Penny Nairne, an extraordinarily energetic woman of her time and often ahead of
her time, has died aged 87. Penny was, amongst many other activities, a Church of England lay reader and trainer, living and working in Oxfordshire since 1981 and was also the founder and president of Oxford-Home-Start, The Bishop of Dorchester, the Right Reverend Colin Fletcher, has described Penny as “a person of deep and thoughtful faith, committed to her Lord, passionate about the life of the church in all its diversity”, and she was “a great enabler, encourager and example” .
She was the wife of Sir Patrick Nairne, who was the Master of St Catherine’s College, from 1981 to 1988, and who died in June 2013.
She was born in May 1927 in Nainital in India, where her father was a doctor in the Indian army, and had one younger sister, Johanna. During her teenage years the family lived in Oxford, in 24 Charlbury Road. Anne Spoke Simonds, who was her neighbour in those days, remembers the delightful afternoons they spent together at Dame’s Delight, the swimming pool in the river Cherwell.
She won a scholarship to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, and while she was there, she met Patrick Nairne, one of the cohort of men who had returned to their studies after fighting in WW2. They got married in 1948 and started their married life in a flat in Hammersmith. From 1953 they lived in a large ramshackle house in Surrey and, by the time she was 34, Penny was mother to six children.
She juggled her role as mother and wife with many other activities, such as Mother’s Union speaker, volunteer organiser for the WRVS and running a second hand clothing exchange in her own home. In 1978 she became licensed as a lay reader in the Church of England, following a four year, academic and practical training and joined the parish church team in Oxshott, Surrey. After she and Patrick moved to Oxford in 1981, she became a staff member of St Michael’s church, New Marston, where she started and co-edited the parish magazine, set up a youth group, and was fully involved in all aspects of pastoral care.
During the time that Patrick was Master of St Catherine’s, from 1981-1988, she was much involved in the daily life of the college, hosting student lunches and attending college functions, but she also developed an astonishing breadth of activities of her own. One of these was to become the first chair of Oxford Home-Start, having previously been a trustee of the Home-Start Consultancy. Home-Start trains volunteers to support families with young children, a purpose which was dear to her heart.
From 1983 –1987, Penny was chair of the Advisory Council of BBC Radio Oxford. From 1987 onwards she started doing adult education work for the Oxford Diocese, training lay people in leadership, pastoral care and listening skills and designing and leading courses in parishes. Also during the 1980s, she became interested in the Movement for Ordination of Women, chaired the Oxford Diocesan branch of this movement, and from then on was a passionate and committed campaigner for women priests and bishops.
For many years from 1984, she was on the council of Wycliffe Hall theological college and contributed a great deal to its life. From 1993 she was a tutor for Westminster College in Pastoral Studies and Christian Ethics and she was also Chair of the Oxford Diocese FLAME (Family Life and Marriage Education) Group.
In 1988 she moved with Patrick to the village of Chilson, near Charlbury and joined the ministry team of St Mary’s Charlbury, where she is said to have “enabled many people to engage with theological and biblical issues in a new way.” Over the years she wrote hundreds of sermons and was known for the quality of her preaching, as well as for the way she encouraged and supported others. Her book “When I Needed a Neighbour – Enabling Pastoral Care in the Local Church” (Marshall Pickering, 1998) is still the benchmark for many across the Church of England.
Penny Nairne died peacefully on 23rd December in Witney Community Hospital, following a stroke. A funeral took place at Oxford Crematorium on 9th January and a thanksgiving service took place on 14th February at St Mary’s Church, Charlbury.
She is survived by her children, Kathy, Fiona, Sandy, James, Andrew, and Margaret, by her sister Johanna, and by 12 grandchildren.