Obituary: Professor Valerie Pitt

 

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The Independent Culture

VALERIE PITT was one of the most astute, perceptive, entertaining, and, when she wanted to be - which was much of the time - devastating figures of the late-20th-century Church of England, a church with which she had a long and turbulent relationship of disloyal faithfulness. Drawn to Anglicanism by its theological potential rather than its culture, she once wrote that its spiritual life was "carefully insulated from the world in which coal is mined and lemon meringue pie is made . . . Betjeman is only too justly its poet."

Her theological position is perhaps best described as one of "radical orthodoxy", a term which only came into fashion in Cambridge as she was dying. Her theological and spiritual mentors were Austin Farrer, Gordon Phillips, Michael Ramsey, and her dear friend Percy Coleman who had been her confessor for over 50 years.

Born in 1925 in Peckham, the eldest of six children, Valerie Pitt was part of a working-class family with strong socialist convictions. One of her grandfathers was active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union, while the other helped to lead the Bakers Union and addressed the bakers' strike in Trafalgar Square in 1913.

After school in Camberwell, she went to St Hugh's College, Oxford, in 1943 to read English; and there, having been secretary of the Socratic Society, she was received into the Anglican Church. Her BLitt dissertation was on the roots of Shelley's philosophy, and she wrote her only major published work, on Lord Tennyson, Tennyson Laureate (1962).

After four years lecturing at Cardiff, in 1953 she became a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, but in 1958 returned to London, where she became a lecturer at Woolwich Polytechnic, an institution which was to be her academic home, under its various identities as Thames Polytechnic and the University of Greenwich, for almost 30 years. She was head of the Department of Liberal Studies and later of the School of Humanities, becoming one of the first "polytechnic professors" shortly after her retirement.

It was the 1950s monthly journal Prism, the organ of a new breed of progressive Anglo-Catholics, sometimes called the "angry young Anglicans", which made Valerie Pitt's name well-known in radical church circles. Her Prism pamphlet The Church Commissioners for England (1967) was one of the earliest critiques of that curious body, while her satirical reflection on the cliche-ridden and patronising style of the 1958 Lambeth Conference, published in November 1958, is still relevant today.

In 1965 she was elected to the Church Assembly (the precursor of the General Synod), where, on 29 June 1967, she introduced a resolution calling for the admission of women to holy orders, a critical resolution which was not to see its fulfilment for many years. Her spontaneous speeches were awaited with delight and anticipation in that somewhat dreary body.

On one occasion when Gervase Duffield, a right-wing evangelical, was warning of the existence of a sinister and "well-organised faction" which was seeking to bring about disestablishment, Valerie Pitt arose and asked for the name and address of the secretary so she could join it. It was in fact as a result of her membership of the commission on church and state (the Chadwick Commission) of 1970 that she became widely known in the Church. Her "memorandum of dissent", in which she argued the case for disestablishment, remains one of the formative documents in this continuing debate.

She could be a formidable member of any audience. On one occasion, in a south London church where a clergyman was using his sermon to defend the British nuclear deterrent, she suddenly rose, and announced to the electrified congregation: "Reverend Father, I do not propose to stay in this church and witness the misuse of this Christian pulpit for the promotion of militarism. I shall now leave the church, and the churchwardens will kindly inform me when the Mass resumes." The preacher was so taken aback that he lost the thread of his sermon and retired in confusion as Pitt was escorted back to her pew.

She was deeply hurt by the behaviour of some of the overseas bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and wrote a letter to the Church Times, asking "Can I myself - could any decent person - remain in the kind of church that [was] displayed to us? Do I want to?" Yet Valerie Pitt remained a woman of profound Christian faith, even if increasingly discontented with what she took to be the trivialising, the shallowness and the lack of serious thinking and debate in the Church of England.

Kenneth Leech

Valerie Joan Pitt, English scholar: born London 14 February 1925; Fellow, Newnham College, Cambridge 1953-58; Lecturer in Humanities, Woolwich Polytechnic (from 1970 Thames Polytechnic) 1958-62, Senior Lecturer 1962-66, Principal Lecturer in charge of humanities 1966-71, Head, School of Humanities 1971- 86, Professor 1987; died London 4 January 1999.

In an earlier version of the above obituary we referred to the "late" Gervase Duffield.  We are pleased to report that in fact he is not late - nor was he at the time of original publication.  Update posted: 10 January 2012, following contact by Mr Duffield, who tells us he remains active in public life, both civil and ecclesiastical.

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