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William Watkins – priest, hymn writer, ecumenist, reconciler

William Watkins

The Revd Canon William Hywel Watkins CStJ was born in Aberystwyth on 1 September 1936 and died there of pancreatic cancer on 13 July 2018. For forty years he served the Church of Wales as a parish priest, rural dean and Chapter Canon in South and West Wales, a region he fondly called ‘the periphery of the periphery’.

Watkins took great pride in his hometown, Llanbadarn Fawr, an important centre of early Welsh Christianity. He was schooled at nearby Ardwyn Grammar School Aberystwyth, and read history at St David’s College Lampeter, before proceeding to Wycliffe Hall Oxford in 1958 to read theology as an ordination candidate for the Diocese of St Davids. Deaconed at St Davids Cathedral by Bishop John Richards in May 1961 and priested the following June, he served a seven-year curacy in Llanelli. He was appointed vicar of Llwynhendy in Carmarthenshire in 1968. Ten years later, in 1978, he was made vicar of the Benefice of Uzmaston with Slebech and Boulston where he ministered until his retirement. From 1987 he was rural dean of Daugleddau and, in 1993, was made a member of the Chapter of St Davids Cathedral, occupying the stall of St Nicholas. In 2001, he retired to his family home on the ‘Costa Ystwyth’, as he called it, and was delighted to be able to rekindle old friendships in Cardiganshire.

Watkins was deeply committed to the ministry and outreach of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem and, in 2000, was invested as Commander of the Order. From the twelfth century until the dissolution of monasteries, his parish Slebech had served as the West Wales headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller of St John. During his incumbency, the village’s ancient association with the Order was reinvigorated by regular St John’s-tide outdoor services in the picturesque ruined Hospitaller church on the Eastern Cleddau River. A gifted hymnodist, Watkins contributed many modern hymns for use by the members and cadets of the Order of St John, and throughout the wider diocese of St Davids. His ear for matching contemporary words to traditional and popular tunes was so much appreciated by his parishioners that one them challenged the vicar to write new words to Edelweissfrom the Sound of Music. He gladly accepted the challenge, he recalled: ‘I wrote a lovely hymn for the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’. His hymns celebrated the joy of salvation and the gladness that can be found in Christian service, and echoed the melodies and poetry of his own rich life.

An eager student of German, his commitment to post-war reconciliation was kindled at school. He first became aware of German opposition to the Nazi regime during the War: his German teacher at Ardwyn, Fräulein Einhorn, had fled the persecution of Jews and settled in West Wales. His recollection of her nickname for him, Starrkopf(stubborn boy), was as indelible a memory as his great sympathy for the plight of his teacher and her fellow Nazi victims. At university he sought out German students and made lifelong friends. Later, as a priest, he established similarly strong links with church leaders in the Evangelische Kirche of Bavaria and Baden, the twin state of Wales. A regular visitor to Germany, he shared in ecumenical worship and preached at the Church of the Resurrection, Pforzheim, the ‘Dresden of South-West Germany’. Built from rubble following the 1945 aerial bombardment that obliterated most of the city, the church was named for the new and liberated life that was able to emerge following the fall of the Nazi regime. For Watkins, the lasting physical and psychological scars for the people of Dresden and Pforzheim and other theatres of the Second World War were living memorials to the evils of war that further fuelled his own engagement in reconciliation.

His principal contribution to the work of international understanding, however, was opening his Vicarage to countless overseas visitors. Watkins was an attentive host, generous with his time, and proud of his ever-widening circle of ‘scattered and very dear friends around the world’, as he affectionately described us. There, on the quiet banks of the Western Cleddau river and, later, at his ‘Little Grey Home in the West’, he shaped a community of friends with whom he shared in laughter, poetry and music, discussion and prayer. Even when we had returned to our homes, he celebrated the enduring values of friendship and faith in his regular missives. ‘Politics always seems to end up in tears’, he wrote to me following the Brexit referendum: ‘for me, the Christian faith has so much more to offer’. It is in this faith, and to the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection that we commit him.

The Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe OStJ
Dean of Melbourne

Sovereignty that saves lives

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Here is what I wrote to the Editor of The Age today:

From the beginning, Operation Sovereign Borders has been hampered by serious issues of neglect: first overlooking the extent of Australia’s maritime borders, then disregarding that sovereignty comes with responsibilities as much as with rights.

Exercising sovereignty means ensuring that those who claim asylum will be safer in our care than in the circumstances they fled. Yesterday, St Paul’s Cathedral was lit up by the lights of thousands who demonstrated the kind of sovereignty that many Australians want: one that makes certain that no one will die in Australia’s care.

Photo credit: ASRC1

Refugee Banner stays until Asylum Politics change

The St Paul’s Cathedral banner encouraging Melburnians to “fully welcome refugees” will remain until Australia’s “inhumane and demeaning” asylum policies change, says the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe.

Dean Andreas made this statement following creditable claims by asylum seekers that they were taken up by an Australian naval vessel and placed in a lifeboat with written instructions to return to Indonesia. News sources claim that the first such documented group of asylum seekers to be transferred into a lifeboat received an assurance that they would be transferred to offshore detention on Christmas Island. The asylum seekers’ claims have not been denied by the Minister for Immigration.

The Dean said: “I am convinced that future generations of Australians will judge this policy for what it is: inhumane to those seeking our protection, and demeaning to Australia as a nation. These actions will not only be judged by our children and grandchildren but by God himself. Christ’s judgement will be based on a simple measure: ‘What you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done to me’ (St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 verse 40).”

Dean Andreas confirmed that the Cathedral’s banner to invite people to welcome refugees fully would remain in place until Australia’s asylum policies were substantially revised. “In August, St Paul’s Cathedral placed a large-scale banner on its South-west spire, challenging our politicians to ‘fully welcome refugees’. This banner will remain there as a daily reminder and appeal, until these policies change.”

Last August, Dean Andreas said the seven-metre banner had been installed in conjunction with a leading Anglican agency, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, because of the Cathedral’s existing connections with asylum seekers and refugees. “We exercise a ministry of welcome to them through our successful English as a Second Language Programs,” he said at the time. “Twice a week recent arrivals to our shores meet at St Paul’s. Our program enables them not only to improve their understanding of Australia and English, but also provides a platform for them to share their stories of past hardship, and to give voice to their hope for a better future. All hope to become fully integrated members of our society, committed to life in Australia.”

Archived news articles about the placement of the banner can be found here.