By Alister McGrath

The Rev. John C. Polkinghorne, a renowned mathematical physicist who stepped down as a Cambridge professor to become a parish priest, died on March 9 at the age of 90.

He was a leading British voice in the field of science and religion, a frequent visitor to the United States, and a major influence on Anglican reflections on the relation of science and faith.

Polkinghorne initially studied mathematics as an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge in the early 1950s, where he was an active member of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. He met Ruth Martin, who was also studying mathematics at Cambridge, and they later married. After gaining an outstanding first degree in mathematics, Polkinghorne took a doctorate at Cambridge in physics. After a series of academic appointments in North America and Scotland, he returned to Cambridge in 1958, where he finally became a professor of mathematical physics.

His work in quantum theory gained international attention, and he played a pivotal role in the discovery of the quark, the smallest elementary particle of matter. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1974. Throughout his Cambridge period, Polkinghorne was actively engaged in exploring the relation of science and faith, particularly through the Research Scientists’ Christian Fellowship (now renamed “Christians in Science”).

In 1979, Polkinghorne told his baffled Cambridge colleagues that he intended to resign his professorship to prepare for parish ministry in the Church of England. His academic colleagues were stunned, seeing this as an incomprehensible development. Why would someone give up a prestigious Cambridge chair in order to work in a parish church? Polkinghorne, however, took the view that mathematicians, like himself, generally did their best work before they were 45. He felt that it was time to move on to enter a new phase in his career and his life.

At this stage, Polkinghorne saw his future in the regular pastoral ministry of the Church of England. After training at Westcott House, Cambridge, he served as curate of St Michael and All Angels, Bedminster (a working-class suburb of Bristol), before becoming a vicar of a village parish church in Blean (close to the cathedral city of Canterbury) from 1984-86.

Although Polkinghorne had impeccable scientific credentials, he was able to speak to ordinary Christians intelligently and pastorally about his own faith, and how this related to his earlier scientific career.

Polkinghorne’s approach to the relation of science and faith can be summarized in one of the straplines of an early book on this theme: “Theology and science differ greatly in the nature of the subject of their concern. Yet each is attempting to understand aspects of the way the world is.” Polkinghorne chose the title One World for this work to emphasize the unity of the human quest for understanding of our world. Both science and theology are “responses to the way things are.”

Like C. S. Lewis before him, Polkinghorne was committed to a consensual Christian orthodoxy, ensuring that his views connected with ordinary Christians, particularly those who were scientists. Polkinghorne was able to reassure them that they could hold their faith and their science together with intellectual integrity.

Although Polkinghorne was reluctant to leave regular parish ministry, he felt he could not refuse an invitation to return to Cambridge as dean of chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he served from 1986-89. (One of Polkinghorne’s predecessors in that role was Robert Runcie, who later served as Archbishop of Canterbury). In a surprise move, after three years he was elected president of Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he served from 1989-96. He was canon theologian of Liverpool Cathedral from 1994–2005 and of the college of Six Preachers, Canterbury Cathedral, from 1996–97. In 1997, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his public service.

After his retirement, Polkinghorne was able to take on more responsibilities, particularly within the Church of England. He served as chairman of the Science, Medicine and Technology Committee of the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility, and of the publications committee of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He served on the General Synod (1990-2000) and the Doctrine Commission (1989-1995) of the Church of England. Internationally, he gave the prestigious Dwight H. Terry Lectures at Yale University in 1996-97. He was later awarded the Templeton Prize for Religion in 2002, and became the founding president of the International Society for Science and Religion. His wife Ruth died in 2006.

Despite the intensity of some of the debates that centered on science and religion, Polkinghorne avoided the temptation to become a polemicist along the lines of Richard Dawkins, instead modelling his own distinctively irenic and gracious approach. This emphasized a positive and constructive relationship between science and faith, deeply rooted in his Anglican love for the Bible and the Christian tradition.

His 2010 work Encountering Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible displayed his gifts as a communicator, as well as his pastoral approach to the questions of faith that concerned many ordinary Anglicans. In my view, his Anglican identity is best seen in his Science & Christian Belief: Theological Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker. This important work, based on his 1993–94 Gifford Lectures, takes the form of a sustained engagement with the Nicene Creed from both a theological and a scientific perspective.

Yet despite his academic eminence, Polkinghorne was also a pastor, someone who was able to identify himself with the needs and concerns of ordinary Christians, and speak to those concerns compassionately and intelligently. Polkinghorne may have left parish ministry behind him, but he never lost interest in the questions about science and faith that ordinary Christians considered important. Many will continue to benefit from his wisdom in the years to come.

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.