David Nicholls Obituatary

June 22 1996OBITUARIES 

THE REV DAVID NICHOLLS The Rev David Nicholls, priest and theologian, died while undergoing surgery in Oxford on June 13 aged 60. He was born in Woking on June 3, 1936.

DAVID NICHOLLS was a rare phenomenon in today’s world of professional pigeon-holing: a writer of important and influential academic works who never held a mainstream academic post, a theologian whom the Church of England found it difficult to accommodate.

He was amused as well as irritated by his lack of recognition and ecclesiastical preferment. He knew, perhaps, that to be appointed to one of the chairs for which he applied would, in fact, have been to enter a bureaucratic trap. Faute de mieux, therefore, he came to live as an old-style country parson of the best sort, working since 1978 in the parish of St Mary’s Littlemore, near Oxford (and thus near the Bodleian Library), and issuing a far more substantial stream of books and articles – in qualitative as well as in quantitative terms – than those who got the jobs for which he applied. He made theology matter in the world of secular academia; and he showed religious people that good intentions and kindly thinking are not enough.

Nicholls was influential in three main areas of writing. He was a leading authority on Haiti, his views being summarised in From Dessalines to Duvalier: race, colour and national independence (1979), which has become a classic, Economic dependence and political autonomy: the Haitian experience (1974), and Haiti in Caribbean context: ethnicity, economy and revolt (1985). He travelled frequently and sometimes dangerously there and in the rest of the Caribbean and was much in demand as a speaker, especially in the United States.

Yet his doctoral thesis had been on a quite different subject, the British theological political theorist John Neville Figgis, for which he was supervised in Cambridge by Alec Vidler. Never published as such, its analysis of pluralism appeared as Church and State in Britain since 1820 (1967), Three Varieties of Pluralism (1974) and The Pluralist State (1975) and in a stream of articles with titles such as “The totalitarianism of Thomas Arnold” and “Few are chosen: some reflections on the politics of A. J. Balfour”.

Nicholls was a sharp analyst of Victorian theology with none of the integrating ecumenism fashionable today. His many articles on John Henry Newman (whose own old parish at Littlemore he held) were blistering attacks on what he saw as Newman’s vacuous, self-indulgent, unadmitted authoritarianism. He powerfully disliked Henry Scott Holland and the liberal catholicism characterised by the Lux Mundi movement.

Nicholls then broadened his interest in the relations of Church and State into what he saw as his credo: a trilogy, working from the present backwards, examining the symbiotic relationship of theology, philosopy and politics in England. The first two volumes were Deity and Dominion: Images of God and State in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1989) (given as the Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge) and God and Government in an “Age of Reason” (1995); the third volume entitled Despotism and Doubt he left unfinished.

Nicholls also wrote frequently on contemporary theology, often candidly critical of the Church to which he belonged, but always amusingly and consistently showing a strong, untroubled faith. He recognised and tried to come to terms, at the highest level of scholarly debate, with the intellectual complexities of the language and interpretation of theology in its necessary relationship to the world of men and women – but his personal belief was not complex but essentially straightforward and orthodox. His substantial body of writings will undoubtedly one day come to be seen as one of the most remarkable scholarly achievements in today’s Anglican Communion.

David Gwyn Nicholls was educated at Woking Grammar School, the London School of Economics (where he won the Laski and the Gladstone prizes), and King’s College, Cambridge, where he completed his PhD in 1962; he then went to Yale Divinity School and Chichester Theological College. In 1962 he was made deacon and in 1963 was ordained priest. From 1966 to 1973 he lectured in Trinidad and acquired there a legendary taste for cigars, as well as his lifelong fascination with the politics of the Caribbean.

There then followed five years when he was chaplain and Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Somewhat to his surprise, Oxford turned out to be his long-term home. The university, rather belatedly, recognised his ability with a DLitt in 1991.

He was much influenced by Cheslyn Jones, his Principal at Chichester, who had launched Nicholls’s clerical career by placing him in a curacy under Gordon Phillips, then chaplain to London University, at St George’s, Bloomsbury. Cheslyn Jones, who remained a close friend, went on to be Principal of the dominant Anglo-Catholic institution in Oxford, Pusey House. Nicholls himself was an unostentatious Anglo-Catholic who, characteristically, complained of various aspects of the movement and its practitioners. It was entirely typical of him that he took pride in opposing the opposition to women priests.

Nicholls always refused to live in an ivory tower. He was connected with many bodies, such as St Antony’s College, Oxford, Oxfam, the Political Quarterly, the Centre for Caribbean Studies at Warwick, and the Latin American Bureau. With Valerie Pitt and Ken Leech, he came into the Christendom Group in the 1960s and, with Canon V. A. Demant and Maurice Reckitt, he helped to form the Christendom Trust, chairing it from 1992.

This last, and his association with the Jubilee Trust, reflected Nicholls’s somewhat anarchic Christian socialism. He certainly disliked, and enjoyed ridiculing, the political Right, but was in no sense a regular member of the political Left. William Temple was one of his bĂȘtes noires; he approved of the benefits but hated the accompanying bureaucracy of the modern welfare state. He was a member of the Labour Party but ridiculed – and never felt at home in – its ponderous structure.

His tendency towards anarchic views on secular matters made him an uneasy member of the Established Church. In the parish of Littlemore, however, he was a well organised and much-loved parish priest, his parishioners for the most part unaware of his international academic standing. He ran the church and the parish, and chaired the school governors, with the craftiness which came from a lifetime of suspicion of authority. His striking presence – grey head and beard and Latin American poncho arriving by motorcycle – was accompanied by great physical and intellectual charm. Nicholls quickly transmitted his restless curiosity, though he often thought too fast to have time to absorb the response.

In 1968 he married Gillian Sleigh, who became a distinguished consultant paediatrician and whose emotional stamina was critical to the maintenance of Nicholls’s own intellectual and psychological balance. Their household had an important third member – an abusive, brightly-feathered macaw from Trinidad, named Archdeacon Paley, after the 18th-century theologian. The Archdeacon was a frequent and rebarbative writer to the newspapers; he often elicited indignant replies from bruised academics and church people who did not spot the joke. William Paley was on occasion Nicholls’s nom de plume when covering Haitian elections for The Daily Telegraph. In a curious coincidence, shortly after the Archdeacon died and had his death announced in the newspapers, Nicholls himself suffered a split artery in his neck. He died in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, during an operation to put it right.

He leaves his widow Gillian. There were no children of the marriage.