I was shocked when I heard that Father Peter Jackson, 69, had died on August 30. Having suffered a pulmonary embolism, he passed away a few days later in hospital surrounded by family and friends. In the words of many, he genuinely was “one of the kindest people I had ever met.” A eucharist at Holy Trinity Nice will take place at 11 am on Wednesday, October 12 will be followed by the committal of ashes in the church yard. There will be a private cremation in advance.
Father Peter came to Holy Trinity Nice in October 2014. During my years as Editor-in-Chief of the Riviera Reporter magazine, I had the privilege to sit down with him several times after he first arrived, which happened to be mere months before the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Uncannily, he was also in Washington as 9/11 unfolded, driving across the bridge as the Pentagon was hit. The story below is based on two interviews, from March 2015 and November 2015, when he reflected on the Paris attacks and the fundamental human question about how could God allow suffering.
It was All Saint’s Day 1945 when Peter Jackson’s parents met on an air force station in Hartlebury, Worcestershire. They married two years later and moved to Wales where Peter was born in 1953.
“I attended a small private school from the age of 13 to nearly 18, and I stayed on to do an extra study for Oxford entrance. I worked for the newspaper – not as a journalist but folding and delivering papers to make some money so I could travel to the South of France. In fact, I spent my 18th birthday closed to Toulon.”
Peter read theology at St Peter’s College Oxford for three years before starting to study Law but went back to Oxford and got a teaching qualification. From there, he went on to Theological College at St Stephen’s House in Oxford and trained to be ordained.
“When I was in my prep school of 150 boys, the headmaster commented to my mother ‘Brother Peter’, so even though I wasn’t particularly pious, there must have been something religious about my attitudes. And the other thing I do remember is my scripture lessons. Our teacher was quite obsessed with spiritualist things and these were some of the liveliest lessons. My rival in this tiny school, Nick Rowley, eventually went to Cambridge and was a brilliant musician who played for the Two Ronnies. He and I were absolutely engaged in thinking about religion and philosophy, the big issues that concern us as we are growing up.”
After confirmation, Peter found going to chapel significant and admired his “very abled” Chaplain, and the idea that this is what he would do crossed his mind. “But I also experienced the common teenage reaction to all the suffering in the world, we’re talking about the late Sixties and Vietnam. I wasn’t becoming an atheist but I now realise the fundamental human question about how could God allow such suffering is actually growing up in terms of spirituality, a fairly normal adolescence for a thoughtful person. At the time you just feel quite angry. I didn’t stop going to church but I felt very conflicted, which fell into a time when I was fascinated by Bertrand Russell; I read all three volumes of his biography and read transcripts of his debates on religion in the early Fifties, which now you could probably watch on YouTube. It all makes you wonder whether God exists, and if he does, why does so much appalling suffering go unrectified?”
He added, “The institution on the whole didn’t give me greatest confidence. I resisted being ordained but I saw that I was resisting, and that wasn’t a good thing. I wasn’t sure. It was such a relief, though, and I felt like I had arrived at the right place.”
Father Peter said the question of suffering was one he was often asked. “If there’s a sudden death or a young person is afflicted with some awful illness, or, as in my last parish, the youngest son of our treasurer’s wife was murdered in his twenties in a random attack around the corner from where I lived. It’s not that they stopped believing, but they didn’t. Faith and my connection with them pastorally didn’t waiver, but it left them in a very bleak place. I read that Mother Theresa in the last few years of her life found a complete emptiness when she prayed. I made this commitment and I will hold onto this even though they get nothing back in terms of feeling.”
He believed it was possible to “hang in there” even though one’s intuition or affective side is desolate. Much like people felt after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, where two armed terrorists killed 12 people and injured 11 others in the office of the weekly satirical newspaper.
“I didn’t preach about Charlie Hebdo. You have to be very careful about preaching about these subjects, you can characterize it as the conflict between two faiths, or two brothers who lived marginalised lives, and it doesn’t work. It’s essentially many different interpretations, and I don’t think in public, giving an opinion is helpful. Frankly, we don’t know.”
Father Peter was in Washington on 9/11. “I was driving across the bridge as the Pentagon was hit. I’d oddly been right in the mix so to speak. We cannot understand how shocked Americans were about being attacked in their home country and we can get lost in a fog of complexity. What I did in the very thoughtful and highly educated episcopal parish in Washington was a whole series about the ethics of war. I found those who were pastorally engaged, they didn’t want a knee-jerk reaction but to consider the wider context of what this was all about.
“One of the consequences of the First World War was a change in how people thought about the dead. They wouldn’t have a very adequate response to death and grief, but you have the ritual of the unknown soldier and poppies, two minutes silence and you suddenly get changed emphasis in Anglicanism, get prayers for the dead.
“In the Second World War, people, not everyone, went to church. The intensity of the experience drew people to the church for a secular memorial service. There isn’t religious behaviour in our society, but institutions or religion and their representatives connect with the raw emoting and questioning of the moment.
“By inclination, evocative sacramental religion gives people more of a resource to cope. People can be themselves and have their own relationship with God.”
A year after his arrival as Chaplain at the historic Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Nice, as well as of St Hugh Vence, Father Peter said in 2015, “I have served in a variety of parishes and schools, including twelve years at Harrow School, but I have never received such a warm and practical welcome as here.
“We have had so much help in settling into the presbytery – the 1890s priest’s house next to the church – getting to know the community and becoming accustomed to life in France. The assistance offered was invaluable as Holy Trinity is quite different from my previous parish in London. The congregation there consistently drew from only the immediate area, while the Nice one is constantly changing. There is a loyal core of people who have made their permanent home here but there is also a constant flow of visitors from all over the Anglophone world. In recent months, we have welcomed students from the Netherlands, Australia and the US, a Canadian Air Force chaplain, as well as visitors from the UK and North America. There are also those who come for a few months at a time: some from Canada wintering on the Riviera, as the British did in the nineteenth century, and others simply spending time in apartments that they own in Nice.
“There is also a significant American presence, which dates back to the time 40 years ago when the American Anglican congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit joined Holy Trinity, having sold their church in Nice to the French Protestants. This explains why Holy Trinity, a chaplaincy within the Church of England Diocese in Europe, is also listed as an associated parish by the Episcopal Church. Attendance, as well the composition of the congregation, varies considerably.
“We had almost 300 in church for the Easter Day service but fewer than half that number at Christmas, reflecting both the tendency of many permanent Nice residents to visit family at Christmas and the popularity of the Riviera as a holiday destination at Easter. When I describe the Holy Trinity congregation to visiting friends, I say that they are more like a cathedral congregation than a parish one. The factors that draw people to us are similar: a desire to participate in worship in English, and worship, that is accessible and mainstream.
“Also, I cannot assume that everyone is Anglican or that everyone is equally devout: some may be seeking something spiritual without yet having strong commitment. Moreover, the social time after services, when many linger to chat over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, is for some an indispensable complement to the worship – English speakers in a foreign land, they are keen to find an English-speaking community. But this has to be balanced by a recognition that some are also attracted by the fact that you can also slip in and out of Holy Trinity without the obligation to become more involved.
“I am very fortunate. I have had a variety in my life of working with interesting communities and met an extraordinary range of people and become involved profoundly in the lives of others. And that’s a privilege that doesn’t happen to a lot of people. I’m grateful that I have a family life, which was not something I expected. And fascinated to have arrived in such an extraordinary place and community and house, and at a point when one might expect to be winding down and retiring, I find myself with the stimulus of something entirely new and rewarding.”
Father Peter is survived by his husband Joseph Voelker and their children Eliot and Anneli.