Writer donates pounds 1m to strike blow for theology: Best-selling novelist says she was 'guided by God' to help Cambridge University set up a lectureship. Martin Wroe reports

Click to follow
ANY nagging doubts in Cambridge University's Faculty of Divinity about the existence of a kind, loving God are laid to rest today with the news that a best-selling novelist is donating pounds 1m to establish a lectureship in theology.

Susan Howatch, whose books have sold more than 20 million copies, is financing the Starbridge Lectureship in Theology and Natural Science. She wants to 'strike a blow for theology to show that religion is not dead, but complements scientific discovery'.

Ms Howatch, 52, believes God has been guiding her. Although she made her first fortune writing blockbusters such as Penmarric, success and its trappings left her spiritually empty. She had houses in several countries, drove a Porsche and a Mercedes and after the break-up of her marriage had too many 'facile, transient liaisons'. In the early Eighties she told her editor she would be late with a novel and he said: 'What will I tell the accountants?'

'I was not interested in fame and fortune any more - I'd had it all since I was 30 and it hadn't satisfied me. So I thought, 'If I'm not in it for that and I'm not in it to keep my publishers in the black, what the hell am I doing it for?'

'God seized me by the scruff of the neck, slammed me against the nearest wall and shook me until my teeth rattled. I thought: 'Okay, what does God actually require of me?' '

In an effort to find out, she became a recluse, living alone, not answering the phone and eschewing the large houses and champagne.

Four years later she returned, having converted to Christianity, with Glittering Images, the first in a series of six 'psycho-spiritual' novels rooted in the fictional cathedral town of Starbridge and exploring the Church in the 20th century. To her surprise the five published so far have sold hugely, winning her an audience of bishops and vicars.

'There's excellent theology embedded in them,' David Ford, regius professor of divinity, said. 'Her books bring theological issues into a realm that theology does not normally penetrate.'

They have also made her another small fortune. But these days, as a Christian, she lives quietly and simply. Her modest London flat bears few obvious trappings of her wealth. She has taken a vow of celibacy, which she describes as 'empowering'.

Her writing routine, beginning at 5.30 am, is far more productive as a mystic without the champagne interruptions. Three years ago, reading the work of Dr John Polking horne, a Cambridge physicist and priest, she came to the conclusion that there is no contradiction between science and faith.

'It was tremendously exciting to discover that science was not destroying religion, as people popularly believe, but that it could cast light on theism and Christianity,' she said.

When she read of a donation to the University of Kent to establish a chair in theology - a snip at pounds 300,000 - the thought occurred to her that perhaps she could do something similar. She found herself sitting next to Dr Polkinghorne, now president of Queen's College, at a dinner and revealed her idea of endowing a chair at Cambridge. He had submitted a paper to the university for just such a post the previous week.

Unfortunately pounds 300,000 doesn't even buy you a leg of a chair at Cambridge these days. They came up with endowing a lectureship, in perpetuity, which still adds up to pounds 1m in five years.

'I thought, 'Hell why not?' ' Ms Howatch says. 'I've got all this loot, you only live once and I can afford it. If you are a Christian you want to give as much as you can away. It sounds pious but it's not a duty, it's a kind of joy.'

(Photograph omitted)