by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 64 - Jan 2017
‘The parents I chose, or the hand fate dealt me, blessed me with a mother who gave me a sense that nothing I ever did would cause her to stop loving me, though she’d hand me over to the police if I wouldn’t turn myself in. And a father who on returning from the war allowed me to argue endlessly about anything, and never condescended, condemned or crowed. Though I never admitted it, I lost every single argument, not because I was necessarily any stupider or less logical, but because he knew and had experienced so much more. We are pattern-making animals; by the next day, I had added his knowledge to mine and found the pattern had redrawn itself. It was a valuable lesson, that what we find plausible merely indicates the limits of our knowledge or a group prejudice; that there’s no shame in being wrong: the shame is in not respecting truth enough to be willing to grow.’
So wrote Paddy in his memoirs. His childhood home was in Kenya. Later he was sent to Eton, where contact with his family was more difficult, especially in the war years.
During one summer holiday he was persuaded to attend a camp organised by some conservative evangelicals. Just one thing put him off, and that was the statement that there would be religious services morning and evening. However he was used to putting up with them at Eton, so he accepted the invitation. The inevitable happened. He became an evangelical Christian. Later he took part in a Billy Graham mission and worked with disadvantaged young men in East London.
Entering the teaching profession, he first taught in Truro Cathedral School and then returned to Kenya to teach in Alliance High School, which had the conservative evangelical ethos that suited him. After a while Alliance sent him to New York to do further studies at Union Seminary, but there he came into contact with more liberal influences. They stayed with him for the rest of his life.
We might speculate that it was bound to happen eventually to someone with Paddy’s mind. One of the biggest influences in his evangelical conversion was a man who later said to him how much he was looking forward to being in heaven and leaning over the edge to listen to the screams of the damned in Hell. Paddy was shocked, told him off and, after a cooling-off period, received an apology. His memoirs state:
‘I was fifteen when I was converted or saved and it took another fifteen years, not so much to become unconverted or unsaved again, but to… reconcile religion with the rest of what I believed on good evidence in all the sciences and arts.’
After New York, he returned to Alliance School in Kenya but was a changed man, no longer what the school wanted. He returned to the UK in the early 1970s. After a short spell in a comprehensive school in west London, he moved to Blackheath High School for Girls where he taught theology for 11 years until his retirement in 1983. He wrote this of his teaching:
‘The first thing I said to each new class was: “Do not believe a word I say merely because I say it.”’
When he retired, he looked forward to exploring other audiences and areas of knowledge. He joined the Society of Process Thought, the Royal Institute of Philosophy and the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, now Modern Church.
I was introduced to him by Edward Compton. Edward was standing down after 20 years of being General Secretary of MCU, the grand old man of the organisation. He made sure that everybody understood: Paddy was his appointed successor. Paddy had no intention to become General Secretary, but the point was that he shared Edward’s beliefs. These beliefs were something like what would now be called ‘spiritual but not religious’, refusing to believe anything just because somebody in authority told them to believe it, but in the same way refusing to disbelieve just because somebody told them to. Life does have its unanswered questions, and Paddy could reflect on them in ways that helped other people while admitting his doubts.
He collected relevant quotations. Here is one:
‘Life is a journey, a voyage in uncharted waters, a pilgrimage, a quest, an adventure, a predicament, a feast or famine, a hand at cards we didn’t ask to play; to Horace Walpole “a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel”… to each of us a miracle, since the odds against our being born were astronomical.’
To this he added Mark Twain’s words:
‘Let us endeavour so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry’.
Thus he combined his commitment to reason with a sense of wonder in what goes beyond reason. Here he is on Einstein and Carlyle:
‘Reason can only go so far. The primary wonder and mystery is that anything exists at all; of the second wonder Einstein said: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility - The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Philosophy and science are born of wonder; Carlyle said “The man who cannot wonder, who does not habitually wonder and worship, is but a pair of spectacles, behind which there is no Eye.”’
In 2008 he refused chemotherapy for bowel cancer, and then changed his mind. Thereafter he was almost entirely confined to the house, and for the last few years, to his bed. This did not stop him communicating with friends all over the world, by means of a computer fixed to a frame over his bed.
He passed away early in the morning of 29th August. It speaks volumes for his influence that, 33 years after he retired from his teaching career, no fewer than four of his ex-pupils attended his funeral. He is survived by his cousin Tom, his ex-wife Ann, and her children Nick, Martin and Emma.