A supporting pillar: John Atherton

johnathertonHilary Russell and John Battle worked alongside John Atherton in the founding of Church Action on Poverty. They have shared these memories and tributes to John, who passed away last week.

On hearing of John Atherton’s death, many of us will feel that as well as losing a colleague and much loved friend, a supporting pillar has gone from our lives.  Having known him for over 30 years, that is certainly how we feel. It is especially poignant that his death comes at a time when we desperately need wise theological counsel in public life.  John not only brought intellectual rigour and the capacity to bridge different academic disciplines, but also ensured that he remained grounded in the realities of life for those at the sharp end of public policy.

Others will write about his immense contribution to the William Temple Foundation, but it is also important to recall that he was a founding father of Church Action on Poverty.  He wrote The Scandal of Poverty: Priorities for the Emerging Church in 1983.  In that, he set out five moral tests of social and economic policy.  These five questions themselves continue to be as relevant as ever as part of his enduring legacy.  In what ways and to what extent do policies:

  • Care for those least able to help themselves?
  • Reduce those divisions in society which separate people and communities from each other and generate attitudes of superiority and deference?
  • Encourage people to have more and more say over matters which affect their daily lives and the life of society?
  • Encourage a view of society operating as society, not just as a bulwark against wrongdoing but also as a promoter of good relationships?
  • Promote the viability of society and the communities within it?

John said “Given that the five tests begin to offer a way of making sense of social vision, how can the Church appropriately and realistically pursue the demands of such vision within the political arena?” It was in trying to answer that question that Church Action on Poverty was formed in 1982, with John as one of the main movers and shakers.  For this and for many other reasons, many of us are profoundly grateful to him.

John Battle and Hilary Russell


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