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Obituary: The Revd John Papworth

31 July 2020

Will Sutherland writes:

THE Revd John Papworth died peacefully on 4 July, aged 98, at his home in Purton. Always a charismatic and controversial figure, John never tired in his attempts to make the world a better place suffused with a love of God.

It was always exciting to look forward to the strange mix of people whom I could expect to find when I was invited to dine at John Papworth’s. In many ways, the basement dining room in St John’s Wood was the nerve centre of his pioneering and imaginative intellectual world, coupled, of course, with the delicious meals that he cooked with a certain reckless flair.

I was lucky enough to become part of this merry-go-round of friends (call them intellectual sparring partners if you like) in 1988. With his clever and charming French wife, Marcelle, and his three (then teenage) children, the house at Abercorn Place was always full of energy and new ideas.

John was a tireless seeker after change and a full-on Christian, albeit with a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the church Establishment (his pronouncement in 1997 that stealing from a supermarket was not a “sin” made news headlines around the world). John was eccentric, brave, constantly energetic, and a first-rate orator and performer. From his somewhat uncertain origins, as an orphan (born in 1921 and raised in an orphanage), John soon cut his own furrow in the world after leaving his work as a cook in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. The power of his lively mind was noticed by his senior officers. As a result, the RAF supported him through a degree in economic history at London University.

John soon became active in the Labour Party and developed a close relationship with one of its leading thinkers, R. H. Tawney. John found a great resonance with Tawney’s belief that over-centralised government posed great dangers for humanity. This concern would become a guiding foundation for much of John’s later writing and campaigning. Indeed, he was able to put some of these ideas into practice during the extraordinary ten years that he spent as President Kaunda’s close adviser in the emerging African country of Zambia.

It was during his time there that John was ordained priest (describing himself as an “Anglo-Catholic-Quaker”). His guiding moral principles were Christ’s summary of the law. John supplemented these by a duty to protect God’s Creation — which embodies God’s will and sustains all men — to prevent its being despoiled by ignorance and greed.

During the 1960s, John’s energy and charisma brought together many of the leading alternative thinkers of that time. The list included Leopold Kohr, Dr E. F. Schumacher, John Seymour, Elisabet Sahtouris, E. P. Thompson, Nicholas Albery, and Kirkpatrick Sale, among others too numerous to mention. These pioneers of “green” or “sustainable” thinking came together in the first Fourth World Assembly organised by John; they also wrote articles for John’s newly created magazine Resurgence. In effect, John’s energy became a catalyst for a whole new line of political thinking which put the sanctity of human values and the health of the environment at its centre.

The “Fourth World” was a concept invented by John to include small nations re-emerging from colonialism, ethnic minorities seeking to govern their own affairs, and small human-scale village communities. Promotion of the “Fourth World” was a central feature throughout John’s life.

John’s restless curiosity and intellectual energy made him much more than a preacher or a thinker. Above all, John was a man of action, taking a leading part in many protest actions (often organised by the Quakers), and enduring several periods in prison as a result. He was at the centre of controversy over the escape of the convicted spy George Blake, who was able to hide in John’s house after his break from prison. John conducted a one-man protest against cars by sitting down on the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing made famous by the Beatles.

In 1980, returning from Zambia, he founded the magazine Fourth World Review. In 1983, he started the dinner meetings of the so-called “Academic Inn”, at which leading alternative thinkers could exchange ideas in convivial surroundings (an idea first proposed by Ivan Illich). Even in his later years, having moved to Purton after Marcelle’s death in 1997, John took an active part in church and community life, starting the local newsletter Purton Today.

I owe a great debt to John. He was not only a stimulating friend for many years, but it was through him that I met (and later worked and lived with) John Seymour. So began my own journey as a promoter and pioneer of self-sufficiency. My most cherished memory of John was the occasion in Dallas, Texas, when, late at night after a long day’s conference, we found that the only place where we could get sustenance was a busy McDonald’s. John described the place as a vision from hell and, to our astonishment and the amazement of onlookers and staff, immediately jumped up on to a table. From there he delivered a dramatic and perfect rendering of Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be . . .”. To our relief, it was rapturously received. This was vintage John Papworth. What more can one say?

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