SIR WILLIAM FITTALL, who was Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council and the General Synod from 2002 until 2015, has died, aged 68.
In a statement today, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of his “tireless service”.
Sir William’s period in office encompassed the whole of the stormy process from the interim debate on Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s report Women Bishops in the Church of England? in July 2002, when Sir William was succeeding Sir Philip Mawer in post, to the final passage of the legislation. But he knew what he was getting into. “I didn’t seek this new post for a quiet life,” he told the Church Times in 2002.
Educated at Dover Grammar School and Christ Church, Oxford, he had, until his church appointment, been a civil servant since 1975, serving in the Home Office, the Northern Ireland Office, and the Cabinet Office.
His posts included those of secretary to the review of the parole system (1987-88), director of crime-reduction and community programmes (1997-2000), and associate political director for Northern Ireland. He had been a member of the joint intelligence committee and assessments director for the Cabinet Office.
On Sir William’s retirement as Secretary-General, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he had “brought the very best of Whitehall to the Church of England”, and spoke of his “legendary” ability to work fast and accurately (News, 4 December 2015). He described Sir William as “dancing rings” around government officials, “leaving them baffled, confused, and still quite content”.
In 2018, Sir William succeeded Sir Philip as Independent Reviewer for the Resolution of Disputes Procedure concerning the Bishops’ Declaration on the pastoral care of those unable to receive the ministry of women as bishops and priests.
In his civil-service career, Sir William had been involved in the daily management of the Northern Ireland peace process. “I am uncertain, from week to week, where I am going to be,” he said in 2002. “I was in Belfast yesterday. I am flying out there again this afternoon. I will probably be in Dublin again on Thursday.”
He had first become involved with Northern Ireland in 1992. As he entered Belfast city centre on his first visit, following behind the car of the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Brooke, there was an enormous explosion.
From 1977, he was a Reader, and ministered at St Mark’s, Battersea Rise, in south London, an HTB church-plant; and he was also a keen organist. On the contentious issues, such as sexuality, that the General Synod debated, he kept his personal opinions private, in the spirit of the civil service.
One matter on which he was explicit in public was evangelism. “My job is not about the orderly management of decline,” he said. On retiring, he told the Synod that he regretted “that we and other Christian traditions in this land are yet to recapture the imagination of those who, in a society awash with more information than ever, remain desperately hungry for meaning”.
He also spoke of being pleased to see the number of women and minority-ethnic colleagues in senior positions rise during his time in office, though he considered that there was much more progress to be made.
He was knighted in 2016 (News,1 January 2016). He married his wife, Barbara, in 1978, who survives him. They had two sons.
Tribute has been paid to him on his death by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.
Archbishop Welby said: “I am deeply sad to hear of the death of William Fittall, who as well as being a valued colleague was also a dear and much-loved friend for over forty years.
“His tireless service to the Church of England, as Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council, exemplified the kind of man he was: exceptionally able, respected by all, dedicated to the church and committed to Christ.
“As a Reader, and as a gifted organist, he served his local church faithfully for very many years. The Church of England owes him a great debt of gratitude.
“In the years before he was Secretary General he was a distinguished and effective civil servant, working on issues of security, reconciliation and seeking to bring hope in dark times.
“I pray for William’s family and friends, who will miss him greatly, to be comforted and sustained by God in this time of grief. May he have found, in the eternal arms of his beloved God, the peace that passes all understanding.”
Archbishop Cottrell said: “William Fittall was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and a wise servant of the Church of England. He used his many gifts and talents in the service of the kingdom and will be much missed. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Obituary to follow