A tribute to Cambridge professor Nicholas Lash

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A tribute to Cambridge professor Nicholas Lash

Nicholas Lash, a prominent Catholic professor of theology at Cambridge University, died on July 11. Here Mgr Mark Langham, chaplain at Fisher House in Cambridge, remembers his life.

Despite his clear-cut accent and homely English ways, there was always something exotic about Nicholas Lash. Born in India in 1934, he was the nephew of the Anglican bishop of Bombay, while his brother became an Orthodox Archimandrite, and his own nephews are the actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes. You never quite knew whom you were going to meet when visiting his house in Hereford Street.

He attended Downside school, where he imbibed a love of Benedict and his rule, and then served for five years in the Royal Engineers before studying for priesthood, eventually becoming Dean of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. In 1975 he resigned his ministry and became a lecturer in the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge University. Three years later, Nicholas was appointed to the Norris-Hulse Divinity chair, one of the most prestigious professorships at the University; this was the first time since the Reformation that a senior theology post had been held by a Catholic.

The Norris-Hulse Professorship requires its incumbents to be not only formidable theologians but serious philosophers as well. With his incisive mind, his insistence on the exact use of language, and his readiness to criticise what he thought were lazy or unfounded opinions, Nicholas excelled in his post. Brilliant and imaginative, he was the author of numerous theological books, and a regular contributor to theological journals. His academic theology, however, was never separate from his own lively faith. In one of his best-known books, Believing Three Ways in One God, he sought to assist the faithful towards as deeper understanding of the Trinity through a close reading of the Apostles’ Creed.

He was a loyal and obedient Roman Catholic, although never unafraid to pose critical questions to those in authority, and his achievements were recognised by the Church with the award of a Papal Knighthood by Bishop Alan at the University Chaplaincy in May 2017. He and his wife Janet were stalwarts of the chaplaincy, warm hosts and wickedly funny raconteurs. Nicholas was a prayerful man who reminded us that all theology is a response to God’s word, and that whatever our failings, we can still discover God’s love for us and for this world.

Anthony Foreman (Oscott 1959 – 1965), pays his own tribute to Nicholas: “As a fellow student with Nicholas at St Mary’s College, Oscott, I remember him well. Together with other 19-year-old students we lived in awe of this brilliant man. However he was a person  of great humility who carried his learning lightly and he was always ready to help us lesser mortals through theological questions. He must have been in agony enduring some of the lectures he listened to.

“His famous ‘confrontation’ with the then progressively senile rector has been well reported in a recent edition of The Tablet’. The suggestion in an exam paper that an action was done ‘merely’ in charity was described by him as ‘dotty’  (according to my contemporary diary record) and nearly cost him ordination to Minor Orders until the timely intervention of our Bishop T Leo Parker.  On the eve of  the Vatican Council he was full of ideas and enthusiasm for what might come to pass and tuning in to Vatican Radio on the college’s one ‘official’  radio for the latest news was always a source of great merriment.  Listening in to theological arguments between Nicholas and Peter Hocken, another brilliant diocesan student, was always a great joy.

“Peter was slow and ponderous picking each word carefully whereas Nicholas, in typical style, could hardly be constrained from putting in his side of the argument.  He was often the life and soul of the party in the technically ‘illegal’ coffee sessions we enjoyed in each other’s rooms  to let off steam about the establishment and the fug of cigarette smoke and the smell of the paraffin heater was enriched by the guffaws and hilarity of the  get together. May he rest in Peace.”

Pictured top is Professor Nicholas Lash receiving the Papal Knighthood from Bishop Alan Hopes