Canon Arthur Peacocke

Biochemist-theologian who was a leading contributor to the dialogue between science and religion
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arthur Robert Peacocke, biochemist and priest: born Watford, Hertfordshire 29 November 1924; Assistant Lecturer, then Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer in Biophysical Chemistry, Birmingham University 1948-59; Lecturer in Biochemistry, Oxford University 1959-73; Fellow and Tutor in Chemistry, subsequently in Biochemistry, St Peter's College, Oxford 1959-73; Lecturer in Chemistry, Mansfield College, Oxford 1964-73; ordained deacon 1971, priest 1971; Dean and Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge 1973-84; Director, Ian Ramsey Centre, Oxford 1985-88, 1995-99; Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford 1985-88; Honorary Chaplain, Christ Church Cathedral 1988-96, 2001-04, Honorary Canon, Oxford 1995-2004 (Emeritus); MBE 1993; Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion 2001; married 1948 Rosemary Mann (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 21 October 2006.

Arthur Peacocke was internationally recognised as one of the leading figures in the vigorous dialogue taking place today between science and religion. Attracted to Christianity in his youth, he became detached from the Church while an undergraduate chemist, but a sermon by Archbishop William Temple that he heard delivered in Oxford showed him that religious belief could be approached in a style of intellectual openness and scrupulosity. The resulting return to the faith was to bear much fruit over many years.

From Watford Grammar School, he had gone up to Exeter College, Oxford, in 1942, subsequently researching for a DPhil under the guidance of the Nobel laureate Sir Cyril Hinshelwood. Later Peacocke was to take the Oxford degrees of DSc and DD, an unusual and distinguished combination. He gave an account of his personal explorations in both science and theology in an autobiographical chapter in his book From DNA to Dean (1996).

Peacocke's scientific career flourished as he concentrated on problems in physical biochemistry. These included the study of properties of DNA, just at the time that its structure was being elucidated by Francis Crick and James Watson. Later, Peacocke's interests turned to the irreversible nature of biological processes, resulting in the publication of An Introduction to the Physical Chemistry of Biological Organisation (1983). It was a summation of his lifelong interest in thermodynamical problems. After 10 years lecturing at Birmingham University (1948-59), he returned to Oxford as Lecturer in Biochemistry and a Fellow of St Peter's College, positions he held from 1959 to 1973.

While at Birmingham, Peacocke had been encouraged by the Professor of Theology, Geoffrey Lampe, to continue his intellectual exploration of Christian thinking by taking a theological degree. At the same time, he had become a Licensed Lay Reader in the Church of England. The sacramental principle had been of great importance to Peacocke in his own spiritual life and he began to long to exercise a full sacramental ministry as a priest.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1971 in Christ Church Cathedral, by Kenneth Woolcombe, then Bishop of Oxford. Two years later he was invited to become Fellow and Dean of Clare College, Cambridge. Peacocke tells us that the decision to leave Oxford and go to Cambridge was "not easy", but it proved a successful move and he remained at Clare for 11 years. During this time he taught in both the theological and science faculties. In 1984, the call came to return to Oxford as Director of the newly established Ian Ramsey Centre. After retirement, Peacocke remained in Oxford, becoming an Honorary Canon of Christ Church Cathedral.

Arthur Peacocke received many invitations to deliver named lectures on issues in science and religion. Among the most significant of these were his Bampton Lectures in 1979 and the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews in 1993. The first of these resulted in the widely influential book Creation and the World of Science (1979) and the second produced what most would consider his most important work, Theology for a Scientific Age (1993).

As a biologist, Peacocke was able to give a positive theological interpretation of evolution, emphasising that God is no cosmic despot keeping tight control of creation; rather, the history of the world is to be understood theologically as an unfolding exploration and unending improvisation of great and continuing fruitfulness, in which creator and creatures both participate. He delighted to illustrate these insights with metaphors drawn from music, which meant so much to him in his personal life.

Although Peacocke quite often spoke in a revisionary mode about the need for modifications in theological discourse, he also had respect for the insights of the past, taking with great seriousness the importance of the New Testament witness and expressing his admiration for the truth-seeking stance taken by thinkers such as Origen, Augustine and Anselm.

He was robustly critical of scientistic reductionism, often remarking that "atoms and molecules are not more real than cells, or populations of cells, or human communities, or human persons". Like many scientist-theologians, he took a critical realist view of the nature of human knowledge, both in relation to science and to theology, a position that he defended in Intimations of Reality (1984).

In addition to his many personal contributions to the dialogue between science and religion, Peacocke also played an important role in founding a number of organisations that have played important parts in facilitating that dialogue. In the early 1970s he was a leader in the discussions that led to the formation of the Science and Religion Forum in the United Kingdom, whose annual discussion meetings have proved a very successful enterprise. Peacocke was the forum's first chairman. Later he was active in the founding of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology.

Perhaps his most imaginative and fruitful achievement in this field was the conception and foundation in 1987 of the Society of Ordained Scientists, a kind of "dispersed religious community", prayerfully linking together clergy with serious scientific concerns. Peacocke was SOSc's first Warden.

Peacocke received much international recognition of his achievements, including honorary degrees and the award of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2001.

His marriage to Rosemary Mann, one of HM Inspectors of Schools, was obviously one of great happiness and mutual support. They had two children, a son who is a professor of philosophy and a daughter who is an Anglican priest.

Arthur Peacocke bore his last illness with great fortitude and faith, in a way that was an inspiration to his many friends.

John Polkinghorne