John Polkinghorne: humble joy that spoke of solid hope

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John Polkinghorne (1930-2021)

March 2021

Revd Canon Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS was a leading voice bringing together theology and science, winning the Templeton Prize in 2002, and donating the $1m prize money to fund postdoctoral work in Cambridge on the interaction between scientific and spiritual knowledge.

John Polkinghorne (1930-2021)
John Polkinghorne (1930-2021)

A brilliant academic, Polkinghorne held the chair of Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge for eleven years before shocking his colleagues by resigning in 1979 at the age of 49 to train for ordination in the Church of England.

Priested in 1982, he went on to become President of Queens' College, Cambridge, from 1988 until 1996. In 1997 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for distinguished service to science, religion, learning, and medical ethics.

John Polkinghorne first served on Ridley's Council during the Principalship of Hugo de Waal. After a period of studying at Westcott House as a mature student, he returned to Council under Principal Graham Cray, having served as Chair of the Selection Committee that resulted in his appointment. He went on to play a key role in the college's ongoing development, acting as Chair of the Appeal Steering Group for the refurbishment of E and F staircases to provide more comfortable and en-suite student accommodation.

Ridley Associate and former Associate Principal Jeremy Begbie pays tribute to a humble and modest man whose quiet joy spoke of a solid hope in the gospel of Christ.

John Polkinghorne: humble joy that spoke of solid hope

Jeremy Begbie, former Associate Principal of Ridley Hall

There was a lot more to John than first met the eye. Exceedingly modest, he never advertised himself, never spoke of his numerous honours and awards. When I first met him, he was training for ordination at Westcott House, having just relinquished his Chair in Mathematical Physics. I had no idea who he was. Nothing about him gave me any clue I was speaking to one of the most distinguished quantum physicists in the world.

And yet despite the natural reticence, his influence was huge. And it came largely through an extreme economy with words. He was the sort who said a great deal by saying very little. I remember him well when he served on Ridley’s governing Council: when he spoke, you knew it would be worth listening to every word. When he wrote, he was always concise. It is no accident that all his books are wonderfully short, while limitless in their wisdom.

Whether speaking or writing, his belief that at the deepest level science and faith needed each other always shone through. He once conducted a retreat for us at Ridley, and began with an hour-long meditation on the enormity and diversity of the universe being grounded in the love of Christ. I could never think about creation in the same way again. In John’s presence even the most ardent religious sceptic was made to think again.

But just as influential as his work in science and theology, and just as important, was his care and prayer for people: as a curate, priest, chaplain and dean, and eventually, as President of Queens’ College. On numerous occasions he gave me just the wise and pointed advice I needed – and again, by saying relatively little.

Those of us lucky enough to know him will never forget the twinkle in his eye, the humble joy that spoke of solid hope, and those pared down words that told so richly of the Word made flesh.

Hear Polkinghorne on the mystery of quantum physics: