Obituary: The Right Rev Howell Witt

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HOWELL WITT, Bishop of North West Australia from 1965 to 1981, was not one for standing on ceremony.

Moving from a dockworker's home in Newport, South Wales, to Bishopries in Australia was not a journey he had ever imagined in his youth. It was always his dearest wish to enter the priesthood, and he brought to the role an astonishing enthusiasm for life, a clownish talent and a classless ability to mix with everyone, young and old, which leavened a central, simple religious faith.

He was born in 1920 into a Methodist family and, after gaining an arts degree at Leeds University, he moved to Mirfield College in Yorkshire to prepare for holy orders. He was ordained in 1944 and went to his first curacy in Usk, in Monmouthshire. Here he gained an insight into working beyond normal parish bounds, which stayed with him for the rest of his ministry.

His vicar spotted his talent for playing the fool and instructed him to put on a play at the local Borstal and at the vicarage fetes. Witt's character of Dickie Bach Dwyl is still fondly remembered in Usk. Young people adored his playful-ness, including those who were once allowed to tie him up on a Saturday morning in the vicarage and then forgot him for several hours whilst he tried to struggle free. On that occasion he was not entirely amused.

From Usk he moved to Camberwell in London, but in 1948, when the Bishop of Willochra, South Australia, was in Britain recruiting clergy, Howell's old vicar suggested him. Precise information about the proposed job, except that it was at the Woomera Rocket Range, was difficult to come by and one of the many items Willochra neglected to mention was that Howell would have to join the Australian army on arrival. Under protest, Howell signed up, but wreaked revenge when Willochra, who visited much of his diocese on horseback, wandered into Woomera and was picked up by an army captain who came to Witt for confirmation of the Bishop's identity. Howell said that he had never met the man.

Woomera was a time of improvisation. A barber's shop served as a church and church vessels were cobbled from anything to hand - a bottle of wine, a cheese dish and a beer mug forming the essentials of the Eucharist. This scenario was often repeated "outback". Even the Duke of Edinburgh visiting the North West Diocese found that the service was being held in a local police court.

The opening of Woomera fete saw the first appearance of a new Australian identity, "the Dowager Duchess of Dingo Creek", with Witt decked out in drag. This appearance was repeated five years later at St Peter's College in Adelaide, to the great delight of the boys. This link with St Peter's College was a saving grace for Howell as by this time he had moved to a formal Adelaide parish and found it difficult after the improvisation and outgoing sociability of the bush.

In 1957 Howell volunteered to be Priest-in-Charge of Elizabeth, a new town outside Adelaide set in a treeless, dusty plain with "one telephone box and no cemetery". It was full of unhappy immigrant families from Britain. Once again he was operating in a place which demanded improvisation and an outgoing social role. Schools and sheds hosted Sunday Schools and church services. When the first of two churches was built it doubled as a dance hall, with dances being passed off as church service by Witt in order to circumvent the law. This work produced two ulcers, but it also produced grateful congregations who benefited from their priest's leadership.

In 1965 he was elected Bishop of North West Australia, a diocese quarter the size of Australia and the largest in the Anglican Communion. He accepted with reservations and an unusual humility. However, he took to it with gusto, making the central part of his work the pastoral support of his clergy. He often used the "milk run" plane up the coast for his work, and passengers were startled one fine day to see the Bishop in full episcopal regalia, having changed in the loo, processing up the plane, ready to bless the fishing fleet in Broome. "One or two thought their last moment had come," he said when relating the tale.

The Bishop's Palace was a boarding house in Geraldton, far north of Perth, but the Bishop was rarely at home. Doreen, his wife, held the fort while the Bishop visited outback sheep stations whose residents rarely saw a "sky pilot". He tried his hand at sheep-dipping, goat-hunting and when visiting the seaboard handled the bait for the lobster and crayfish catchers. For seven months of the year he travelled but found time to write a column for one of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, was filmed for the Australian Broadcasting Company and in 1980 published an autobiography entitled Bush Bishop - a fulfilling if gruelling life.

In 1984 he was offered and accepted a move to the more conventional Diocese of Bathhurst in New South Wales, delighted to find a "three-loo modern house" and the comforts of a medium-sized town.

In 1985 Howell was badly hurt in a car crash but he soldiered on to 1989, when he retired to Perth.

Christine Davies

Howell Arthur John Witt, priest: born Newport, Monmouthshire 12 July 1920; ordained priest 1945; Chaplain, Woomera, South Australia 1949-54; Rector, St Mary Magdalene's, Adelaide 1954-57; Missioner of St Peter's College Mission 1954-65; Priest in charge, Elizabeth 1957-65; Bishop of North West Australia 1965-81; married 1949 Doreen Edwards (died 1983; three sons, two daughters); died Perth, Western Australia 14 July 1998.

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