Reverend Peter Thomson: Anglican minister who was a crucial early influence on Tony Blair

Monday 15 February 2010 01:00

Peter Thomson, Anglican minister and social activist, was noted for being a key influence on the young Tony Blair, a committed Christian socialist and a particularly irreverent reverend.

Encountering him at Oxford, Blair described Thomson as spellbinding and "the person who most influenced me". The future prime minister was fascinated by Thomson's central belief that religion should be related to action. Thomson argued, with a dash or Australian brashness, that spending "theological days involved in reflective thinking and contemplating your navel and all that type of thing" was important.

But, he added, "Every time I was involved in action, everything came alive. The smiles started to come. You saw people as they were and it became exciting."

Sometimes his brashness was too much, certainly for the Anglican hierarchy in Australia. As a vicar in Melbourne he took a job as a maths teacher to raise funds for his poor parish. He further alarmed the bishops when he proposed to raise more money by having his wife Helen open a hairdressing salon inside his church. After ignoring warnings Thomson was dismissed.

"I remember going into Bishops Court in East Melbourne and the bishop sacking me," he recalled. "He was a lovely old soft fella and really couldn't tell me why. So the door of the lodge closes behind me – I am sacked. And I forgot to ask to go to the loo. So I thought, bugger it. I stood on the edge of the front veranda and peed on the lawn."

History does not record whether the quads of Oxford received similar treatment but Thomson, as a mature student in his 30s reading theology at St John's, was by no means an orthodox clergyman, describing himself as a renegade priest.

Blair and others would gather in his rooms for what one participant called "long meaning-of-life sessions".

A fellow-cleric tried to capture some of Thomson's appeal by describing him as "somebody who is just who they are, no apologies – rough bits, nice bits, smooth bits, a twinkle in his eye, lots of enthusiasm and some wisdom – all that together makes him very compelling."

His language is remembered as anything but reverential. "Peter's a hard-drinking, hard-smoking Australian and he speaks it as he sees it," according to Geoff Gallop, an Australian fellow-student and political friend. "The language he uses is the language of the hard-hitting bronzed Australian. He's not ashamed of that and he thinks it certainly adds to any discussion that he has."

That was very much how Blair remembered him, saying in a tribute: "He was the most un-vicar-like of vicars. He and the adorable Helen kept open house for us all, but though much tea was drunk – along with many other things – a vicarage tea party it wasn't. Never have dog collar and manner of speaking been in such blissful disharmony."

Blair described the brand of Christian socialism he learnt from Thomson as "very much focused on the notion of Christianity as living action in fellowship with others, rather than a private communication to a private and personal God. What I drew from Peter Thomson is the idea that your religious belief wasn't something that shut you away from the world but something that meant that you had to go out and act.

"I had always believed in God but I had become slightly detached from it. I couldn't make sense of it. Peter made it relevant, practical rather than theological." Blair-watchers will spend many years ahead pondering the extent to which actions such as going to war in Iraq sprang from the philosophy of combining private faith and public activity.

Thomson thought highly of the young Blair, saying of him: "He was young and full of life, a person who had this joie de vivre. He'd a keen intellect and a sense of compassion."

He added, with a mixture of humour and affection: "What the people of Britain don't understand about Tony Blair is that basically he's an Australian."

Thomson took his ideas from the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, who preached that "all meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action," and insisted that religion should be linked with social action.

As Blair's biographer John Rentoul relates, Thomson left Oxford at the end of Blair's second year to return to teach at Timbertop School in Australia. He was not at the school during Prince Charles's time there but did encounter, as a teaching assistant, Boris Johnson. The future lord mayor of London found him both charming and "a bit of a hell-raiser".

Thomson retired from teaching in 1993 at the age of 57, to a farm in the foothills of Mount Buller, but a year later Blair's election to the Labour leadership brought him speeding back to England. Asked about Blair's growth since their time at Oxford, Thomson commented: "Tone's come a long way since then, but he's still got the basic thrust of it all. He's developed a political realisation of the ideas, but they're still there."

Peter Thomson was the second-eldest of four children born into a well-off Melbourne family. Leaving school in his teens he joined his father's estate agency but eventually responded to a strong calling to the church.

He had two spells in Britain, during one of which he was vicar of a north London parish. His enthusiasm for community projects led him to immerse himself in a Community Action Network, with involvement in a wide range of social enterprises.

In 2001 he returned to Australia to become chaplain of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, a leading welfare agency, in a role which allowed him to put into effect his belief that religion should have a practical component. Among its activities was a Social Entrepreneurs Network which worked in poor and crime-affected districts.

Peter Thomson was aged 73 when he died, of emphysema. He is survived by his wife, five children and nine grandchildren.

David McKittrick

Peter Ashley Thomson, clergyman and social entrepreneur: born 19 March 1936; married 1961 (one girl, four boys); died 16 January 2010.

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