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Obituary: Sir William Fittall

25 March 2022

Stefano Cagnoni

Joe Pilling writes:

WHEN William was 12, the headmaster of Dover Grammar School told his mother that he thought that her son was exceptional and was suited for the civil-service fast stream. It seems unlikely that that made much sense to either of them at the time. Ten years later, the headmaster was proved right when William entered the Home Office after reading French and Latin at Christ Church, Oxford.

After 27 years as a civil servant, the culmination of his career was working, for 13 years, to 2015, as Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council and the General Synod. He brought all that he had learned in serving successive governments including three separate stints in the private offices of Timothy Raison, Douglas Hurd, and Patrick Mayhew. One or two stints would have been more usual. The experience of helping politicians while remaining neutral was relevant when he moved to Church House in 2002.

His faith was rooted in the Evangelical tradition. As an undergraduate, he worshipped across the road from Christ Church, in St Aldate’s. The Rector, Keith de Berry, encouraged William to begin training as a Reader while he was still a student. He was admitted in 1977 and remained active in that ministry throughout his life. He brought more than a formal neutrality to the business of the church. Without being untrue to his Evangelical roots he understood and appreciated the contribution of other spiritual traditions. Above all, he was passionately committed to the mission of the church.

He had a distinctively energetic approach to work, and disconcerted some by the forceful articulation of his first thoughts on a tricky new problem. It quickly emerged that he positively welcomed equally forceful arguments from colleagues and was not in the least embarrassed about changing his mind in the face of persuasive points. This willingness to listen, combined with a real interest in others, made him good to work for. He took his management responsibilities seriously. The keen wit that he brought to conversations and public speaking added to the pleasure of working with him.

His experience in government equipped him well for working with the team of lawyers that the Church needed. It also put him at an advantage when he had to deal with government departments on behalf of the Church. He knew just where the other side were coming from.

The biggest contrast between the two parts of William’s working life was that he held the same post for the final third of his career but scarcely did any job for more than three years in the first two-thirds. Characteristically for a senior civil servant, many of his jobs lasted for much less than three years. The breadth of experience which came from moving so often, mostly in the Home Office but also in the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office, was beneficial, but, because of the frequency of his moves, the jobs could not have been as satisfying as his last long spell in Church House.

Very unusually for a home civil servant, William was offered the chance early in his career to spend a year in Paris at the École Nationale d’Administration. He seized the opportunity, which was more commonly offered to diplomats. He and Barbara lived in France for just over a year. They formed lasting friendships and spent many later holidays in France.

In the civil service, William constantly engaged with worthwhile and challenging subjects. He reviewed the parole system in the late 1980s. He then took the lead in implementing management change in the Prison Service. His final post before moving to the Church was focused on helping the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement to be put into effect; this involved constant movement between London, Belfast, and Dublin.

William was a singer and an organist. It was a remarkable achievement to maintain his musical skills through the years when he had little free time. Before he retired, bishops got used to the Secretary-General’s trying quietly to make sure that they got through their agenda and then disappearing to the organ loft when they broke for worship. Not long before he died, he had taken over as the regular organist in his parish church in Kent. He threw himself into every aspect of local church life, commenting in retirement that he had to go to buy the sausages for Messy Church. His point may have been the contrast with the responsibilities that he had been carrying, but, in truth, he brought the same skills and the same energy to bear, whatever the task.

For some years after he moved to Kent, he chaired the Folkestone Rainbow Centre and the Robert Thompson Charity. In 2018, he succeeded Sir Philip Mawer as Independent Reviewer for the women-bishops legislation.

He was knighted in 2016 for services to the Church of England. His wife, Barbara, a former senior nurse, is retired and currently churchwarden of their church in Kent. They have two sons; Jonathan lives in Dubai, and Matthew, an oncologist, lives in London.

Sir William Fittall died on 10 March, aged 68.

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