Frailty, thy name is Williamson

When the Reverend Lucy Winkett was appointed a canon at St Paul's Cathedral, it was a first, and a cause for some celebration. But to Paul Williamson, most tireless adversary of women priests, it was yet again time to go to court. By Andrew Brown

History repeats itself, as is well-known. But sometimes it has help. The Rev Paul Williamson, priest in Charge of Hanwell, west London, is the man who walks along behind the Church of England's struggle over women priests, repeating it as farce. Last week it became known that he had sued the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral for appointing a woman as a minor canon. Other protesters were more worked up about the cathedral's decision to accept sponsorship from a firm of arms merchants; but for Mr Williamson, the ordination of women is a breach of the British constitution.

Over the past three years he has launched uncountable law suits against various organs of the Church of England in an attempt to beat back the threat of women priests, or priestesses, as he calls them. The most famous was when he attempted to have both archbishops arraigned for treason in a magistrate's court in west London. More than a dozen of his cases have been heard in court. The Church of England has spent just under pounds 70,000 fighting them off.

The woman who is the latest target of his litigation, the Rev Lucy Winkett, 29, has been described as the Sidney Poitier of women priests: bright, good-looking, young, and with an interesting personal history, she was a perfect candidate to be the first woman to breach the sanctuary of St Paul's Cathedral under its new dean, the Very Rev John Moses, who had discovered her when he was Dean of Chelmsford and St Paul's, under the Very Rev Eric Evans, was part of the general diocesan resistance to women priests. Miss Winkett, a Cambridge graduate, first came to national prominence when she was one of the theological students featured in a television documentary on Queen's College, Birmingham. She had turned towards ordination after her boyfriend was killed in an accident in the French Alps, though she denies any simple connection between these two events.

Mr Williamson generally represents himself, which keeps his costs down. He is undaunted by the array of expensive legal talent opposing him: at one press conference, held jointly with Ian Paisley, he opened proceedings by waving a packet of papers and saying "That's what I sent to the Lord Chancellor, telling him why he was wrong in law."

At the root of his endless litigation is a serious point of law, which was resolved by a case about a year before he brought his first; whether the Church of England's General Synod was legally competent to change the interpretations of doctrine in the Church of England so that women could be ordained as priests. The General Synod is the only body outside parliament which can make English law; and though parliament must approve the laws the synod proposes, it can only approve them or reject them entire. It may not modify them. Those powers derive from an act passed in 1919, which set up the Church Assembly, the predecessor to the General Synod. There can be little doubt that the parliament which set up the Church Assembly did not meant thereby to allow for the ordination of women; and in 1992, after the General Synod had decided in principle to put forward legislation saying women might be priests, the vote was challenged in the High Court on exactly those grounds.

The High Court, decided, however, that the doctrine of the Church of England was whatever the General Synod declared it to be, so that if the General Synod declared itself in favour of women priests, the doctrine of the Church of England allowed them.

All of Mr Williamson's suits have been based on ignoring that decision, and so claiming that the ordination of women is contrary to the doctrine of the Church, which remains quite deeply embedded in the constitution. Even if no one any longer has to believe what the Church of England teaches, the Queen promised at her coronation to "maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof".

By urging her to sign a law permitting the ordination of women, Mr Williamson argued in his treason case, the archbishops, as presidents of the General Synod, were urging her to break her coronation oath, and were thus guilty of treason themselves. That particular twist in the argument is unique, so far as I know, to the 47-year-old priest. But it attracted the interest of that other scholar of constitutional arcana, the Rev Dr Ian Paisley, who gave a press conference with Mr Williamson last autumn to announce that the British constitution was in danger. Mr Paisley, of course, does not believe in priests of any sort. But he believes a great deal in the Protestant settlement, and the Church of England's change of course over women priests seemed to him to prefigure a possible change of course over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

Mr Paisley's interest in such manoeuvring is obvious. It is more difficult to now what keeps Mr Williamson going, apart from an unquenchable self- confidence and a love of publicity. He is the only man I know who writes regularly to the press in green ink though his latest letter is signed in blue. It is typical in its mixture of formality and grovelling for publicity. "You will see from the enclosed Court case that I, among many others, take the gravest exception to having a priestess thrust upon our cathedral when this diocese voted against priestesses." Within four paragraphs had got to: "I should very much like to give you an interview, and am happy to be photographer. I am available from Monday afternoon onwards."

But he wasn't: a call to the vicarage produced the information that he had gone on a week's holiday at the urging of his bishop. Some of his parishioners speak well of him as an energetic priest, whatever his opinions. None the less, he is only a priest in charge, employed on a contract, not a vicar or a rector with tenure; it seems improbable that he will serve for much longer. The Legal Counsel of the General Synod is considering an application to the Attorney General to have him declared a vexatious litigant, which would mean he could no longer bring any law suits at all. Numerous orders for costs have been made against him, but he has no means of paying them.

London was always the place where the Church of England's civil war over women was most fiercely fought, since it had the highest concentrations of women priests and of their irreconcilable opponents. The city is divided into two dioceses, Southwark, south of the Thames, where the traditionalists feel themselves an embattled minority, and London, north of the Thames, where they are most strongly organised. The bishops of London, whose cathedral St Paul's is, have for the past 17 years held the extra, unofficial post of the Bishop against Women; the present bishop, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, ordains neither women nor men because he does not recognise women as priests, but it not prepared to discriminate against them by ordaining men alone. So Miss Winkett's appointment did mark an important symbolic breach in the traditionalists' rampart, and was immediately followed by the announcement by one the cathedral's most senior canons, John Halliburton, that he would not recognise, nor share in, her priestly work. To this, she responded, just like Sidney Poitier in Look Who's Coming to Dinner, that she recognised the pain on both sides of the argument, and was looking forward to helping to heal it.

The serious action, however, is elsewhere. Bishop Chartres was Bishop of Stepney, one of the four assistants to the Bishop of London, before he was promoted. To replace himself in that post, he appointed the Rt Rev John Sentamu, a supporter of women priests, at whose consecration Mr Williamson rose and made a little speech of protest. But at the same ceremony, the Rt Rev John Broadhurst was consecrated Bishop of Fulham, another of the Bishop of London's assistants. The Bishop of Fulham is much the most able and far-sighted opponent of women priests, and the chief organiser of priestly resistance to their advance. As Bishop of Fulham, he is in charge of morale and appointments among the opponents throughout the capital; and working without any publicity he will do far more to keep a male priesthood than any amount of Mr Williamson's court cases.

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