Obituary: Canon David Paton
Monday 20 July 1992
DAVID PATON was an Anglican priest, missionary and writer, loved and valued by those who hoped that the Church would take risks. On the surface he was abrasive, gruff, tough and delighted in cutting through verbiage and churchiness. His brusqueness, however, hid an interior tenderness and sensitive kindness. The Church never quite knew what to do with him and ultimately sent him to a city parish in Gloucester, where he was greatly loved as a pastor, especially of folk who were under criticism, such as women who were offering for ordination. He earned the gratitude of those who worked for the Civic Trust in Gloucester by his strenuous support of conservation campaigns.
He could never forget his brilliant father, William Paton, a front-rank ecumenical strategist who worked in India as a Presbyterian and later with William Temple as one of the creators of the World Council of Churches. After theology at Oxford and three years on the staff of the Student Christian Movement at Birmingham, David Paton committed himself to the Christian Mission to China, experiencing the fall of the National Government, the Japanese onslaught and the coming of Communism. The blindness of the West to Chinese culture included Western and American churches and drove him to denounce all forms of 'Rice-Christianity' and underlay his profound book, Christian Missions and the Judgement of God (1953). Alison, his stalwart partner, whom he married in 1946, was herself born in China and together the number of their Chinese friends was to grow year after year.
Paton challenged the 'niceness' of the Anglican establishment and the isolation of much English religion. As one of the talented group of SCM Secretaries and later, during a year's leave from China, as chaplain of Westcott House, the extreme bluntness of his language startled even those straight from the war. He tried hard to shake ordinands from what he felt to be their over-cosy theology and sprituality and lead them to Soren Kierkegaard, Reinhold, Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, and to turn their attention to the worker priests of Paris and the industrial mission in Sheffield. He early foresaw the decline in the number of stipendiary male priests in Anglican and Roman churches and pressed the example of Roland Allen and others who looked for a church which would not be neutered by clericalism and denominational divisions. He knew that Christianity was surviving and even spreading under persecution in China without benefit of hierarchy.
After 1950 he was never to return to the East, except on an occasional visit to Hong Kong, but continued to show his love for China, giving many years as Chairman of the China Study Project. He promoted thought and conferences on reunion, renewed forms of worship and Anglican self- criticism. He believed that churches involved in internal battles lost their sense of the Gospel, whereas Christians who confronted the real evils of the world, such as anti-Semitism, rediscovered the Gospel. He felt there were lessons here for the post-war Church of England, entangling itself in arguments on the alleged inadequacy of Methodists, and of the Church of South India.
After a brief unsuccessful period as editor of the SCM Press, the Church's authorities showed their respect for his writings and attitudes by making him a Chaplain to the Queen, and an honorary Canon of Canterbury. He was given posts at Church House but was never entrusted with a major executive task.
He continued to publish and increasingly stressed the treasures of the English 14th-century mystics and the need to see Christianity as a way, and not as an intellectual scheme to be thrust on others. He was always a more effective writer than speaker.
His research into the historic ordination to the priesthood in January 1944, in Xing Xing, of Florence Tim Oi Li (the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion) is of special importance. Paton saw in this fresh initiative to provide a sacramental ministry to a congregation isolated by war a 20th-century repetition of St Peter's initiative in baptising the gentile Cornelius and only afterwards obtaining Synodical approval. Both the baptism of Cornelius and the ordination of Florence involved taking a risk. Though the 1968 Lambeth Conference report had commented that the New Testament does not encourage the view that nothing should be done for the first time, this recognition was slow in gaining ground in England.
David Paton's tragic illness, when he was so nobly supported by his wife Alison, made writing in his last years increasingly difficult. He endured unremitting pain and disability with grace for more than 10 years. He continued to keep in touch with friends, both in England and China. He ended his contribution to The Weight of Glory (1991), a volume on the future of theology, by urging that 'we are entering a strange new world in which we are enriched if we persevere expectantly. In fact, we must give ourselves, in the best Chinese tradition, to happy feasting with poets and sages . . . We have to learn to look at other people, especially those about whom we know little or nothing, in a spirit of hopefulness, exploring other people's strange ideas rather than hitting them on the head with our traditions . . . They may see in the dross nuggets of truth we have not noticed until they point them out to us.'
So this angular but totally loyal Anglican continued to gaze into the future of religion in Europe and Asia.
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