From The Guardian, by Hugh Williamson: "My father, Canon Tony Williamson, who has died aged 85, was one of Britain’s leading “worker priests”, seeing his job as a forklift driver in a car factory as his Christian calling. A lifelong activist, he was a Labour politician, lord mayor of Oxford, and trade unionist for more than 60 years.
In 1960 Tony became the first Anglican priest to be ordained while in factory work. He was a founder of the Worker Church Group, a network of clergy and their spouses inspired by French Catholic priests who had taken factory jobs. Tony was a pioneer in this group, in taking on prominent political and trade union roles.
During Britain’s postwar boom, he was incensed that the church was ignoring the alienation of ordinary workers. In a 1961 sermon he said: “Instead of being an individual of the utmost value to God … I am one of 12,000 [Oxford car factory] employees, each easily replaceable. My clock number is 261092.”
Tony was born in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, the youngest of three children of Joe Williamson, an Anglican minister, and Audrey (nee Barnes), a nanny. His father campaigned in the 1950s in east London to clear slums and open refuges for prostitutes, and Tony inherited this instinct for fighting injustice.
After attending Trinity College, Oxford, and theological college at Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire, Tony started work in 1958 at the Pressed Steel car body factory (later part of British Leyland and Rover) in Cowley, an Oxford suburb. His workmates treated him as a colleague and he saw his worker priest role as solving practical problems. He was a union leader at a time of industrial conflict and UK car industry decline, chairing the largest branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union for 16 years.
Always well briefed, Tony was a housing expert on Oxford city council between 1961 and 1988. In 1977 he was appointed OBE. He became Oxford council leader and joint leader of Oxfordshire county council. As lord mayor in 1982-83, he mixed civic duties with clocking in at 7.15am daily at Pressed Steel.
In 1959 he had married Barbara Freeman, a careers adviser, and they had four children. She shared his life fully and gave Tony vital advice and support.
Driven by Christian socialism rather than deeper theology, he took church services in Cowley and in Watlington, the Oxfordshire town where he later settled. In 1989 he became Oxford diocesan director of education, managing 270 church schools. Even while living with cancer, in his final weeks he was active as a union representative for the faith workers’ branch of Unite.
Barbara died in 2015. The following year Tony married Jill Sweeny; she died in 2018. Tony is survived by his children, Ruth, Paul, Ian and me, and eight grandchildren."
Courtesy of Tony's son, Hugh, here is the text of an address given by Tony Williamson to the Southward Diocesan Conference of 1961 on the theme of worker-priests.
Hugh Williamson's blog about his father and the wider cause of worker-priests
David Clark's The Kingdom at Work Project has just published its 14th bulletin. In his introduction David writes: Since the collapse of Christendom, the mission of the church within the world of work has been very confused and extremely tentative. One reason for this failure is sociological. Engagement with communities of place, on which the parish system was founded, has continued to dominate the use of the church’s human and economic resources. However, after the industrial and, more recently, technological revolution, the world of work has spread well beyond parish boundaries with the church finding it extremely difficult to work out new forms of engagement. An even more important reason for the church’s inability to engage effectively with today’s world of work is theological. The church seems unable to decide whether mission in this context is about individual salvation - making disciples; concerned with pastoral support - a ministry of care and counselling; or about institutional transformation - seeking the redemption of the workplace and those economic and social forces which impinge upon it. Thus Christian engagement with the world of work oscillates blindly between setting up work-related groups for prayer and nurture - with the focus on making disciples; putting more and more resources into chaplaincy - with an increasingly pastoral emphasis; or, by far the most neglected of these missiological approaches, equipping lay people to be kingdom community builders in the workplace - mission as communal transformation." Download the bulletin here.
I don't personally know The Revd Paul Nicolson but I admire his work and words in defence of the poor. He has written to The Guardian about some of the issues raised by the work and words of The Revd Prebendary The Lord Stephen Green. In his letter he says "The Rev Stephen Green’s chairmanship of HSBC while legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion were taking place raises important questions for the Church of England about the role of all clergy in secular employment.".
I for one would welcome such questions, though I regret them being triggered by what is essentially a negative reason. The fact is that the church-as-institution has very little interest in those clergy who in obedience to their perceived vocation and reading of the Gospel seek to become priests in secular employment - worker-priests. I have been ordained into such a vocation now for the past 25 years and I have never been asked by any bishop or archdeacon or director of ministry or CMD why that was, how I understand it, what it has meant or the successes or failures of such a calling. In an email to me one bishop complained that such clergy 'bleat' about how they are ignored and sidelined. I wonder why that impression might arise?
Maggie Ross in Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spirtual Maturity says "education for nonstipendiary ministry [sic] must not be lumped with that of career, administration-oriented ministry. The two must be kept increasingly separate in identity and complementary in service, if institutional Christinaity is to survive".
Why are bishops' officers for non-stipendiary ministry usually appointed from among the stipendiary priests? Would it not be far better if they were appointed from among those priests whom they are supposed to represent?
"There should...be an increasing number of theologians whose vocational position should be in the midst of contemporary society as workers or salaried employees, parliamentarians or journalists, etc, so that they will experience in concrete form what it means to bear responsibility for secular life ...
They should uncover the theological relevance of the most concrete social facts and processes of the sort that can be grasped only by having lived through them with others, deliberated together about them and come to common decisions. ... They would discover for the churches what things in the secular world are 'true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, praiseworthy' and help them to 'think about these things'. (Phil 4:8ff). They would help us 'prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect' ". (Rom 12:2).
(Horst Symanowski, Pastor in the German Confessing Church (The Christian Witness in an Industrial Society 1966) Symanowski worked in a cement factory and in construction for a number of years.
The Rt Revd Tom Slipshod rather regretted the idea of a year-long absence from his See in order to experience the world of work. It had seemed a good idea at the time. Still, only eleven months and two weeks to go.