A Tribute to Cambridge Professor Nicholas Lash

Nicholas Lash, Norris-Hulse Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, died aged 86 at home in the early hours of July 11. His funeral is to be held today at noon at the Cambridge Chaplaincy, Fisher House.

Nicholas was involved in the formation of the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology. Janet, his widow, says he was honoured and proud to become a Patron. Both Janet and Nicholas were pivotal in raising funds to purchase the Institute’s buildings which now house the Lash Library, his entire personal collection.

Professor Janet Soskice, Chair of the MBIT Council, was there with Nicholas and Janet at the Institute’s inception. Professor Soskice writes: “The Margaret Beaufort Institute has lost a great friend in Professor Nicholas Lash. A foremost British Catholic theologian of the 20th century, it was Nicholas who, when approached by Fr Chris Moss, SJ and Br Patrick Moore about the likelihood of a Catholic house of study to join the already ecumenical Cambridge Theological Federation, suggested that the bishops (strapped for cash and short of candidates as they already were) were unlikely to want a new seminary, but that there might be scope for a house of study for Catholic women.”

Janet Lash recalls that “Nicholas used to claim that he then said: ‘Go for the nuns’”. He was thus fully supportive when Br Patrick set the ball rolling to establish an institute not just for nuns but also for Catholic laywomen.

Professor Soskice: “Many others helped to take the idea forward but the support of Nicholas as a Cambridge professor, and one of the most respected Catholic thinkers, was vital for gaining confidence in an initially suspicious atmosphere. Janet and Nicholas were amongst the most significant fund-raisers for the Institute, really enabling it to get going.

“As a theologian and, superbly, as a teacher, Nicholas was respected for his integrity and high academic standards. He kept theological classics central to Cambridge teaching while being open to new ideas and movements. Above all he valued theological and philosophical rigour and good prose, coupled with theological imagination.

“While never a liberation theologian himself, his acute sense that we should always ask of a piece of theological writing ‘who wrote it, why and where from’ meant he was alive to the context-based nature of theological writing. He was open to new visions for the Church which simultaneously respected its anchorage in tradition (another of his topics). This meant he was open to the voices of women, and he could scarcely be other, married to the intellectual power-house that is Janet Lash. Many other theologians were not. He will be greatly missed.”

The Institute’s Founding Principal, Sr Bridget Tighe, was already a friend of Nicholas and Janet’s when she took up the role. Janet says: “Nicholas was always delighted when she asked him for help as an informal theological advisor – shoulder to cry on – and particularly friend.”

Sr Bridget, now the Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem, recalls their first meeting: “He said that his door was always open if I ever needed his help or advice, which I did on a few occasions. Just knowing that I had his support gave me confidence in those early years.”

Away from his open door Sr Bridget wrote: “Nicholas’s active involvement with the MBIT cannot be separated from Janet’s enormous contribution to its development. In the year 2000 when we moved from Wesley House, where the infant Institute had grown and flourished, to Lady Margaret Margaret House in Grange Road, Janet chaired the campaign to raise £2 million to purchase the property. Janet was an inspiring Chair and, with Nicholas, mobilised their many influential contacts in support of the Institute.

“Nicholas’s support gave theological and pastoral credibility to the Institute that new potential donors needed and we succeeded in raising the funds in record time. During the following years Nicholas remained a staunch supporter of the Institute and donated to it his entire personal library, now known as the Lash Library, that will serve future generations of students. May he rest in peace.’

Janet concurs: “We were both thrilled when, beyond all expectations, we raised the money to buy Lady Margaret House which became the Margaret Beaufort Institute. Many of those involved initially were already friends but we much enjoyed getting to know the early students and seeing what had been a dream gradually becoming a reality. We both thought that the best way of doing theology was by being part of a living, praying community.

“It was a joy to Nicholas, and remains one to me, that his library is now lodged at the Institute. I hope that generations of students will find a connection with him as they struggle to make sense of his copious marginalia!” Janet continues to support the Institute in many ways, not least being a member of its Council.

A former Director of Studies at the Institute, Anna Rowlands tweeted fondly about her friend and mentor. Now the St Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University, she describes Nicholas as “intellectually brilliant, cutting, no-fools-suffering, funny. The only person to fall asleep briefly during a paper I gave and still ask the best question. May the angels come to greet him.”

Fisher House in a statement described Nicholas as: “Brilliant and imaginative. A loyal and obedient Roman Catholic, we were proud to host his reception of a Papal Knighthood at Fisher House in May 2017. He and his wife Janet were stalwarts of the Chaplaincy and among our most beloved members. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

Fr Alban McCoy OFM, Dean of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge wrote in The Tablet: “During the twenty-one years that Nicholas occupied the Norris-Hulse chair, he worked tirelessly to make the Cambridge theology faculty outstanding in its field. On receiving an honorary doctorate from Durham University (he also held one from London), Nicholas said in his acceptance speech:

‘Good work, in any academic discipline, requires a passionate concern for accuracy, for truthfulness; requires what it would not be in any way metaphorical to describe as reverence for the matter at hand. Scholars and scientists of every kind are servants of the real, disciples of truth. Moreover, all good reasoning expresses and proceeds from prior commitments and beliefs and relies, at every step along the way, on believing – however cautiously and critically – the testimony of others engaged in this and similar collaborative enterprises. I emphasise ‘collaborative’ because at the heart of the inadequacy of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ dichotomy, and of the imagined conflicts between ‘faith’ and ‘reason, is the failure to appreciate that all our intellectual enterprises are social enterprises, projects undertaken in community.’”

Nicholas Langrishe Alleyne Lash was born on April 6 1934 in India at the foothills of the Himalayas; a vision of that beauty stayed with him through later writings on the religions of India. He was educated at Worth Preparatory School and Downside School. Professor Eamon Duffy wrote in The Tablet that Nicholas tried his vocation at Downside in 1951. “But after a six- month postulancy he was asked to leave – according to his own oft-repeated account. His Irish Benedictine confessor explained that, ‘I tink dey tink you are too full of life and beans’.” So instead he took his life and beans into the Army, joining the Royal Engineers in 1951, spending much of his six-year service back “home” in India.

He then studied for the priesthood at St Mary’s College, Oscott. After working for five years as a curate in Slough he was elected a Fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge in 1969. From 1971 to 1975 he served as Dean of St Edmund’s. He left the priesthood in 1975 and became a lecturer in the Divinity Faculty of the University of Cambridge. In 1976 he married Janet and in 1980 their son Dominic was born. From 1978 to 1999 he held the post of Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity.

He lectured widely in America and in India and wrote a dozen substantial books as well as three hundred and seventy essays, articles and reviews. His writings have included works on Newman’s theory of development, the thought of Karl Marx and the role of religious experience. His book Believing three ways in one God (1992) discussed the Trinity in a treatise on the Apostles’ Creed. Other books include: Theology on Dover beach (1979); Easter in ordinary (1988) and The Beginning and the end of ‘religion’ (1996). He also wrote regularly for The Tablet and has been a voice arguing for debate in the Roman Catholic Church on controversial issues of recent times.

The staff, students and associates of the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology will remain forever grateful for the support of Nicholas throughout its history. We would like to share our condolences with Janet and Dominic.

Today’s Requiem Mass will be followed by interment at Barton Glebe Woodland Burial Ground.

Memories assembled by MBIT Director Ann Taylor with the able assistance of dead friends and Colleagues from the Institute.