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Frederick Boyd Williams (1939-2006): Prophet, Pastor, Priest

George W. Brandt, Jr.

As the politicians say, I must declare an interest. Frederick Boyd Williams was my close personal friend and mentor for thirty-eight years. To Fred this collection of the papers and addresses of the Third Afro-Anglican Conference is dedicated. Fred was one of the leaders of the Episcopal Church who early on saw the need to bring together and encourage Anglican men and women of the African Diaspora during times of rapid and difficult change. There have been astonishing developments in the Communion by and about Africa and the sons and daughters of Africa in the years since Fred was ordained in 1963. So much has happened and in so much of what happened, Fred was involved.

What an extraordinary journey for a precocious young Black man who grew up in the segregated South in a family of farmers and teachers. He was reared in two religious traditions, Baptist and Episcopalian, and in the segregated reality of the latter in the Diocese of Tennessee. Fred was always at home with leaders from all Christian traditions; his preaching was distinctly not staid while his liturgical style reflected the deeply Anglo-Catholic roots of the Black Church in Tennessee.

When such a young man has a gift for mathematics, what happens to him depends on early influences. Fred was blessed to be sent at age sixteen to Morehouse College in Atlanta, which was then under the leadership of the legendary Benjamin Mayes. It looked as though a doctoral degree in mathematics was in store--my memory is flawed at this remove--but I recall Fred saying that he had been accepted in the graduate program in math at Columbia.

God determined otherwise and Fred entered General Seminary as a postulant from Tennessee in 1960. Fred’s student experiences in New York, the Virgin Islands, and as a Winant Fellow in the United Kingdom exposed him to the “great world” of Anglicanism in the early 1960s. Yet it was still a very segregated world in the United States and like many Black ordinands, he was obliged to seek work among “his people” upon graduation. So, also like many Black folks in white institutions, he lived and experienced life not as a uniformity but as a layer cake of often conflicted realities: Black, white, and in-between.

So Fred came to serve his curacy at historic St. Luke’s, Washington, and also to serve in prison ministry. He was at St. Luke’s at the time of the great March on Washington which culminated in Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

As the 1960s heated up, Fred became Vicar and first Rector of St. Clement’s parish in Inkster, Michigan. It was there that his leadership abilities became apparent to a wider circle and flourished. His work both in the Diocese of Michigan and in the wider community with Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams expanded as racial tensions increased all over the country.

By this time, Fred was traveling to, and coming to know, Africa. His reputation for leadership and courage and experience led him to the Presidency of the Union of Black Clergy and Laity of the Episcopal Church (UBCL, now the Union of Black Episcopalians).

It was at this time that I met Fred in the apartment of Bishop Walter Dennis, then a Canon of St. John the Divine; I had just returned home to New York to practice law. Fred could be charming, maddening, outrageous and exasperating, but one’s first meeting with him was always exhilarating and intellectually stimulating. We had a number of conversations subsequent to that meeting and he then asked me to be Counsel to the UBCL which I did with some trepidation. I was a very green lawyer prosecuting for the Securities and Exchange Commission. As I look back, that service may have been inappropriate.

Fred’s intellectual development had continued all through this turbulent period. He was very proud of his participation in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Fellows Program at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, where he studied with a number of distinguished Black pastors, among them Wyatt Tee Walker, Jr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. This kept him in touch with the Black Church beyond the borders of the Episcopal Church and made him a highly regarded if occasionally controversial leader in the Episcopal Church. The stories are legion about Fred’s powerful and sometimes provocative participation in several General Conventions, especially the special convention at South Bend in 1967 and the General Convention at Houston in 1970.

Provocative, brilliant, focused, relentless, more than occasionally outrageous, Fred was urgent in the quest for openness and equality for all in the church. He saw to the advancement of people of color to positions of influence in the high councils of the church. I for one was appointed to the Standing Commission on Structure from 1970 to 1976, and there were many others like me.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I became active at the then Chapel of the Intercession of Trinity Parish. When the Rector, Robert Ray Parks, began a search for a new Vicar, he asked me to chair a search committee. The process of that committee led us ultimately to urge the appointment of Fred as Vicar in 1973. Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., had advised Dr. Parks that Fred’s appointment would make for a “spicy brew.” Indeed it did.

Over the thirty-three years of Fred’s leadership at the Intercession, the church and the city changed in ways no one could have imagined. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the ecology movement, the Vietnam War, AIDS, the rise of independent African states, and the rise of new vigorous African provinces of Anglicanism--all of these powerful developments affected the Intercession and Fred’s ministry there from 1973 to 2005.

I vividly remember when Intercession gave shelter to five Ugandan bishops who had escaped Idi Amin’s regime with only the clothes on their backs. And Fred was constant in insisting that visiting African prelates and other visitors come to the Intercession instead of always being f

 
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