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Obituary: Monica Ditmas

09 August 2019

The Rt Revd Stephen Platten writes:

MONICA DITMAS, who died on 14 July, aged 95, was an amazing gift to the Church of God in many different ways.

The daughter of a priest, Monica graduated from Bristol University with a First in History and set out to teach. In many ways, she was a born teacher: intellectually acute, an excellent communicator, empathetic, but also clear about boundaries, she was all that parents might hope for in someone who was educating and caring for their children. She had an interesting early life being married to an airline pilot.

Her teaching career began at Parkstone Grammar School, followed by six years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College; the highlight of her time in Cheltenham was designing and producing a pageant commemorating the 900th anniversary of the Norman Conquest. At the same time, she won the Cheltenham poetry prize, beating Seamus Heaney into second place!

Monica was keen to teach again in a state school, where she could assist those less well off, and she successfully applied to become Headmistress of Lord Digby’s School, a grammar school in Sherborne. In her 12 years here, she was able to develop the reputation of the school in any number of ways.

Always someone with wide interests, Monica moved on from teaching to train as a qualified counsellor, gaining a B.Phil. at the University of Exeter, all this at the same time as being full time mother to Hugh and Sheila. It was in the diocese of Portsmouth that Monica became best known for her work within the Church of England. She was Warden of Catherington House, one of the Church of England’s most attractive retreat houses for a time, and now sadly lost. In that work, she was a key member of the diocesan staff, wielding significant influence during the episcopacies of Bishops Ronald Gordon and Timothy Bavin.

As Warden, she was no mere administrator or hotel manager, and she contributed widely to the enormous variety of courses that were hosted. Her background and education meant that she could offer wisdom in spheres ranging from theological insight to personal development, and literary creativity to spiritual direction and one-to-one counselling.

Monica’s creative gifts took many forms. She had at least three collections of poetry published; she wrote and directed plays in Portsmouth Cathedral and elsewhere: indeed four days before she died, I received a bundle of scripts of her plays with a brief note “These may be useful and need to be looked after!” So shall they be. Just 18 months before she died, Monica sent me a short piece on the Passion narratives and notably on the part played by Pontius Pilate: maybe he should have been canonised, she reflected mischievously. The article was published in the journal Theology in its series on “Difficult Texts”.

Still more recently, indeed four months before she died, Monica sent another briefer reflection on the role of Mary in the parenting Jesus. It was a crisp piece indicating how, in his humanity, Jesus’s character was moulded through the key influence of his earthly mother. It was just the right length for the Saturday Credo column in The Times. When might it be published? The obvious answer was the Saturday before Mothering Sunday. Unfortunately, the sub-editors turned it into a pious meditation on Mary, simply by editing out material and making gratuitous additions. Monica, as the saying goes, was “not best pleased”. The damage, however, was done and a terse apology the next week would not undo it.

This is but one small illustration of Monica’s profound integrity and clarity of mind. She was courageous in telling the truth as it is, and that could be more than unsettling for some clergy and laity, whose overall policy was anything for a quiet life. Ultimately, however, her warmth and reaching out to others was that aspect of her character which shone most brightly. Many of us, over a period of more than 40 years, will have been enriched, enlightened, and encouraged by the transparent love of Christ which was the very air that Monica breathed. Deo gratias.

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