Doctor Owen Cole: Teacher and author

Educationist who furthered religious tolerance and tirelessly championed the understanding of Sikhism

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The Independent Online

Owen Cole came from a generation of pioneering educationists in the field of religious studies and was the author of more than 30 books designed to increase understanding and tolerance of different faiths.

He was unswervingly committed to justice for the UK’s faith communities and especially to ensuring that Sikhism was soundly represented in religious education in schools. Indeed, for many his name calls to mind Sikhs and their religious tradition. The transformation of religious education from instruction primarily in the Christian faith to a subject that would develop teachers’ and pupils’ understanding and an appreciation of world faiths owes much to Cole’s vision and efforts.

Cole was born in Sheffield and attended schools in Bradford and Newcastle. At Heckmondwike Grammar School he was captain of cricket and football and head boy, with a reputation as a good leader who could bring out the best in others. He drew inspiration from his liberal-minded father, a Welsh miner turned Congregationalist minister. Cole graduated in history from Durham University, where he also obtained a diploma in education. A conscientious objector, he refused to do postwar National Service, citing the Jewish and Christian scriptures that exhort followers to love one’s neighbour as oneself. During his service with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit he came across Quakers and, decades later, after many years in the Church of England, he joined the Quakers – the Religious Society of Friends.

He taught in a primary school near Bath and in a comprehensive school in Harlow, then trained teachers at Northern Counties College (now Northumbria University), James Graham College (now Leeds Metropolitan University) and West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Chichester), where he became head of religious studies in 1984.

It was in Leeds, from 1968, that he encountered Sikhs, among them his “brother”, Piara Singh Sambhi. Cole’s books A Sikh Family in Britain (1972) and, with Piara Singh, Sikhism (1973) were probably the first UK school books on Sikh religion. Owen and Piara Singh then produced a standard work, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1978, second edition 1995). Another school text, Meeting Sikhism, followed in 1980, then A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism in 1990 and Sikhism and Christianity: A Comparative Study in 1993.

With like-minded scholars and educationists, in 1969 Cole had co-founded the Shap Working Party on World Religions and Education, named after the village in Cumbria where its first conference was held. He was passionate that religious traditions be accurately and empathetically portrayed, and that teachers should be supported in excellent practice. His pioneering publications include Religion in the Multi Faith School (1972 and 1983), and he edited the first Commission for Racial Equality/Shap  publication, World Religions: A Handbook for Teachers. When the Shap mailing became a Shap journal, Owen edited it until he was replaced by an editorial team. Particularly inspiring is a 1997 publication he co-edited for schools, Spirituality in Focus.

While Cole was suspicious of “ivory tower” academics and saw himself as a populariser and teacher, he was also much respected for his scholarship. His research at the University of Leeds, first for an MPhil with distinction in 1975 and then a PhD in 1979, was highly praised by the examiners, and recommended for publication. Appearing as The Guru in Sikhism (1982), and Sikhism in its Indian Context 1469-1708: The Attitude of Guru Nanak and Early Sikhism to Indian Religious Beliefs and Practices (1984), his findings were described as “a first class piece of original research” where “Sikh texts are examined, and their theological implications are considered, in a manner attempted by few modern non-Sikh scholars”. In 1983 he was visiting professor in religious studies at Punjab University, Patiala, India and from 1992-1996, as a consultant of the International Sacred Literature Trust, he ensured that a rendering by Professor Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh of parts of the Sikh scripture was included in the trust’s series.

His commitment to community relations and open interfaith dialogue led to his vice-chairing the Yorkshire Committee for Community Relations from 1976-1981 and to his appointment in 1980 as honorary Anglican interfaith consultant to the archbishops of Canterbury and York. He Cole persevered despite the pain and poor health of recent years, publishing Understanding Sikhism (2004), his autobiographical Cole Sahib (2009), and, last year, The Jesus Diary, but felt greatly diminished by his physical inability to write. 

He loved cricket and rugby, and in 1963 was awarded an MCC Cricket Coaching Certificate. His life was enriched by his many friendships, as was borne out by the attendance at his memorial service, held in the manner of Quakers, in the University of Chichester chapel, and he was unstintingly supportive when friends faced difficulties. Gwynneth, his wife, and latterly carer, died last year.

William Owen Cole, religious educationist: born Sheffield 22 September 1931; married Gwynneth (died 2013; two daughters); died 26 October 2013.