Colin Podmore remembers faithful servant Sir William Fittall
Before becoming Secretary General of the General Synod and Archbishops’ Council in 2002, William Fittall spent 27 years in the Home Office, Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office. Living in Paris during a year at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, he was in a Bible study group with Justin Welby. Three stints as a minister’s private secretary taught him calmness under fire: with Douglas Hurd he was bundled into a police station when the Home Secretary’s visit to Handsworth threatened to re-kindle rioting, and on his first day with the Northern Ireland Secretary, Patrick Mayhew, the IRA detonated a bomb as their car entered Belfast. From the files that he inherited as chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment staff he learned the inevitability of failure. As Associate Political Director in Northern Ireland, he worked closely with Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair on implementing the Good Friday Agreement.
To Church House, William thus brought a breadth of experience in policy formation, management and implementation that could never have been acquired within church structures – plus a remarkable intellect, phenomenal energy and considerable stamina. When he left at 7pm after a ten-hour day, his inbox was empty: snap judgements that might need challenge were far better than a black hole. One learned to respond swiftly when emails were copied to him, before he shaped the outcome.
My eleven years working with William were hugely stimulating. We often disagreed, but he relished argument and (though he strove to conceal this) adapted his views in response. Some might feel flattened by his vigour in arguing, but I was exhilarated. Hearing him repeat my counter-arguments to others as his own, I realized that – even when in full-volume send mode – he had, in fact, been listening.
An agent of change (like all good administrators), William was fascinated by history: background and context made for better change. His Home Office experience had instilled great respect for lawyers: legal advice must be sought, and could be interrogated but not ignored. Thus history, legality and good order were prized – as was laughter: funny anecdotes and witty remarks were part of his stock-in-trade.
Not given to insincere courtesies, William rarely asked, ‘How are you?’ – except when he wanted to know the answer. He could be very caring, including to colleagues in distress. He was especially committed to increasing the proportion of female senior staff – and noticeably more tolerant of poor performance and bad behaviour by women than sometimes with male colleagues.
William’s evangelical identity, nurtured at St Aldate’s, Oxford, marked him out from his predecessors. His worshipping at St Mark’s, Battersea Rise, where the vicar was a leader of Reform, drew unfair criticism. Perhaps this lay behind his response to a synodical attack on me after my move to Forward in Faith was announced: ‘All of us who work for the Church come from somewhere, and I slightly resent the suggestion – (Applause). Perhaps I should stop there! Let me add, however, that for 27 years I served ministers in Whitehall without any of them having any notion of my political conviction. When you come to work for the Church of England you can worship at the most middle-stump parish church, but in terms of Church politics and [the women bishops legislation] that is actually a position. Therefore, all members of staff who are Anglicans… are worshippers and will have their private views, and what Synod expects from us is to distinguish between them and how we serve them, and we try to do that to the best of our ability.’
The Reform agenda was not his own, but loyalty to his local parish church was part of his Anglican DNA. His was a very Church of England evangelicalism: a Reader since 1977 and an able organist, he helped out in neighbouring parishes (as well as playing for House of Bishops services). A sense of where Protestant-minded English laypeople would be was part of his contribution to policy discussions. He was also resistant to authoritarian centralism: his farewell address to the Synod included a comment that ‘Executive power in the Church is widely dispersed, and rightly so’.
William’s thirteen years as Secretary General were dominated by the women bishops struggle. This was greatly complicated by the proponents’ secondary aim of tearing up the 1993 settlement. My impression was that William regarded women bishops as so essential to the Church of England’s credibility with the political establishment that legislation had to be passed even if it took an undesirable form, and that he assumed too readily that a sufficient majority would share that view. Perhaps, however, the proponents’ belief that legislation embodying both of their aims could succeed had to be tested to destruction before an inclusive settlement could become possible. William paid the price, postponing retirement to his native south-east Kent until the matter was resolved.
Always committed to the Church of England’s breadth, William by now absolutely ‘got’ the traditional catholic position: the resulting package owed much to his powers of drafting and persuasion. Such was his commitment to the settlement that in 2018 he accepted the role of Independent Reviewer. His reports were exemplary, combining thorough, cogent and dispassionate analysis with notable pastoral sensitivity, especially to the concerns of ordinary laypeople.
In William Fittall the Church of England has lost a distinguished and faithful servant; many of us mourn an engaging and inspiring colleague and friend.
Sir William Fittall (26 July 1953-10 March 2022) was Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council and General Synod from 2002 to 2015. He was made a Knight Bachelor in the 2016 New Year Honours ‘for services to the Church of England’ and awarded the Canterbury Cross by the Archbishop of Canterbury in June 2017.
Dr Colin Podmore was Clerk to the General Synod (2011-13) and Director of Forward in Faith (2013-20).