into this privileged band” (109).
Getting into this privileged band was not easy. The first half of the book details his struggle to become ordained. He had no money and little education, and though his experience in the army helped him immensely, Fr. Joe still faced tremendous bias against the poor. He recounts the first time he approached his local vicar to tell him about his felt vocation: “The vicar said, “What do you want?” I told him who I was and very, very quietly I said I felt I was called to the Ministry. He looked down at me from a great height, for he had the advantage of the vicarage doorstep as well as his own six foot odd. He said, “How interesting,” and I think he said “Good morning.” Anyhow, he shut the door (97).” This vicar did not even consider Joe due to his poverty, and he had to fight against this bias time and time again.
However, several wise, kind, and patient priests and bishops intervened on Joe’s behalf. Because of his childhood, Fr. Joe entered seminary not just with little to no theology, but with a deficiency in reading, arithmetic, and logic. The system at the time did not support such a student, but priests and professors were patient enough to work with Fr. Joe in order to help him get through.
His first years of his diaconate “were for the most part sheer hell for me and others.” At a parish that did not accept his background, with a vicar who did not support him, Fr. Joe went on to be ordained to the priesthood and served in different ministries, including the army again, before returning home to East London at St. Paul’s Dock Street, Stephney in 1952.
Fr. Joe’s work in Stephney is notable for three reasons. First, Fr. Joe brought solid Anglo-Catholic practice to an evangelical parish. He emphasized the daily Mass, instituted a Sung Mass, installed stations of the cross, and started the famous Good Friday procession all around of Stephney. The whole area witnessed Fr. Joe’s presence, and these rituals helped bring revival to his church.
Second, Fr. Joe brought much needed reform to the horrible housing situation in Stephney. He used his sermons and newsletters and the national press to bring attention to the problem; once acknowledged, the local government agreed to tear down the decrepit row houses and build suitable housing. His love for the people in his parish drove him on this mission. Fr. Joe was not a political man--his rhetoric and strategies often hindered his progress--but his passion brought his dreams to fruition. In fact, Fr. Joe was a devoted royalist and anti-communist, but he had to reach far beyond these political loyalties in order to do what was best for his people. In the end, he was the one who ended up with support from all sides--that is, from all sides except the thugs.
Third, Fr. Joe started a ministry helping women in Stephney escape prostitution. His work began after an abrupt meeting with a prostitute named Mary: “I was making my way towards the vicarage through Cable Street, and was suddenly aware of someone swearing at me good and proper: ‘It’s just because I am a bloody prostitute that you pass me by.’ [. . . ] Mary came up to me and I shook her by the hand. I think I must have seen her as she had been when she was young and indeed beautiful, for she had dark hair and really lovely eyes and features. [. . .] ‘I have brought you a present, Father.’ Like the rest of the Cable Street prostitutes, she was obviously near the gutter of poverty. As I felt wanted to be on the right side of the giving, I told her, ‘I don’t want your present.’ Hardly had I got the words out when I got another well-dressed cursing. So I said, ‘Give me your present, what have you got for me?’ It was a small box of chocolates, but the nature of the gift doesn’t matter. What does matter is that in accepting Mary’s present, I accepted my commission from God to do all I could for prostitutes for the rest of my days.”
Fr. Joe kept his promise. He raised money and support to open Church House, a rescue home for prostitutes. There they provided a safe place for women, six at a time. The women were allowed to come and go as they liked, but were given employment help, basic necessities, medical aid, and meals each day. Church House saved countless women from the hold of prostitution, and Fr. Joe went on to begin four such homes.
Fr. Joe’s example provides for us a vivid portrait of one way the priesthood may be lived out. We live, of course, under different circumstances and times, but we have taken the same priestly vows and are under the same law of charity. All of our parishes have people in need of something. It might not be the need of a warm meal or protection, but when we find those needs, we should work like Fr. Joe, reaching out in love and earnestness. These are the motivations for our actions--political stereotypes and pressures need not stop the work of the Church.
What a marvelous priest and a brilliant life. May we never forget his story and example! Pray for us, Fr. Joe!
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.