Nick Earle was a very familiar figure around Dulwich, almost the typical vicar you might have thought, with a Panama hat, a clerical collar and urgent step, who, when greeted, invariably broke into a beaming smile. But while he was a priest for most of his life, his day job was in education. For this he was well equipped, a formidable intellect coupled with a firm grounding in the Classics and an enjoyment of literature. It might therefore come as a surpise to those that did not know him well that he was an outstanding mathematician.
He gained a First in maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, returning after National Service in the Scots Guards, to take another first in Theology also at Trinity. Curacies in Bristol, New York and Aldgate followed. In 1961 he was appointed to the Maths post at Dulwich College.
The Venerable Robin Turner CB who was in his last year at the College when Nick was appointed writes:
When his controversial book, What’s Wrong with the Church? was published in 1961, I well remember the stir it caused. This tended to give Nick a reputation of an enfant terrible at the time, though I suspect much of what he wrote then would be considered uncontroversial today. The subsequent publication in, as I recall 1963, of Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God caused an even greater stir and I suspect to some extent eclipsed the impact of Nick’s book.
I got to know Nick personally much later when I returned to the College as Chaplain on my retirement from the Royal Air Force Chaplains’ Branch in 1998. By this time Nick had settled back in North Dulwich and he used to be a fairly frequent visitor to the Masters’ Common Room where we would often chat over a cup of coffee. By this time he had resigned his Orders as a Priest in the Church of England and naturally we spent some of our time discussing his reasons for this. In these discussions I came to admire him as a man of courage and principle.
As is well known, in November 1998 the Church of England General Synod took the historic decision to ordain women into the Priesthood. In order to accommodate those for whom this decision was unacceptable the Church came up with the solution of the “two integrities” thus preserving a semblance of unity within the Church of England. For Nick, integrity was indivisible and he, though fully supportive of women’s ministry, felt he could no longer hold office in an organisation which propounded what he saw as dishonest and inimical to his concept of the Church and the Christian Gospel.
This did not mean a cessation to his commitment to truth. Perhaps this is best illustrated by a little book he published in 1998 Does God Make Sense? This slim volume, a copy of which I still have on my shelves as a gift from him and which I have recently re-read, tackles in an approachable way the meaning of the language used in the philosophy of religion. It is dedicated to “The staff and pupils of James Allen’s Girls’ School” and illustrates the depth of learning of this remarkable man.
In 1971 Nick Earle was appointed Headmaster of Bromsgrove School. There he transformed the school, introducing co-education at a time which was very far-sighted, and oversaw the smooth assimilation of girls over the age of 8. Inevitably this brought pressures on boarding accommodation and houses in the town were brought onto the campus. Sports facilities took a great leap forward with the building of the school’s first sports hall and swimming pool.
After retirement from Bromsgrove in 1985 he and his wife Ann moved to Dulwich and he began teaching philosophy and maths part-time at JAGS and becoming an honorary curate at St Faith’s. He was a huge asset and gave great support to the vicar. As a lifelong devotee of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas he became an enthusiastic and key performer in St Faith’s legendary G & S productions. His other publications include Culture and Creed (1967), Logic (1973)