Obituary: The Very Revd Patrick Mitchel

by
13 March 2020

Times Newspapers

Canon John White writes of Dean Mitchell’s time at Windsor:

THE ghost of the monastic movement survived the dissolution of the monasteries and now lurks in the constitutions, canopied choirs, cloisters, and chapter houses of the cathedrals and Royal Peculiars of the English Church. It has encouraged the survival of an unparalleled tradition of liturgical music, but its emphasis on residential community stability and structured hierarchy does not sit easily with present-day clerical mobility and democratic self-expression.

The Very Revd Patrick Reynolds Mitchell came to Windsor from a long and distinguished career in the West Country and might have supposed that St George’s Chapel, with its national profile as a place of historic royal pageantry, was going to be “more of the same, only different”. It is not hard to be deceived into thinking that St George’s conserves a Church of England rapidly fading from sight and memory. In fact, thanks to the initiatives of Dean (later Bishop) Robin Woods in the 1960s (1962-70), who was encouraged by the Duke of Edinburgh, St George’s was brought into the 20th century. Bishop Michael Mann (who preceded Patrick Mitchell as Dean), in his own deeply principled and pragmatic fashion, had kept that vision alive.

Both previous Deans had tried to develop a Chapter of skilled experienced clergy able to furnish St George’s House with a staff competent to lead its in-service work for mid-career ministers of religion and its short residential lay consultations on matters of human betterment. Thus, the new Dean inherited a potentially volatile environment of strong individualists and pioneers likely to chafe against too much community stability and structured hierarchy.

Dean Mitchell appeared to many of us to have emerged from a Church of England that, for good and ill, was becoming a thing of the past. His family background, education (including Eton and Oxford) and early rise to be Dean of Wells brought some colleagues and many visiting clergy to discredit him from the start as “silver-spoon privileged”. But Dean Mitchell felt entirely comfortable with his privileged background and was genuinely surprised when it was criticised.

He believed that the principal purpose of the Church, the priesthood, and St George’s was the liturgical worship of God. Few people now seem to share that conviction. He was High Church, but not Anglo Catholic, holding to an Anglicanism that, through calculated neglect, has all but disappeared. It is based on that classic Anglican spirituality revived, but for once not invented, by the Oxford Movement. He had a companionship with William Laud, Launcelot Andrewes, George Herbert, John Keble, and Edward King. My belief is that he thought that St George’s House should have become a retreat centre, in which he would have felt much at home.

His cheerful social warmth tended to deflect from the fact that he was a very self-contained and private person. Anyone seeking to write his obituary who looks for the sacred, unique individuality of the man rather than wishing to set him up as a stock character in a eulogy has to try to read between the lines, which is fraught with risk.

In some issues, he was fiercely determined to make his contribution, come what may, to the future of St George’s. This was not least in matters of its fabric, in which he had both experience and expertise from the overseeing of the major restoration of the sculptural heritage of Wells Cathedral, and membership of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission. Against some criticism and voiced uncertainty, he brought Windsor’s practice up to cathedral standard, guaranteeing it “a place at the table” for possible future state funding.

I hope that in this he felt some sense of personal achievement, as I fear, outside his valued contribution as Domestic Chaplain to the Queen, he might have felt “let down” by the Windsor experience. For a man who lived by an aristocratic table of manners, Windsor had all the rough and tumble of the school sports field. He was somewhat like the guest at a “smart-casual” party who mistakenly arrived in a white tie and tails.

Dean Mitchell had a very boyish sense of humour and near adolescent disregard for contemporary social constraints. At the end of hospitable receptions in the deanery, he would take out and wear a child’s Native American headdress while blowing an ancient straight trumpet, and he loved telling rather simplistic schoolboy jokes. I recall one winter travelling on the tube alongside Patrick who was wearing his very large authentic Russian hat that looked as if it had still been alive the day before, and wondering whether we would be physically assaulted by the animal rights’ lobby.

I suspect that Dean Mitchell would not have wished me to be the one to write his obituary. I, however, was asked, and I have felt genuinely privileged to try to fulfil the request. For me, he was not an easy colleague to work with, but he was not a hard man to love when you had penetrated a little “between the lines”.

Dean Mitchell died on 23 January, aged 89.

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