William Wilberforce Watty: Christian Rabbi SYNOPSIS: MINISTRY OF A CARIBBEAN METHODIST PASTOR
By George Macdonald Mulrain
The title rabbi is that which is given to a spiritual leader or religious teacher in Judaism. Initially it was accorded to males only, but today within Progressive Judaism there are female rabbis, women who have studied Jewish Law and received rabbinical ordination. There is, however, another interesting twist to the title with regard to the ministry exercised by the venerable Rev'd Dr. William Wilberforce Watty. I first encountered him as a young man in his thirties and I was in my twenties. This was in September 1972, when, as a Christian minister, he was appointed as Methodist Tutor/ Warden at the United Theological College of the West Indies (UTCWI) in Kingston, Jamaica. I was in my final year of preparation for Christian ministry within the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA).
Born on December 1, 1933 in the Commonwealth of Dominica, and a true Caribbean personality, William Watty established himself in the "holy woods" (nickname for the UTCWI) as a friend, family man, wise counsellor, scholar, and powerful and insightful preacher, who developed into a prolific writer. Although berthed in the Christian faith, the overall impression he created was such that with his outstanding skills, here was a spiritual leader and profound theological lecturer. In order to do justice, the title "rabbi" although associated with Judaism, was duly assigned to him by his students and remained throughout the years. Reverend Watty, Christian gentleman that he was, became known as Rabbi William Wilberforce Watty.
I write this tribute following his death on September 17, 2023 in the eighty ninth year of his life. Here was a servant of Jesus Christ who occupied several positions of importance during his earthly sojourn, which gave him the opportunity to touch hundreds of lives in a positive manner. Having offered for the Methodist ministry and received his ministerial formation at an antecedent college of the UTCWI, he proceeded for his first ministerial assignment to the British Virgin Islands in the Leeward Islands District. He next served in the South Caribbean District with his appointment to Trinidad and Tobago where he met and married Miss Cisne John, the love of his life. Their fifty-nine years of marital togetherness was blessed in many ways, but particularly with the gifts of daughters Nathalie and Lenore. In both appointments, Rev. Watty was renowned as a caring pastor and powerful preacher.
His ministerial journey was such that he occupied several positions of importance, through which could be discerned the makings of a prophet, given his tremendous theological insight. He represented the MCCA in Britain during five years of service (1967 – 1972) as Tutor at Kingsmead College. This missionary training college was run by the Methodist Missionary Association and located in Selly Oak, Birmingham where there were similar educational institutions in a federation jointly sponsored by Church of England mission agencies, eg. United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) and the Church Missionary Society (CMS), along with the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) and the Council for World Mission (CWM). The Selly Oak Colleges Federation was affiliated to the University of Birmingham, UK.
It was after this British assignment that I first met Rev. Watty. I consider myself blessed to have him as a personal tutor involved in my formative years as a minister. He and his wife Cisne were towers of strength as my then fiancée Elaine and I prepared for marriage. He administered the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper during our wedding in November 1973. Two years later he delivered the charge at my ordination in Haiti in 1975. I have fond memories of the interpreter's relatively tiny voice translating his powerful English delivered message into French.
The title Rabbi stuck with him even when he was elected President of UTCWI, a position he occupied with distinction that earned him the admiration and respect of the ecumenical family. He was revered as a teacher in the Old Testament field, given his profound knowledge of the Hebrew Language and Scriptures. A renowned scholar, he held the degrees of Master of Arts, Bachelor of Divinity (MA, BD) from the University Of London and eventually the Doctorate in Theology (PhD) of the University of the West Indies. He is remembered particularly for his first publication "From Shore to Shore: Soundings in Caribbean Theology" (1981), and his joint authorship with the Rev'd Clement H.L. Gayle of "The Caribbean Pulpit - An Anthology" (1983). Rabbi Watty was not only an academic. I have heard him described as a practical, wise and fearless leader, an ardent debater who won over several with his clear thinking on given topics. However, he was humble enough to acknowledge when he was mistaken in holding forth a particular opinion. One of the things that never left him was his sense of humor. He could laugh at situations just as he could laugh at himself. It was fortuitous that he should have been in the place where the future of Caribbean Church leadership, of both clergy and laity, was being determined.
Following the UTC presidency which ended in 1985, Rabbi Watty returned to regular pastoral work, including ministry in Trinidad. He dealt with the practical realities associated with the running of Congregations and Circuits, as well as chairmanship of the South Caribbean District. It ought to be said that he never lost the common touch. In fact, when he was Jamaica based, he once shared with me how thrilled he was when driving through areas in Kingston such as Grants Pen which were always teeming with activity. After the seven years of return to pastoral work, he was appointed Connexional President of the MCCA Conference (1992 - 1997) with Antigua as its headquarters. His years of service in the Methodist ministry had given him a profound knowledge of the MCCA Constitution. He was therefore able to carefully scrutinize it with regard to its need to be weaned from its Britishness to assume a document that was more Caribbean in flavour. He is therefore to be numbered among the architects of MCCA restructuring for mission that eventually led to its current ministerial organization into bishops, presbyters and deacons.
As a postscript, I daresay Rabbi the Reverend Dr. William Wilberforce Watty has left us from the Church militant on earth to assume membership within the Church triumphant in heaven. I envisage him, with that powerful baritone voice, singing with the angelic choir. I know that he had reservations around the time when the new Caribbean Methodist hymnal Voices In Praise, was being prepared for publication. He voiced a general concern about new musical trends, some emerging from the North, that were gaining ground in the worship of Caribbean churches. He warned lest these would cater to "minstrels and troubadours" and affect the solemnity of worship. His expressed hope was that the sound theological doctrines of the church would forever be proclaimed in hymns and songs, even as worshippers enjoyed the experience of lively music.
We give God thanks for having lent William Wilberforce Watty to us these eighty-nine years. He used the gifts and graces divinely received, to make a profound contribution in areas as outlined in this tribute for which we in the Caribbean are benefactors. We are grateful for the manner in which his wife Cisne, daughters Nathalie and Lenore, and other family members unselfishly shared him with us. We communicate to them our sincere condolences on his passing.
Rest eternal grant unto him, O God! May perpetual light shine upon him!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rev'd Dr. George Macdonald Mulrain, BA, MPhil.Ed, PhD, is a Methodist Minister, originally from the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. He served as Conference President of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA) between 2003 and 2012. He is currently a supernumerary minister in the Providence Circuit, Kingston, Jamaica