Obituary: The Rev David Nicholls
Tuesday 18 June 1996
There was a strong streak of anarchism in Nicholls's thinking. His particular (now uncommon) skill was in commenting on the political scene from a theological perspective and on church matters from a realistic assessment of its changing social context.
He was equipped to develop the Anglo-Catholic tradition of social theology by his background and research. The historical depth is evident in his first book, Church and State in Britain since 1820 (1967), and the analytic clarity in Three Varieties of Pluralism (1974) and especially The Pluralist State (1975). He was a Christian socialist, realistic about the dangers of state power and wanting to see it dispersed through a kind of associational socialism. Though a member of the Labour Party he had little time for either old or new Labour and its economic policies or bureaucratic manifestations.
Partly because his theological work was on interfaces underrepresented in university syllabuses Nicholls did not occupy any prestigious chair, but after his five-year appointment as Fellow and Chaplain at Exeter College, Oxford, ended in 1978, he became priest-in-charge and then vicar of Littlemore, a large working-class parish on the edge of Oxford, where he was always sustained by his wife Gillian. This provided a human base and centre of hospitality for a great variety of visitors, especially from overseas, and allowed him to combine the demands and fun of the parish with a steady flow of writing.
A more confident (or wealthy) church might have moved him to a more visible post, but the parish ministry was perhaps the place to be. It roots observation and theo-logical reflection in the prayer and activity of a local com- munity seeking to embody the signs and promise of the kingdom.
After attending Woking Grammar School, Nicholls gained a First in Economics at the London School of Economics and completed a PhD on J.N. Figgis (the Edwardian political theorist and theo- logian) at King's College, Cambridge, which laid the foundations of his social thought. He followed this with a Master of Theology at Yale and ordination training at Chichester under Cheslyn Jones (who remained a close friend and mentor) and by a curacy at Bloomsbury with the London University chaplaincy under Gordon Phillips.
The difference between Nicholls and these two highly intelligent guides in his ministerial formation is that he produced the books as well as getting productively involved in several groups and organisations, notably the executors of the Institute of Race Relations in the 1960s and Oxfam in the 1970s.
With Valerie Pitt and Ken Leech he came into the Christendom Group, which ran from the 1920s to the 1960s, with its summer school of sociology, and as a friend of V.A. Demant and Maurice Reckitt took part in the formation of the Christendom Trust, succeeding Martin Jarrett-Kerr CR as chairman.
He helped found the Jubilee Group, an Anglo-Catholic think-tank, and wrote pamphlets for it that are witty and penetrating. He knew how to unmask nonsense when he saw it, but without malice. One recurring theme is that it is impossible for theologians first to get their theology right and only then draw social or ethical "implications" from it. Our theology is already soaked in where we stand, whether we recognise it or not. And those who think they are apolitical are usually sustaining the status quo. There is no escaping politics.
Nicholls's theological criticism was directed as much to his own Tractarian tradition as to the kinds of liberalism that turn wine into water. Ironically for a vicar of Littlemore, he edited with Fergus Kerr OP in 1991 a collection of critical essays on Cardinal Newman, to counter the humbug of the centenary and howls for his canonisation. Essays on W.G. Ward - the 19th-century theologian and follower of Newman - and others show his appreciation for his 19th-century heritage, but he was sharply critical of an Anglican incarnational theology that unlike Figgis or Conrad Noel said too little about the Cross and redemption.
Vapid ecclesiastical pronouncements were rapidly dispatched, such as "the immortal words of Archbishops Coggan and Blanch" that the role of the Church is that of "influencing society". His recent criticisms in a Jubilee publication of the new management terminology and methods in the Church (as suggested in last year's Turnbull Report) were based on a clear vision of what the Church is supposed to be as the sign of the kingdom (his original title, Turnbullshit, was substituted with Visions at Regular Intervals).
Impatience with generalities was, however, matched by a series of efforts to sustain a more serious conversation. So Nicholls initiated and edited a set of 10 small volumes of constructive theology to mark the 1983 celebration of the Oxford Movement, and proved a creative editor, producing some silk purses.
Back in 1966 he had become a University Lecturer in Government at the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies, and a frequent visitor to Haiti. The multi-lingual Caribbean became of special research interest to him, resulting in a classic history of Haiti from Dessalines to Duvalier (1979, second edition 1988, third edition 1996) and Haiti in Caribbean Context: ethnicity, economy and revolt (1985).
His skill while in Trinidad in bringing together different parties, and midwifing political discussion is well remembered, as is his critical respect for the former President Aristide. The aura of this part of the world remained in his taste for cigars. From 1992 to 1995 Nicholls was president of the Society for Caribbean Studies in the United Kingdom. He also maintained a close contact with St Antony's College, Oxford, and with Professor Kenneth Kirkwood conducted an ongoing seminar on race relations in the 1980s.
The invitation to give the Hulsean lectures in Cambridge in 1985 led to two major books on the relationship of theological and political imagery. Deity and Domination appeared in 1989 (second edition 1994), dealing with the 19th and 20th centuries, and God and Government in an Age of Reason in 1995. The third volume, on the 17th century, was still being written up when he died. These will become an invaluable resource as the connections between religion and politics world-wide are finally more appreciated by Western academics.
Nicholls's books reveal the archetypal academic cleric but say too little about the man, his combination of devotion and critical intellect, his personal modesty and charm, coupled with relentless questioning and wise judgement. The college chaplain's ability to relate to all sorts was carried into the parish with a quiet passion that always said directly and even bluntly what had to be said. Personal animosities were as intolerable to him as political conflicts were inescapable. Reconciliation, which must include justice, was as essential in the one area as lack of fudge remained in the other. His clarity of mind could be uncomfortable to his own Anglo-Catholic party, none of whose bickerings and unprincipled behaviour escaped his observation and occasional pained comment.
A passion for motorbikes is hard to fit into the picture. He was also the owner of Archdeacon Paley, a correspondent to the letters pages of newspapers, who was actually a macaw acquired during his time in Trinidad, and who found his way into the Oxford diocesan directory. Paley's unexpected death a few days before Nicholls's own prompted a typically entertaining obituary from him, submitted to the Independent, and containing elements of autobiography. "Archdeacon William Paley," it began, "was one of the most colourful churchmen of his day." The obituary was not published.
David Gwyn Nicholls, priest and political scientist: born Woking, Surrey 3 June 1936; ordained deacon 1962, priest 1963; Curate, St George with St John, Bloomsbury, London University Chaplaincy 1962-66; Lecturer in Government, University of Trinidad in the West Indies 1966-73; Chaplain, lecturer and Fellow, Exeter College, Oxford 1973-78; Priest-in-charge, Littlemore, Oxford 1978-86, Vicar 1986-96; married 1968 Gillian Sleigh; died Oxford 13 June 1996.
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