Obituary: The Rev Glen Garfield Williams

Brian G. Cooper
Wednesday 20 April 1994 23:02

Glen Garfield Williams, minister of the church: born Newport, Monmouthshire 14 September 1923; Minister, Dagnall Street Baptist Church, St Albans 1955- 59; European Area Secretary, World Council of Churches, Geneva 1959-68; General Secretary, Conference of European Churches 1968-86; married 1945 Velia Baglio; died Geneva 28 March 1994.

GLEN GARFIELD WILLIAMS was a champion of Christian ecumenism and the secretary for 25 years of the Conference of European Churches.

He was born in 1923 at Newport, Monmouthshire, the son of a local businessman, JD Williams, a noted lay preacher around the region's English-speaking Baptist chapels. Williams was brought up in family piety at the Duckpool Baptist Church, Newport, there professing believer's baptism at the age of 14. From 1947 to 1953 he trained for the baptist ministry at the South Wales Baptist College, Cardiff, obtaining both the Bachelorate of Arts and post-graduate Bachelorate of Divinity of the University of Wales. A dedicated student of theology, he went on to gain both the London University Bachelorate of Divinity and a Doctorate in Theology at the University of Tubingen in Germany.

His only pastorate was at Dagnall Street Baptist Church, in St Albans, from 1955 to 1959, though while a Cardiff student he undertook summer pastorates at Hengoed Tabernacle, where he is remembered with much affection. He returned there in later years as a visiting preacher while on holiday from his international duties.

Williams's vocation to Christian ecumenism across the whole of Europe began in 1959 with his work as European Area Secretary in the Inter-Church Aid Department of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva. Two years later, the then WCC General Secretary, Dr Visser t'Hooft, recognising his outstanding organising and diplomatic skills, persuaded Williams to devote half his time to the then emerging regional ecumenical organisation for Europe, the Conference of European Churches (CEC).

His twin commitment to Europe and ecumenism, his rare diplomatic skills, and deep sensitivity to the rich diversity of Europe's Christian traditions, enabled Williams to put the CEC on a very firm footing. It could not be done on a part-time basis: appointed full-time General Secretary in 1968, he occupied this post until his retirement in 1986. During these three decades of his stewardship, the CEC's membership expanded to some 120 churches right across Europe: Anglicans, Lutherans from Germany, Scandinavia and across Central Europe, Presbyterian and Reformed churches from Scotland to Hungary, Orthodox from the then Soviet Union and Balkan states, Methodists, Baptists and other Free Churches and Old Catholics. He used to joke: 'Because I am a Welsh Baptist no one feels threatened by me.' To construct and sustain such a comprehensive ecumenical fellowship of the non-Roman churches was a remarkable achievement, doubly so at a time when Europe was deeply divided by the Cold War.

Williams was determined that Europe's churches should not be divided in their fellowship by the Iron Curtain. He travelled tirelessly to persuade churches in the Communist states to participate fully in CEC deliberations, which embraced not only doctrinal, liturgical and ecclesial issues but also Christian prophetic statements on European peace and security. He would not countenance any CEC assembly without a full East European church presence and sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to achieve this.

In 1964, when German Democratic Republic (East Germany) passports were not accepted in the West, he chartered a Danish ship, the Bornholm, so that the CEC assembly could be held in international waters with a full complement of participants. Believing that the Christian gospel of reconciliation was urgently relevant in a Europe divided militarily and ideologically, he saw the CEC as both an ecumenical fellowship and a Christian bridge across the East-West divide. Regarding the Helsinki Final Act, the protocol resulting from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe as extremely important for Europe's future peace he both initiated several CEC peace study programmes in support of the CSCE process and arranged joint projects with the Prague-based Christian Peace Conference. He himself regularly warned of the dangers of nuclear war.

Deeply aware that no European ecumenism could be complete without involving the Roman Catholic Church, he established ever closer contacts with the Roman Catholic Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEE) which led to a highly successful series of CEC- CCEE ecumenical encounters from 1974 onwards.

His commanding stature, amiable disposition, his fluency in several European languages, and above all his capable and challenging preaching style made him very welcome in pulpits across the Continent.

After organising and leading the CEC assembly at Stirling, Scotland in 1986, he retired, leaving the CEC a trusted, vigorous and forward- looking organisation. He was also honorary vice-president of the International Christian Action for East-West Reconciliation network from 1980 to 1986.

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