Rev Canon John Polkinghorne


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He became President of Queens' College Cambridge and as a leading thinker on science and religion won the £1 million Templeton Prize

The Reverend Canon John Polkinghorne, the former President of Queens' College Cambridge, who has died aged 90, was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University before resigning in 1979 to train for the ministry of the Church of England.

A practising Christian throughout his career as a scientist, Polkinghorne emerged as one of the world's leading thinkers on science and religion, on which he published a series of books and for which, in 2002, he received the £1-million Templeton Prize, awarded for exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension.

Polkinghorne's scientific field was theoretical elementary particle physics, and during the 1960s and 1970s he made contributions to the understanding of quantum theory -which explains physical phenomena in terms of the behaviour of sub-atomic particles whose existence can not be measured or detected.

As a theologian, he attempted to correlate the mysteries of quantum physics with those of the Christian faith.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, he maintained, the development of the empirical sciences had led to an estrangement between science and religion. Scientists had come to believe that the world was so determined by physical and mathematical laws that, as the 18th-century scientist Laplace put it, a "calculating demon" could predict the future and tell the whole of the past. It was a world that held no place for divine intervention.

Polkinghorne refused to accept that a belief in God meant "shutting your eyes and gritting your teeth and crying with Tertullian 'I believe because it's impossible' ". As a scientist, he was convinced that belief in God was not just compatible with scientific understanding, but that the physical reality of the world could be explained in terms of God's purposes.

Quantum theory had abolished the clear-cut certainties of Newtonian physics and introduced a "probabilistic" character to physical processes.

On top of that, chaos theory had suggested that unpredictability is characteristic, not just of quantum theory, but also of everyday life. Quantum scientists, Polkinghorne observed, believe in the existence of sub-atomic particles because the supposition of their existence - like belief in the existence of God - enables us to understand physical experience.

The partly hidden world of quantum mechanics is a world where "the providential aspect cannot be ruled out". One of the books in which Polkinghorne attempted to correlate the mysteries of quantum physics with those of the Christian faith

Polkinghorne's slogan was: "Epistemology models ontology", a phrase his wife heard him use so often that she gave him a sweatshirt inscribed with the words. "The idea comes out of my experience as a scientist," he explained, "but I think it's underwritten by the world being the creation of God, for God is not a deceiving demon in a Cartesian sense."

John Charlton Polkinghorne was born on October 16 1930 in Weston-super-Mare to George Polkinghorne, a post office worker ,and his wife Dorothy née Charlton, the daughter of a groom. A sister had died aged six a month before his birth, while an older brother became a wartime pilot in the RAF and was killed in 1942.

John was educated at Elmhurst Grammar School, Street, Somerset and, after his father was promoted to head postmaster in Ely, the Perse School, Cambridge, followed by Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read Mathematics. He took a doctorate in high energy physics under the guidance of Abdus Salam -who gave him the "somewhat dubious"advice to "publish all your ideas - people will only remember those that turn out well."

After National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps, Polkinghorne became a Fellow of Trinity in 1954. He worked as a lecturer in mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh from 1956 to 1958 and then returned to Cambridge where he was appointed Reader in theoretical physics in 1965 and Professor of Mathematical Physics in 1968.

He served as a member of the Science Research Council (1975-79) and as chairman of the Nuclear Physics Board (1978-79).

Polkinghorne enjoyed his career as a scientist, but knew that "theoretical physics, like most mathematically based subjects, is something you don't get better at as you grow older." As he approached his 50th birthday he concluded it was time for a change.

In 1979, to the incredulity of many of his colleagues (among whom, he recalled, he aroused the kind of suspicion "that might follow the claim to be a vegetarian butcher"), he announced his decision to take Holy Orders. After completing his theological studies at Westcott House, he served as a curate in Cambridge, then in a large working-class parish in Bristol. He was vicar of Blean, near Canterbury, from 1984 to 1986.

In 1986 he was appointed Fellow, Dean and Chaplain of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and in 1989 he was appointed President of Queens'College. There he made an enormous contribution to the life of the Chapel; as well as preaching regularly, he presided at almost half the communion services and attended almost every weekday morning prayer. He retired in 1996. The partly hidden world of quantum mechanics, he wrote, is a world where "the providential aspect cannot be ruled out".

As a scientist, Polkinghorne wrote several books on quantum theory, including The Particle Play (1979), Models of High Energy Processes (1980) and The Quantum World (1984).

His studies of science and religion began with The Way the World Is (1983 -"What I would like to have said to my scientific colleagues who couldn't understand why I was being ordained"), and continued in a series which included One World, Science and Creation (1988); Science and Providence (1989); Science and Christian Belief (1994); The Faith of a Physicist (1994); Belief in God in an age of Science (1998); Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (2005); Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (2007), and Questions of Truth (2009).

Polkinghorne served on many committees concerned with scientific ethics. A member of the Medical Ethics Committee of the British Medical Association and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, in 1988 he chaired a working party on cloning, held jointly with the Human Embryology Authority.

He was chairman of the Committee on the use of Foetal Material (1988-89), of the Nuclear Physics Board (1978-79), and of the Task Force to Review Services for Drug Misusers (1994-96).

He was a member of the General Synod and the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England (1989-96), and was chairman of the Science, Medicine and Technology Committee of the Church of England's Board of Social Responsibility, and of the publications committee of SPCK.

He was one of the founders of the Society of Ordained Scientists, a dispersed preaching order of the Anglican Communion, and he was chairman of the governors of the Perse School (1972-81).

John Polkinghorne was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974. He was appointed KBE in 1997, though as a clergyman he did not use the prefix "Sir".

He married, in 1955, Ruth Martin, whom he had met as a student at the Christian Union of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. She died in 2006 and he is survived by their two sons and a daughter.

The Reverend Canon John Polkinghorne, born October 16 1930, died March 9 2021

18 March 2021 © Daily Telegraph