Born in 1940 to an affluent family, Richard Nelson Williamson grew up amongst the rolling green hills of southern England. He studied at Winchester and Cambridge, where he is said to have been a stylish undergraduate, fond of red wine, bridge and Beethoven. He embarked on a teaching career, initially in Ghana and then (from 1965 to 1970) at the prestigious St Paul's School in London. The school magazine described him as energetic, witty, opinionated and prejudiced.
Williamson became a Catholic in 1971, and immediately began to pursue a vocation to the priesthood. It is reported that he signed up with the conservative London Oratory almost immediately after converting, only to be given the brush off soon afterwards, and that he failed the 1972 selection conference for St John's Seminary in Wonersh. At some point, he hooked up with the rebel ultra-traditionalist prelate Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and he entered Lefebvre's seminary in Switzerland in 1972. It is said that he believed in this period that the Pope had fallen into heresy and was therefore no longer the Pope (a position that became known as "sedevacantism"). This stance ran contrary to the SSPX's official line, and Williamson seems to have been talked out of it by Lefebvre. He was finally ordained a priest in 1976.
Williamson became one of Lefebvre's right-hand men. His rise through the Society's ranks is credited by some of his former colleagues to his absolute loyalty to the Archbishop, whom he revered as an oracle of God. He was appointed Vice-Rector of the SSPX seminary in Ridgefield, Connecticut. One of his erstwhile colleagues remembers:
In a few weeks, St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, which had been peaceful for five years under Fr. Sanborn was in a complete uproar. “Strife is normal in a seminary,” Fr. Williamson assured the seminarians. Not until you arrived, Father.In 1983, he became Rector of the seminary after the incumbent fell out with Lefebvre over theological issues. In 1988, he was one of four Society priests chosen by Lefebvre to be consecrated as bishops to ensure the continuity of his ministry. Pope John Paul II ordered Lefebvre not to proceed with the consecrations, and all the clerics involved in the ceremony ended up being excommunicated for violating canon law. Quite why Lefebvre, an experienced senior prelate of the Church, thought that Williamson was episcopal material has never been satisfactorily explained. Some say that Lefebvre was simply a poor judge of character, while others say that the Frenchman wrote off Williamson's more alarming traits as typical English eccentricity.
Lefebvre died in 1991, but for Williamson the vintage years were just beginning. Though he was technically not in charge of the Society's powerful US district, he acted as if he was. From the Rector's chair in the seminary - now relocated to Winona, Minnesota - the colourful Englishman with the immaculately tailored cassock and the cut-glass accent ruled over his seminarians and lay followers with vigour and élan, preaching and teaching, plotting and politicking. He published a periodical circular letter in which he famously told women that they should not wear trousers or go to university; he promoted every conspiracy theory from the Protocols of Zion to 9/11 Truthism; and he solemnly condemned The Sound of Music as a danger to Catholic faith and morals.
Some Society laypeople loved him, coalescing into a devoted Williamson fan club which survives to this day. Others were less impressed with his behaviour. A former seminarian of his recalls:
On this, our first day of class, Bishop Williamson walked into the classroom in a semi-theatrical manner.... The Bishop scrutinized each seminarian, occasionally raising his eyebrows, as if to express disbelief at the array of imbeciles sitting before him. He tersely ordered, “Put away your pens and paper. I want you to think!”....
Bishop Williamson continued the class by drawing a timeline on the board. He explained that history is a series of cycles. God lifts men to a new height of culture and then, within 500 years, civilization descends into decadence. Following a “divine and necessary chastisement,” God once again elevates new heroes, and society begins its next ascent. Modern society, according to the Bishop, was at the end of one of these five-hundred year cycles, and he informed us that God would soon chastise humanity, wiping out a large portion of civilization. This was necessary, he explained, because Catholics had lost their faith and virtue, bringing about the disorder of world-domination by the Jews.
So it was that, sitting in our first class on the first day of our formation to the Catholic Priesthood, we were already being indoctrinated by the rector’s antisemitism.... “Europeans, left to themselves, are not powerful enough to stand up the Jews,” the Bishop told us. “Only when European Catholics return to tradition will the Jews again be subservient to the Catholics, as in the Middle Ages.”
The Bishop explained that a Catholic Pope would come back to power, destroy Modernism, and consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These acts of God would raise man to new heights and there would be peace in the world — for about twenty-five years. After this, man would reinvent computers. Once man began, again, to dabble in technology, he would quickly descend, not in the 500 years it normally takes for a historical cycle, but immediately, into the hands of the Anti-Christ. The Bishop assured us that, although he probably would not live to see the Anti-Christ, all of us would. So much for day one at the seminary.Not everything in the garden was rosy, however. Two developments were in train which would lead to Williamson's estrangement from his colleagues and his very public fall from grace.
The first development took place in July 1994 when the SSPX General Chapter elected Bishop Bernard Fellay as the Society's Superior General. As extremists go, Fellay is relatively level-headed and prudent, and he is said to be a man of genuine spirituality. It was only a matter of time before he clashed with Williamson. Matters were not improved by rumours that Williamson had thought that he would make rather a good Superior General himself, and indeed had been campaigning assiduously to that end.
The second development was the SSPX's pilgrimage to Rome in the Catholic jubilee year of 2000. This event initiated a process of dialogue with the Roman pezzonovanti aimed at ending the SSPX's estrangement from the Vatican - a process which continues to this day and which, as we will see, has caused no end of trouble. Williamson, a man who thinks in black-and-white absolutes, set his face against any rapprochement from the start. For him, there was no question of the SSPX reconciling with Rome - it was for Rome to reconcile with the SSPX.
By 2003, Fellay was sufficiently concerned at Williamson's antics to remove him from his position at Winona. Instead, he appointed him to a relatively obscure position as Rector of the Society's seminary in La Reja, Argentina (Williamson speaks several languages fluently, including Spanish). With Williamson gone from the United States, his legacy there began to be dismantled. It is said that that most seminarians at the Winona seminary were told to leave.
But Williamson was playing a long game. He committed himself irrevocably to saving the Society from itself - and to undermining his boss. In 2007, he began publishing a regular newsletter entitled Eleison Comments. Fellay ordered him to stop, so he made the newsletter subscription-only. He plotted behind the scenes. He told an Argentine priest not to join the SSPX because it was in danger of caving in to modern liberalism.
Then, in November 2008, he made the worst mistake of his career. He had been on record as a Holocaust denier since 1989, but he had mostly refrained from expressing his views on the subject in public. At this point, however, a Swedish television crew making a documentary about the Society's activities in Sweden persuaded him in an unguarded moment to tell the world that there had been no gas chambers in Nazi Europe and no policy of exterminating the Jews. All hell duly broke loose. Williamson was front-page news around the world. With a German pope who had fought in Hitler's forces, this was not a story that the Vatican wanted on its hands. The Argentine government threw Williamson out of the country, and he was forced to return to his native Britain after his long years of exile. He was met at Heathrow Airport by the right-wing extremist Lady Renouf, at the suggestion of a certain David Irving. Fellay ordered him to keep his mouth shut about politics and to lie low at the SSPX's British headquarters in Wimbledon. Luckily for him, the British district was being run by Fr Paul Morgan, a fellow hardliner who had helped him to make mischief in the United States back in the old days.
Williamson was subsequently prosecuted in Germany for Holocaust denial. To defend himself, he insisted on hiring Wolfram Nahrath, a lawyer with neo-Nazi connections. He had apparently heard about Nahrath "[t]hrough friends". We will have more to say about these "friends" later. Fellay found out about this development by reading about in the newspapers, and threatened to expel Williamson unless he hired a more conventional counsel. The SSPX's own German lawyer, Maximilian Krah, attempted an exercise in damage control by distancing the Society from Williamson and placing an article on the affair in Der Spiegel. This endeavour seems to have gone down particularly badly with the bishop, judging from the furious reaction of his supporters. Some of Williamson's fans on the internet mounted a remarkable campaign of attacks against Krah which only ended when Fellay threatened to take legal action. It was becoming clear that Williamson was not a man to cross.
Williamson's final exit from the Society was precipitated by a new phase in the interminable negotiations with Rome. For a few months - between around September 2011 and July 2012 - it looked as if a deal might be in the offing. The SSPX duly divided into camps of hardliners and softliners, and Williamson eagerly put himself forward as leader of the hardline faction. At some point, he seems to have taken a strategic decision to get himself expelled from the Society by putting Fellay in a position where he had no option other than to remove him. His feud with the Superior General finally broke into the open in October 2011, when a letter from Fellay was leaked on the internet. It emerged that Fellay had ordered him point-blank to stop publishing Eleison Comments, and had threatened him with expulsion if he did not. Fellay also called Williamson out on his political machinations:
There exists in Anglo-saxon circles a network of infiltrators of the SSPX preparing a break-away. You are put forward as the head of this movement, you are the friend of its leaders and you are playing their game.If the letter surprised or disappointed Williamson, he didn't show it. He began to mount open attacks on Fellay and the SSPX leadership in Eleison Comments and in a "conference" in London for supporters. (In the same conference, he memorably described himself as a "conspiracy nut" and attempted to sing "Tiptoe through the Tulips".) Evidence pointed to sensitive documents relating to the negotiations with Rome being leaked by clerics from the British district. Interestingly, leaking confidential documents was one of the things that Fellay had complained about in his letter, and Williamson himself seemed to adopt a remarkably casual attitude to such things.
The bigwigs of the SSPX met at a General Chapter in July 2012 to discuss the negotiations with the Vatican. Williamson was excluded on Fellay's orders - not the first time that he had not been invited to such a meeting. He appealed against this decision to the other Chapter members. The interesting thing is that, even though the decisions of the Chapter were broadly in line with Williamson's anti-agreement stance, his appeal was rejected by 29 votes to 9. In other words, colleagues who agreed with his stance voted against him personally, and by a large majority. It is not clear what lesson, if any, Williamson drew from this result. It is also noteworthy that the other two SSPX bishops whom Lefebvre consecrated in 1988 (an intellectual French aristocrat called Tissier and a Spaniard called de Galarreta) clearly agree with Williamson's hard line - but their public comments have been much more carefully judged. Neither of them have been expelled. After the General Chapter - which he naturally denounced in Eleison Comments - Williamson continued on a frolic of his own. In August, he travelled to Brazil and conferred the sacrament of confirmation on about 100 Catholic ultra-traditionalists. Given that he had no authorisation or mandate from the Society to do so, this was a serious breach of discipline.
Fellay's patience finally ran out in October. He sent Williamson an ultimatum, telling him in essence that he was being expelled unless he agreed to shut up and say sorry for everything. Williamson replied with an open letter (of course) in which he showed the world his true colours. It is an unfortunate document, in a number of respects - the testament of a proud and self-righteous man who is utterly blind to any point of view but his own. He refuses to recognise his expulsion. He has the cheek to accuse Fellay of being dictatorial, and calls on him to resign. He reveals that he has neither forgiven not forgotten his enforced transfer from the US in 2003 and his order to "moulder in a London attic" after his Holocaust interview. He lectures Fellay on "the number of souls that hang on to the “[Eleison] Comments” as they would to a lifebelt". He justifies his disobedience in terms of defence of the Catholic faith - the same defence that all ultra-traditionalists from Lefebvre onwards have always used to justify doing whatever they want to do at any given time. It is a sad letter. His supporters loved it. In an edition of Eleison Comments modestly entitled "Momentous Decision", Williamson told his crew - essaying the American vernacular from his Winona days - "Hang tight, everybody. We are in for one "helluva" ride. Let's just make that a ride to Heaven!".
Williamson has a dedicated band of supporters on the internet, associated in particular with two extremist Catholic forums called Cathinfo and Ignis Ardens. It is said that these people include a group of BNP-style political extreme rightists who are associated with the London church of Saints Joseph and Padarn, and who appear to be mistrusted by other rank-and-file Society parishioners. Anecdotal evidence suggests that attendance at SSPX Masses in Britain is falling as moderate traditionalists switch to worshipping in more mainstream churches. Meanwhile, the Williamson fan club in the US is still going strong. Prominent in it is a young businessman called Stephen Heiner, who has apparently swallowed Williamson's take on things hook, line and sinker and seems to act as his general vicar on earth. An American address associated with fundraising for Williamson has been linked with John Sharpe, a publisher, who has been described as an antisemite. Speaking of publishing, Williamson's fan base continue to buy collected copies of his letters and sermons in book and CD form.
It isn't clear exactly what Williamson is going to do now. The SSPX will probably never have him back, even if Fellay leaves the Superior General's chair. Only two other clerics have left the SSPX in protest at the negotiations with Rome, a couple of hotheads called Fr Pfeiffer and Fr Chazal. For the present, Williamson is allowing himself to be associated with an enigmatic enterprise called the "St Marcel Initiative" (Marcel was the name of an early Christian saint - it was also the forename of Williamson's hero Lefebvre). He is asking for money and hinting that he is going to consecrate bishops to succeed him. In his latest Eleison Comments, he writes:
I think – I may be wrong – that [God] wants a loose network of independent pockets of Resistance, gathered around the Mass, freely contacting one another, but with no structure of false obedience such as served to sink the mainstream Church in the 1960’s, and is now sinking the Society of St Pius X. If you agree, by all means make contributions to the St Marcel Initiative because they will certainly come in useful, maybe sooner than I think. For myself, as soon as my situation stabilizes in England, I am ready to put my bishop’s powers at the disposal of whoever can make wise use of them.This freewheeling, congregationalist ecclesiology is profoundly Protestant. So it looks like Williamson has finally careered out of the Catholic Church - if he was ever truly in it.