Canon David Isitt: Pioneering priest in the fields of counselling, ecumenism and theological education
Monday 14 September 2009
A classic Anglican combination of the radical and the traditional, Canon David Isitt was a highly imaginative clergyman who graced cathedral and college chapel life with a kindness that was energising, a voice instantly engaging and sparing words that were always teasingly memorable. By a measured assessment of his considerable gifts – he forsook the highest offices in the Church of England – he left a transforming legacy in a 55-year ministry of unusual distinction.
Born in 1928, his calling came at St David's, Brecon during an eight o'clock Book of Common Prayer Communion Service, to the sonorous language of which he returned regularly in his final years: "Some sort of vocation (if that's what it was) said, Look, it's time you stopped messing around and got on with it. That's what I did."
Skill as a classicist took him in 1946 to King's College, Cambridge, where he fell in love with its peerless chapel. He returned 10 years later as Chaplain after national service in the RAF Education Core and training for ministry at Wells Theological College. During his four-year stint he also served as a Junior Proctor and edited The Cambridge Review – then a weekly in its heyday, the longest-running such university publication and a means to give fledgling writers like Bamber Gascoigne opportunity to shine. He won respect for his ordering of chapel worship and innate musicality, and considerable affection for his expansive pastoral care. These breathless years under the great liberal Dean, Alec Vidler, set the tone for what followed.
Work as a pastor and proctor had introduced him to the down-side of university life, and the high number of undergraduates at risk of committing suicide. He tried to persuade the university to address this but found the kind of institutional denial and timidity that he was to encounter time and again. An immediate opportunity to lead the way presented itself with his appointment as Vicar of Haslingfield and Rector of Harlton (1960-68). With this came a 20-room vicarage, which he threw open to students in difficulty. Of the 70 who came to stay, often in considerable distress, the lives of only two were to end tragically and many remained devoted friends. He never spoke about this confidential ministry during his life which is perhaps why, when the brief history of the Cambridge University Counselling Service that emerged from it in 1969 came to be written it makes no reference to Isitt's pioneering role.
More well-known was an episode when a recent Anglican convert, Charles Davis – previously a Catholic priest – asked that Bishop John Robinson conduct his marriage to fellow convert Florence Henderson in the context of an Anglican Eucharist at Isitt's church in Haslingfield. It was inevitable that some of the couple's Catholic friends would wish to receive the sacrament and, such were the sensitivities at the time, John Andrew, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Chaplain – who had been billeted with Isitt in the RAF – phoned his friend to convey the Archbishop's "active displeasure." With typical wit and boldness, Isitt asked in what this might consist. Archbishop Michael Ramsey was in the background and after some mumbled conversation Isitt got his answer: "possible removal from the list of prospective cathedral residentiary canons." The ceremony continued as planned.
Some felt that crossing an Archbishop so publicly prevented his earlier preferment – at this point he went to be Chaplain of St Edward, King and Martyr (1968-77), and Assistant Chaplain at Trinity Hall – but this seems unlikely since Isitt recalled taking a party of parishioners to Lambeth Palace about a year later when the Archbishop, with a characteristically raised eyebrow, opined, "It is so good to have the country clergy with us." Isitt regarded these as words of "circumspect reconciliation! His interest lay, any how, not in "climbing the greasy pole". He turned down opportunities to explore both Episcopal and Decanal ministries in order to lavish his preaching and teaching skills – he was acknowledged to be one of the finest preachers of his generation – and his pastoral sensitivities where he felt they were most needed.
In 1977, a residentiary canonry came his way at Bristol Cathedral, where he had been ordained in 1954. As Canon Precentor, with responsibility for the cathedral's pastoral care, worship and music, he took the place by storm, visiting all regulars in the community within a year and setting ever higher standards for worship and welcome ministries. A new, and, at the time, controversially modern, book of worship to some in the Church of England was just around the corner, in the form of the Alternative Service Book 1980. Isitt commissioned striking music for this from the cathedral organist, Clifford Harker, and found himself the centre of what would now be called "best practice" when the BBC filmed a model Communion from the cathedral, introduced with a brilliance that was dazzling. An audio-visual presentation followed, as did Thought for the Day work on local and national radio.
All this made full play of what he had learnt earlier from his musician colleagues at King's and from the ceremonial richness of its chapel tradition. He created a vespers service based on Eastern Orthodox liturgies as an alternative for Evensong on festal occasions in a way characteristic of so-called innovation in the early years of this century: he was years ahead of his time in this, as in the many special services he devised so imaginatively. But Isitt's intellect was considerable and the relentlessness of precentorial work was not perhaps ultimately stretching enough. Geoffrey Lampe, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, had recognised what Isitt had to offer by appointing him secretary of the Anglo-Scandinavian Theological Conference. He undertook the task for 16 years and played a pivotal role in the pioneering Porvoo Agreement (1996), which, for its Anglican and Lutheran signatories, recognised inter-changeability of ministers since members of one denomination could now be seen as full members of another.
His quiet, pioneering zeal found its most creative and public outlet when Isitt was appointed Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Director of the Bristol School of Ministry in 1981. He had an infectious passion as an educator and was therefore a natural with the many non-stipendiary candidates for ordination who were emerging, often in mid-life and from a wide range of secular contexts, for non-residential ordination preparation, and bringing liberating experience for an all-too-inward-looking Church.
Some stipendiary clergy saw their presence as a threat. Isitt, in partnership with Donald Walters, his counterpart in the Gloucester School of Ministry, saw it as the church's greatest chance to reinvigorate itself. The two of them set out to create a model programme, rigorously demanding intellectually but embracingly experiential and theologically innovative. Within five years nearly 50 NSMs, or non-stipendiary ministers, were trained.
Isitt's ecumenical antennae suggested, however, that ministers from different churches needed to be trained together more systematically if they were to work meaningfully together on the ground. An opportunity came when the Moderator of the United Reformed Church wanted to buy in to the School of Ministry; this Anglican-URC partnership progressed rapidly. In 1984 it seemed natural to Isitt that those who had trained ecumenically should be ordained together, and the first of two "parallel" ordination services took place in Bristol Cathedral. These saw the first women ordained for ministry in an English Cathedral.
Now, however, the risk-averse nat-ure of much of the Church of England – "the leaden hand of Anglicanism," as he described it – asserted itself. Despite the star-rating of Isitt's teaching, the Bristol School of Ministry was closed and an influential experiment in non-residential ecumenical training ended. A smaller person might have allowed such an episode to turn him sour. But Isitt, though possessed, by his own admission, of a fiery temper, was bigger than this.
Returning to Cambridge with his ever-supportive wife, Verity – they had met in his years at Wells – he had short spells at Trinity Hall and Westcott House before taking on the chaplaincy of Fitzwilliam at a time when the college was building its first chapel. "I shan't be able to bound around like a 20-something chaplain," he suggested. But most people struggled to keep up with his energy and intellectual acuity.
He wrote two well-received books: The Light of the Living (1989), based on the biblical "close attention to the text" sessions he had devised in Bristol, and The Greeks and the Sea (2004) which saw his life-long love of classics and his and Verity's lecturer-librarian partnership on many Swan Hellenic cruises brought into fruitful dialogue.
Retirement in 1993 gave time to read, lecture and preach. As one of the Church's finest preachers he was asked to publish a collection of his sermons. But he had never kept his scripts, believing that "sermons are one-off and context-specific." Though he lived to see his innovative midwifery in the fields of counselling, ecumenism and theological education all finding a respected place at the heart of the institutions he had for so long both loved and challenged, he never gave this much thought. A self-effacing man, he chose to reserve such reflective time for prayer and for people.
Canon David Isitt, clergyman: born 20 April 1928; married (two sons, one daughter); died 8 August, 2009.
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