Liturgical scholar, teacher Leonel Mitchell dies

By ENS staff
Posted May 24, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Canon Leonel Mitchell, whose words echo at every Baptism held in an Episcopal church, died May 23 after a short illness.

Mitchell, 81, drafted the Thanksgiving over the Water prayer for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, restoring what one commentator called “allusions” to “the primary biblical archetypes” that previous version of the prayer book had eliminated.

Mitchell was influential in many ways over the 1979 version of the prayer book, and its introduction to the church. His “Liturgical Change: How Much Do We Need?” was “highly recommended” as a “concise study course for parish use” when the Draft Proposed Book of Common Prayer was released in February 1976 for study in parishes. The draft prayer book was subsequently approved by the General Convention in 1976 and received final approval three years later.

Mitchell’s liturgical influence extended after the prayer book revision years, as seminarians, theologians and others read and studied his many books, essays and other writings, especially his 1985 book “Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer.”

Praying shapes believing, he wrote, because “worship, religious activity in all of its aspects – what we do and how we do it, as well as what we say and how we say it – underlies religious belief.”

The introduction of the 1979 prayer book was not without controversy (an early example is here), yet Mitchell argued in his book that “we change and the world changes, and we approach God with new problems and new questions.”

“The language of theology must be able to hear and respond to these new experiences without changing its age-old witness to the Eternal and Unchanging God,” he wrote.

Mitchell said the theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer “faithful to the tradition” and was “a theology we can believe and teach to people today.”

Perhaps echoing Mitchell’s belief that we and the world change, his family, friends and others influenced by his life posted comments on his Facebook page as word of his death spread.

“I learned so much from Lee, both inside and outside his classroom,” the Rev. Frank W. Hughes, vicar of Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus, Georgia, wrote. “He was a fine scholar, a patient teacher, and a wise counselor, as well as a friend.”

After his daughter, Anne Gair-Macmichael, wrote a farewell message to her father, Catharine Phillips responded with sympathy, saying “your Dad was a huge part of my priestly formation.”

Mitchell was born in New York and received an undergraduate degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He received a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University and master’s degree in sacred theology and a doctorate in theology from the General Seminary in New York.

He became a deacon and priest in 1954, and served parishes in New York before teaching at both the University of Notre Dame and the Episcopal Church-affiliated Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. He was the canon theologian at the Cathedral of St. James in South Bend, Indiana at the time of his death.

Mitchell is survived by his wife, Beverly, and their children, David and Anne, and their families.

Funeral arrangements are pending, according to the Very Rev. Brian G. Grantz, dean of the South Bend cathedral.


Comments (16)

  1. Judy Jones+ says:

    My mentor, my adviser, my friend. How I will miss you!

    Requiescat in pacem.

  2. Mollie Williams says:

    Lee was a dear and kind friend. Patient, more than many. And he knew what mattered in worship and gave the rest of us courage to know what we thought was essential – and stand by it in a gentle manner.

  3. David Crean says:

    I served several years with Lee as Reader for the General Ordination Examination. What rich years they were! Relaxing after a tough day wrestling with papers was blessed by Lee’s presence, his gentle but biting wit, and his penetrating insights. It was a joy to be in his presence and he has richly and immeasurably enhanced my life.

  4. Annette Pilcher says:

    The prayer over the water in the Baptismal Service is one of my favorite things in the BCP. We were blessed to have such a great theologian and writer among us

  5. I was saddened to hear of Lee’s death. He has been a good friend and counselor over the years.

    “Bring him to the fullness of your peace and glory.
    “Lord, hear our prayer.”

  6. Milner Seifert says:

    I have learned much from this colleague, mentor, and friend. I know he will continue to teach us, even when we are unaware it comes through Lee. I am most thankful for his faith, his witness, and his teaching.

  7. Will Smith says:

    Welcome, happy morning, Lee… you were one of the best during my years at Seabury. Continue His forever, dear brother, mentor and friend. We always said, if there was anything about Baptism that you needed to know, ask Lee…Rest well and in God’s eternal peace. Memory eternal.

  8. The Rev. Janet Campbell says:

    An amazing man and liturgical scholar, who has given us so much. Now he rejoices in the presence of the Risen One, as the baptismal rite he prepared for the BCP proclaims.

  9. Brian Jemmott says:

    I am enormously blessed to have know Lee, and well molded for the work of ministry as a priest in Christ’s one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, made possible through the wisdom he shared as a scholar, preacher, teacher, practitioner of liturgics, my seminary advisor, and friend. A saint and a giant was he. RIP Leonel Mitchell, as the angels welcome you into paradise.

  10. Alonzo Pruitt says:

    What a blessing to have been shaped by Lee Mitchell. He was an extraordinary teacher, a remarkable theologian, and had a genius for liturgy that will impact the world for ages to come. Scholar that he was, Lee also had the heart of a parish priest, and his counsel and example even now, 28 years after I graduated from Seabury, continue to instruct and inform. He was very serious about the Church and about excellence in ministry, but was never pompous or stuffy. Perhaps the Lord longed to be ever in the company of a man much like Himself. My sadness is only surpassed by my joy at having been one of his students. May he rest in peace, revel in grace, and rise in glory.

  11. Lee was a very good friend, mentor, and generous in sharing his wisdom to the congregation at Christ Episcopal Church, Warwick, NY; he made us all feel like we’d grown both liturgically, as well as personally, especially in difficult times. He will be sorely missed; may he rest in peace, and we look forward to seeing him again in the glorious resurrection to come!

  12. Janet Diehl says:

    One of my most memorable professors in seminary, Lee Mitchell made studying liturgy/BCP an orderly, faith filled adventure. I still refer to my copy of “Praying Shapes Believing”, and other texts that trace the history of liturgical development, for the shear joy of leaning more about our liturgy. As said above, he was neither pompous, nor stuffy. He was kind in answering questions, and ready to inform his students with additional information. Well done good and faithful servant. RIP

  13. Robert Hensley says:

    We who studied with and were mentored and formed by Canon Mitchell were blessed beyond measure by his ever-present wit, wisdom, profound faith and love of the Lord and this great Church of ours. Whether in the classroom, in Chapel, or in the hallways of SWTS, he was always fully present. While we are all poorer with his passing, we have a rich and wonderful legacy from him that truly is that “Pearl of Great Price.” May the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit be with all his family, friends, and all who knew and loved him. Well done, indeed!

  14. Freeman Gilbert says:

    The tears are flowing freely as I just now become aware of the death of Canon Mitchell. I only knew him as Canon of St. James Cathedral, South Bend, but I am eternally grateful to him for presiding at the Eucharist of Thanksgiving for the life of my father. I feel compelled to share from his homily on that occasion:

    “Christian liturgies for the dead always have a certain ambiguity about them, for they are tying to say two things at the same time. This in my opinion is not a weakness but a strength, for the feelings of those who celebrate them are pulled in two directions at once. Pulling in one direction are the magnificent affirmations of the liturgy, beginning with the ringing declaration: I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord, whoever has faith in me shall live, even though he die.

    “Pulling in the other direction is the fact of death. Death is the great enemy. As St. Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” We feel the loss of separation, the recognition that we shall not see our loved one again in this life, and we are apprehensive for them. We pray, ” Deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.”

    To me nowhere is this ambiguity so well expressed as in the anthem at the commendation in the Prayer Book Liturgy. Give Rest O Christ to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust;yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia , Alleluia.
    Even in the face of death we sing, Alleluia! It is not that we do not believe that death is real. It is very real, and its effects are devastating. But even more real is the love of the risen Christ, who has overcome death and calls us to live in him.

    As St. Paul wrote: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    What we do in this liturgy is give thanks to God for the life of Gerald Gene Gilbert (and of Leonel Mitchell), ask God to complete the work which he has begun in him so that any imperfections which remain in him may be made whole, and to welcome him into the eternal joy of God’s kingdom.

    We are not well equipped with information about what this life with God is like. We have traditionally used words like rest, peace and light to describe it, but they are clearly as metaphorical as “gates of pearl” and “golden thrones.” What is clear is that this is the completion of human life-the fullness of living for which we are always searching. And until we get there, we cannot really describe it. But we do know that we shall be reunited with all those who have gone before us in Christ, not just the saints and heroes of the Christian Church, but those whom we have know and loved,, so that their joy and ours may be full. For we are all one in Christ Jesus.

    So we confront death with faith and hope, and doubt and sadness, in the confidence that ” The hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live,” and so even at the grave we make our song: ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA.”

    I cry today, but yet I rejoice and give thanks for the life and ministry of Canon Leonel Mitchell. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!!!!!

  15. Harry Koeppel says:

    As a parishioner of St. john in the wilderness, Copake Falls, N.Y. I wish the eternal life for this man. I did not know this man for I came to St. Johns just after his term there. His influence has been very important to the church, and for the few surviving him and his tenure here are surely beloved.

  16. Beatrice Baxter Croteau says:

    Dear Beverly, Anne and David
    Hank & I are still attending St. John in the Wilderness, Copake Falls, NY. Father Leonell married us there April 4, 1959. We have never forgotten our Mitchells. So sorry to learn of your loss and Beverly we thank you for passing the word to us.
    Babs & Hank Croteau

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