For almost thirty years, E. Lyall Williams was the much-loved principal of our theological college at Glen Iris, one of Melbourne’s leafy south-eastern suburbs.
But I wasn’t impressed with his approach to our first-year class; when seventeen of us sat in a semi-circle, taking turns to share our experience. This was so he might assess our suitability for student pastoral appointments. As a trained interviewer and employment counsellor, I was appalled at the lack of privacy, and that he never bothered to make any notes.
I was too professional to raise my dismay at the time, but I did complain to my room-mate Peter, a third year student.
Peter just smiled and said, “Just wait until you get to know him."
It was only a short wait before I discovered that our principal, whom we called “the Chief,” had a phenomenal memory.
His hair had years earlier abandoned its follicular foundation, and he was an inconspicuous, rotund figure. Yet from behind those thick, horn-rimmed glasses, his eyes sparkled with youthful alertness.
His pastoral warmth endeared him to us, for he desired for us to grow in searching out the truth. He also welcomed interruptions, as in one theology class when a student queried his approach, “Isn’t there a verse that says something like…?”
The Chief grinned in his reply, “Do you mean …?” quoting the particular verse within the context of the four or five verses on both sides of it, with a warmth that invited his questioner to respond with a wry, “Oh, so you know that one, do you?”
He could lecture for weeks without using notes, but we felt that his age might have given him an advantage with details of early church history, since he’d been born so close to those times…
He regularly preached without notes for, as he explained, how could he expect a congregation to remember a sermon afterwards if he could not remember it beforehand?
We once asked him about this skill over lunch in the college dining room. He responded with a story of a curate who learned that the bishop was coming to hear his first sermon and would be staying for lunch. Eager to impress, the curate’s sermon was totally-scripted. But the bishop only offered his verdict when pressed: “I saw only three faults: firstly, you read it; secondly, you didn’t read it well; and thirdly, it wasn’t really worth reading!”
He also exemplified the maxim “healthy body, healthy mind,” by embracing and encouraging all students to participate in weekly sports. Having succeeded in Aussie Rules football, a high-contact sport, he never held back.
At one inter-college game of football, with the opposing college faculty members watching, their principal asked them, “Who is that bald, elderly fellow with the bandy legs? He’s running rings round all the younger men!”
When they replied, “That’s their principal,” he was amazed that his friend and colleague could still be actively playing at fifty-three years of age…
Yet the Chief’s greatest attribute was how he lived out Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger,” he never opted for checking the overreaction box when tensions rose.
One student, who seemed to embody a personal odyssey to annoy and sundry, was again getting under everyone’s skin. During an early church history class, when questioning the rise of the clergy in the early church, he kept using a hard “g”—as in “gate”—instead of the normal soft “g”—as in “general.” Quickly sensing everyone’s irritation, the Chief inquired about his reason for this innovation, to be told that it did not really matter. He gently pressed him. “Well then, since c-l-e-r-g-y may now to be pronounced that way, do you propose we call this institution a theological colligg?”
As students, we were blessed to know him, but his stance on church co-operation and working towards peace antagonised those with more dogmatic or sectarian views. One of them once wrote him a letter, typing the envelope in red ribbon, “To Judas Iscariot, Glen Iris!”
Providing yet another example of Proverbs 15:1, the Chief told us, “The most embarrassing thing about that letter was that it found me…”
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