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W. Owen Cole:
Sikh Scholar & Populariser

ELEANOR NESBITT

 

 

W. OWEN COLE

1931 - 2013  

 

 

Owen Cole's close friendship with the Sikh scholar Piara Singh Sambhi led to them writing many publications for schools on Sikh tradition

For many students and teachers, the name of my friend and colleague Owen Cole, who has died aged 82, is synonymous with the study of Sikhism. He was a pioneering educationist, staunchly committed to the transformation of religious education from instruction primarily in Christianity to a subject that would develop an understanding and appreciation of world faiths.

Owen was born in Sheffield and went to schools in Bradford and Newcastle. At Durham University he graduated in history and obtained a diploma in education. As a conscientious objector he refused to do postwar national service on the grounds that the Jewish and Christian scriptures stressed the need to love one's neighbours as oneself.

He met Quakers during his service with the Friends' Ambulance Unit and decades later (after many years in the Church of England) he joined the Religious Society of Friends. He was inspired by his father, a liberal-minded Congregational minister, and subsequently by his friendships with people of many faiths.

Owen taught in a primary school in Corsham, near Bath, in a comprehensive school in Harlow, Essex, and at Northern Counties College in Newcastle (now Northumbria University), before moving in 1968 to James Graham College in Leeds (now Leeds Metropolitan University). In 1980 he was appointed to the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Chichester), where he became Head of Religious Studies in 1984.

It was in Leeds that Sikhs became part of Owen's life.

In 1969, he co-founded the influential Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education. His commitment to multifaith religious education and his close friendship with the Sikh scholar Piara Singh Sambhi led to them writing – together and separately – many publications for schools on the Sikh tradition, starting with Sikhism (1973), as well as substantial works including The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1978, republished 1995), The Guru in Sikhism (1982), Sikhism and its Indian Context 1469-1708 (1984), Sikhism and Christianity: A Comparative Study (1993) and Understanding Sikhism (2004). Owen's recent publications include the autobiographical Cole Sahib (2009) and The Jesus Diary (awaiting print publication).

Owen described himself as "a populariser rather than a scholar", yet his role nationally and internationally in furthering an informed understanding of Sikh tradition is incalculable. In 1980 he was appointed honorary Anglican interfaith consultant to the archbishops of Canterbury and York. In 1983 he was visiting professor in religious studies at Punjab University, Patiala, Punjab.

Owen will be remembered for his integrity, compassion and determination. His wife and latterly carer, Gwynneth, whom he married in 1957, died two months before him. He is survived by their daughters, Eluned and Sian, and two grandchildren, Rhiannon and Ben.

 

[Courtesy: The Guardian. Edited for sikhchic.com]

November 7, 2013

 

Conversation about this article

1: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), November 07, 2013, 8:46 AM.

A true pioneer who did monumental work in providing a better understanding of Sikhism in the West. Long before the internet came along, Dr. Cole's books were the only source of quality information about Sikhism in English. His books were always respectful of Sikhism and its tradition and never unduly skeptical, like other western scholars of the time.

2: Harvind Kaur Singh (Northbrook, Illnois, USA), November 07, 2013, 11:30 AM.

Very sad news. His contributions will keep him alive for those truly interested in Sikh Studies.

3: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, USA), November 07, 2013, 10:09 PM.

Thanks, Eleanor, for writing this beautiful tribute to Dr. W. Owen Cole who was one of the pioneers in the field of Sikh studies. I met him for the first time at the University of Toronto Sikh Studies conference in 1987. He was a very generous person. We frequently communicated regarding his contribution in the forthcoming *The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies* (OUP 2014) edited by me and Professor Louis E. Fenech. This will be perhaps his last contribution in the field. During the last week we were going through its proofs when we heard the news of Dr. Cole's sudden demise. Our deepest condolences to his family and friends. Dr. Cole will remain alive in the field of Sikh studies due to his lasting contributions.

4: I. Singh  (Chelmsford, Massachussets, USA), November 08, 2013, 7:57 AM.

Cole and Piara Singh Sambhi were an oft-quoted reference for us in the early days of developing workshops and presentations on Sikhi. And till this day, "The Guru in Sikhism" by Owen Cole is a classic that I cherish and often pick up and read again and again. Respect!

5: Sarjit Singh Jassal (Perth, Western Australia), November 09, 2013, 5:20 AM.

Owen Cole's book, "The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices", is one of the first books we read as a family. It was through my wife Kuldeep's friendship with his daughter Eluned, that we met both Dr Cole and his wife Gwyneth on their visit to Perth. He was invited to address the sangat in the gurdwara. He also shared a meal with us at our home and we had a very interesting discussion, where he put forward a rather profound question to the assembled group: "Guru Nanak sowed the seed of Sikhism, but what have you done to spread his message?" The Sikhs have lost a great and sincere friend. May his soul find repose at the Guru's feet.

6: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, USA), November 13, 2013, 8:01 PM.

Brilliant and compassionate man who popularized Sikhism in the United Kingdom. He will be missed and remembered for generations for his broad outlook.

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