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Obituary: The Revd Dr Humphrey Fisher

21 June 2019

A correspondent writes:

THE Revd Dr Humphrey Fisher led a pioneering life bridging religious differences.

An African historian specialising in Islamic history south of the Sahara (1962-2001), Humphrey created the religious-studies programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University (SOAS), which broke down barriers between religious specialisms and became highly popular with students.

At SOAS, Humphrey helped numerous students from unusual backgrounds or without standard qualifications — for example, mature students, students from ethnic minorities wanting to study their heritage, or those from Africa. On retirement, Humphrey was inundated with tributes from students about his kindness and generosity, his “unlimited time and patience”, his ability to open up new perspectives, his inspiration (“the most inspiring teacher I had at SOAS”), and his humanity.

The Revd Dr Humphrey John Fisher was ordained in the Church in Wales, after he moved to the Welsh borders in 1986. Long an active Quaker, he became an Anglican priest by training at a Roman Catholic college; he preached at Welsh Presbyterian services, taught Islam and its history, to Muslims among others, and drew together teachers and students of different religions. He did not waver from his own Christian faith, and felt no tension or contradiction within this diversity: we were all going up different sides of the same mountain in our journey towards God.

Humphrey was deeply appreciated for his devotion in serving small rural churches in the Welsh borders. At St Mary’s, Newchurch, where he lived, he provided facilities for walkers on Offa’s Dyke Path to make themselves a hot drink, an act of kindness that drew thousands of visitors into the unassuming church. He instituted the annual Kilvert pilgrimage, with services in four rural churches, now in its 20th year.

Humphrey’s humanity was rooted in his own wanderings early in life. Born in New Zealand in 1933, he lived in Australia, Britain, and America as a child. Evacuated from Britain to Canada to escape a possible Nazi invasion, he crossed the Atlantic westwards, while his future wife, Helga, a German refugee child, travelled eastwards from Peru to Germany.

Humphrey resigned from his junior college, Deep Springs in California, in protest at anti-Semitism. He later used his farming skills learnt there to manage a farm for Palestinian refugees in Jordan. His Ph.D. at Oxford focused on an Islamic sect, the Ahmadiyya, who continue to face persecution by other Muslims. He lived with his family in Nigeria, Jordan, and Sierra Leone.

One student writes: “His seminars on the voice of the vanquished have deeply impacted my career. My work in participatory community development has been built on this foundation — of the importance of seeking those whose voices are not heard, the vanquished of the modern world.”

Humphrey suffered with dementia in his later years, but continued to say how much he wanted to welcome refugees and to see greater ethnic diversity in films, on television, and in the community.

Humphrey was a devoted father and grandfather, and is survived by four sons, their wives, ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Grace, who was born the day after his funeral. In structuring his work life around his family, Humphrey was a pioneering father, and this inspired his son, Duncan, to promote the part played by fathers within families, for which work he was appointed OBE.

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