Sadly Revd Canon Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS passed away in Cambridge in March 2021, aged 90. A number of CiS members and friends share their memories of John:-
I was sad to hear of the death of John Polkinghorne because he had had such a wonderful and effective life that many will miss. I new John in a slightly different way to many other members because when I became a vicar in Bristol in 1984 I inherited John as my curate. He had left trained and become ordained with the long term purpose of seeking a ministry that helped people understand the compatibility of both modern scientific understanding and his firm Christian faith not as two separate areas but as one human experience. To become a full clergyman and to earth his theology John served as a curate in a largely working class parish in inner Bristol. I took over as Vicar there for the last year of this curacy before he moved to a small parish in Kent and began writing his series of books that many of us have appreciated. I found him a very humble man with a good pastoral heart. At our first staff meeting he said he had been invited as a fellow of the Royal Society to speak at an international conference in the South of France but had said he would have to wait for the arrival of his new boss before he could accept! His warmth of personality and the medical problems he was suffering at the time endeared him to parishioners as he engaged at a very human level. He found it a great opportunity to hone his skills in expressing complicated ideas in ways ordinary people could understand.
He was an inspiration to me as a former chemist and I went on in my ministry to run courses in my parishes on issues of science and faith and the spirituality that could embrace both.So many seemed ignorant of both Christian understanding and current scientific thought. In retirement I have concentrated on helping youth leaders understand how they can answer the questions of young people about science and faith. I shall continue to treasure both the privilege and inspiration I derived from getting to know John.
For me as a young scientist, Sir Prof. Rev. John Polkinghorne provided “proof” that there was no contradiction between being a respected scientist and a christian. His intelligence, his sincerity and the ability to communicate both at once left a lasting impression on me. He was undoubtedly a leading light of his generation, but also worked hard to ensure that the flame would be passed onto the next.
Sad news but a man of gentleness and integrity with great hope. I have found his thoughts on eschatology from a scientific perspective really helpful, and not many others have engaged with that. I attended a lecture of his at the Sheffield Theological Society in the early nineties which got me going in my thinking around Science and Faith.
John was our Reader at Holy Trinity Cambridge in the 1970s, while still Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University. His sermons were a model of spiritual warmth and intellectual rigour, with a remarkable humility and transparency in sharing himself and the quest for truth. He later proved to be a winsome and compelling evangelist with his ‘bottom-up’ thinking about God in an age which has difficulty contemplating the transcendent. His first foray into writing on Science and Faith, ‘The Way The World Is’ (SPCK Triangle, 1983) was a game-changer in bridging the perceived gap between the two, and hailed by the Church Times reviewer David L Edwards as one of his best books of the year.
I had read some of his books but never had the chance to meet him. Lots to discuss in glory.
He was a wonderful man and I went to hear him speak. He was a great scientist, and portrayed his love of Christ to many as well. He will be missed.
From a personal perspective, John Polkinghorne has been my hero since I first read a book by him when I was a teenager. When first met him as an undergraduate student I was amazed by the respectful way he talked with me, despite my lack of experience compared to his. Every time I have been privileged to have met him, I have been impressed, not only by his wisdom but also by his grace. He has done so much for our community of scientists who are Christians and I thank God for his life & work. I am sure that the legacy he leaves us with in his writings and videos will continue to inspire generations to come.
John Polkinghorne has been a constant in my working life and instrumental to how I think about the relationships between science and religion. I’m only one of thousands who have been impressed and affected by his work. I’m also in a very crowded club of people who have benefitted from attending John’s talks.
John Polkinghorne was knighted in 1997 for distinguished service to science, religion, learning, and medical ethics. He has also received the Templeton prize. After working in physics for a very long time (25 years) John then became a Priest. John said that the aim of his intellectual explorations – as a physicist and as a priest – was to bring these parts together – without compartmentalism.
I work in education and you will find John’s name on BBC Bitesize as well as in numerous curriculum documents and on exam specifications. I think John’s ideas are so loved and widely shared in education not only because they are inspirational and significant but also because his writing is engaging and accessible.
John talked about fine tuning and he painted pictures with words about what would happen if the stars were all a bit too big or too small. He described physics and theology as ‘cousins’ and said of their relationship that there are still some puzzles left to be solved. When John talked about science and about God, it was with wonder and mystery and excitement and delight.
John said that his favourite quotes included this one by Bernard Lonergan: ‘God is the all sufficient explanation, the eternal rapture glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of eureka’.
John said about this quote that, “The search for understanding, which is so natural to a scientist is, in the end, the search for God. That is how religion will continue to flourish in this Age of Science.”
Thank you John.
Prof Berry Billingsley