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Obituary: Deborah Mullins

01 April 2021

A correspondent writes:

DEB MITCHELL was a maths undergraduate in the congregation at St Michael-le-Belfry, York, in 1977 when David Watson wrote the foreword to Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Part of the group that made the banners for Watson’s missions, she absorbed his teaching on the urgency of a simple personal lifestyle, a church presenting a new model to the world, and a revision of the structures of society.

So, when Traidcraft was founded soon afterwards, she was quickly one of its Fair Traders, actively promoting, provoking, and selling in different parishes for more than 40 years.

She and Dave Peacock were married in St Michael’s by Graham Cray, and banners that she was involved in making are still in St Philip’s, Cambridge (where Dave was involved in post-doctorial physics), and St Hugh’s, Scunthorpe (where he was an assistant curate). In between, he had trained at Wycliffe Hall, where she helped to establish and run a co-operative bulk-buying basic supplies.

Their sons were established at school when Dave became Rector of Cleethorpes in 2000, and a fresh vocation opened up. Deb completed teacher training and became part of an impressive team at a Grimsby dockside primary school, adding value way above the national average to children, many of whom came from deprived backgrounds. Her enthusiasm and her innovative maths teaching were part of the story.

But much of life then became difficult. Few knew that her marriage was breaking up until the shock came of Dave’s taking his own life; and the family had to shift from a large rectory to a small house near by. Being rated an outstanding teacher and working alongside endlessly creative colleagues didn’t save the school from being put into special measures, and she couldn’t take the stress of even more sacrificial hours to deliver a heavily circumscribed curriculum. Soon afterwards, a breast cancer was diagnosed. None of this deflected her from causes, including the Grimsby Hope for Justice group.

By this time, Deb and Canon Peter Mullins were married, and her sons were independent enough for the couple to spend a sabbatical term at the Tantur Institute near Bethlehem. Her chapter in a forthcoming book on Palestinian embroidery in modern art spells out how living with her cancer treatment and discovering the art of a dispossessed people merged to give a new focus.

Already a skilled craftswoman, she undertook further City and Guilds training, emerging with gold medals presented to her by the Princess Royal. She became a full-time textile artist, developing expertise in tahriri embroidery. The position that the Palestinian people were in was shared persistently.

Peter’s move to the rectory of Haworth brought the couple to the edge of Bradford, into which she would go several times each week to teach English to asylum-seekers and support its being a City of Sanctuary.

Her cancer re-emerged metastatic shortly before lockdown. She wasn’t going to “chase the cancer round her body” and let debilitating forms of treatment limit her creativity; instead she developed Zoom sessions for embroidery groups. Her response to surprise at this was: “I am busy getting on with living; when I need to be busy getting on with dying, I’ll switch to doing that then.”

Finally, she wasn’t able to sew any longer. Prompted by a David Olusoga television programme, she settled down to explore fresh, mainly African, authors. She wrote a witty realistic Christmas letter, laced with the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

She had a translation of Mourid Barghouti’s poems at her bedside, in which Peter found that she had marked words about a butterfly about to be crushed but nevertheless “towering above the hubris of the general and his science of war: the soul retains its passion even on the cross, even on the ropes, the body has its dance.”

The last time that the wife of the incumbent of Haworth died in the parsonage from cancer it was Maria Brontë in 1821.

Deborah Mullins died on 20 December, aged 61.

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