10 April 2020, The Tablet

The ministry of the Rev Paul Nicolson (1932-2020)

by Nicholas Sagovsky

The ministry of the Rev Paul Nicolson (1932-2020)

Paul Nicolson
Ingrid Avery

The funeral of Paul Nicolson, who died aged 87 on March 5, took place recently.  The congregation consisted of four out of his five children.  If the funeral we had planned had been possible, there would have been hundreds.  If those whose lives were changed for the better through his ministry were counted, they would be thousands.

When Paul was at Cuddesdon Theological College (1966-8), he read about the Worker Priest Movement in France.  He wanted to be like them – outside the parish system, self-supporting, working alongside the poor, but Cuddesdon only trained parish clergy. 

Two bishops refused ordination. His College Principal, Robert Runcie, later Archbishop of Canterbury, approached Harry Carpenter, Bishop of Oxford: "I told Harry that Paul is scarred with episcopal incomprehension!"  

Having been ordained priest in the study of Robert Runcie, by then Bishop of St Albans, he became an MSE, Minister in Secular Employment, working in the personnel department of ICI, a major industrial employer.  He became increasingly disenchanted with the company’s employment policy, before himself being made "redundant". 

When he took them to an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal, and lost. He never lost his sense of solidarity with those who had to cope with being told they were redundant. 

In 1982, Paul became a parish priest in the halcyon Hambleden Valley – not at all the sort of ministry he had foreseen for himself. The extremes of wealth and poverty troubled him greatly. One of his wealthier parishioners lent him a shack she owned in the Dordogne (Paul said it was a "shack, not a chateau"). 

He went there for two weeks, with a stack of books.  "The plan," he wrote, "was to read until I found the theological framework which would … explain to me where my work fitted into the general scheme of things." He found a book which described Liberation Theology.  At that point, he says, "I cried out to the fire in the fireplace, 'That’s it!'." 

In Liberation Theology, he discovered (or re-discovered) how he had been trying "to apply the gratuitous love that we learn from the example of Jesus. [And t]hat gratuitous love is both personal and structural." He went on to find in Catholic Social Teaching a rich resource for combating social injustice, and in the example of Oscar Romero a shining example of the courage that was needed to speak out for the poor.

Paul was a uniquely prophetic Anglican priest, who owed much to Catholic theology. From the beginning, he was committed to the ‘See-Judge-Act’ paradigm, first developed after the First World War by Cardinal Cardijn in his work with the Young Christian Worker movement. Cardijn was a friend to John XXIII and Paul VI. His thought is reflected in a number of Vatican II documents and in post-Vatican Catholic Social Teaching.  It was taken up by Liberation Theologians, and is now central to the Vincentian and other movements which begin from solidarity with the poor. 

In 1989, Mrs Thatcher introduced the Poll Tax. Paul could see from his parish work that people were being summoned to court and imprisoned not because they wouldn’t pay, but because they couldn’t pay. Often they had no legal representation. 

At that point, we made contact. I was Dean of Clare College, Cambridge, but had previously worked in Scotland where the Poll Tax was introduced a year earlier than in England. Reports of sheriff officers (the Scottish name for bailiffs) entering homes to seize non-payers’ goods were alarming. We formed an ecumenical group (two of our members were Jesuits) which met in Cambridge, sharing news so we better understood what was going on. 

It was clear that before long each of us would face the challenge to pay or not to pay. We agreed that, whatever decision we came to, we would support each other as we acted in accord with our conscience.

An important factor in our judging was prayer. As we began to reflect more widely in structural injustice in the UK, we wanted to pray for the nation. Paul suggested we pray at Westminster Abbey. The Dean, Michael Mayne, welcomed the idea. For several years, we prayed for an hour every month in the profound silence of St Faith’s. Often, we used Prayers for Peace that Paul had written for Turville. 

The action Paul initiated was extraordinary. He began to go to court with Poll Tax non-payers, and to ensure that proper means statements were produced to make it clear to magistrates that they couldn’t pay. Magistrates often didn’t know about their power to remit debt – so he informed them. Paul worked with lawyers who won case after case when people were imprisoned for non-payment. 

One sharp lawyer unearthed the practice of being a McKenzie Friend, which made it possible for a lay person to stand by a person brought to court without legal representation.  aul was one of the first to apply this to cases of debt. Working with Sister Maureen Tinkler of the Vincentian Millennium Partnership, he set up courses to train McKenzie Friends. My task was to relate all this to the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

With the draconian cuts in Legal Aid in 2013, McKenzie Friending has now become standard practice throughout the court system. Paul also laid bare the appalling lack of regulation of debt enforcement by bailiffs. As a result of his campaigning, there is now a code of practice which provides greater protection for the vulnerable.

The Poll Tax was abolished in 1993. Paul went on asking questions about structural injustice. He could see that people on low wages or benefits did not have enough to live healthy lives. Then, he uncovered the fact that benefit levels had never been set in the light of any measure of need.  o he commissioned work on minimum income standards from the York-based Family Budget Unit to establish the actual cost of a "low cost but adequate" standard of living. 

From this, and through Paul’s links with London Citizens and Unison, came the scientifically-based UK Living Wage and the London Living Wage, both now set by the Living Wage Foundation. As Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone adopted the London Living Wage. Now £10.75 an hour, it has been supported by three Mayors of very different political views.  It has transformed the lives of countless low-paid workers.  The fundamental insight – that people should measurably have enough to live healthy lives – was Paul’s.

Paul went on to focus on the need for housing. This led him to support for a Land Value Tax, which would shift the burden of taxation from income to land. As a local resident, he was a fierce critic of the housing policy in Haringey, which was driven by the Council’s willingness to smooth the path for the development of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. 

The Council was evicting many of their tenants and often rehousing them outside London. Paul fought them all the way. He set up two seminars in Portcullis House, Westminster to identify why so many people could not afford proper housing in London. He was instrumental in the drafting of the Elimination of Homelessness Bill, which would compel councils to count the number of homeless people in their borough. They would also have to make an inventory of unused property and land. The Secretary of State would then be forced to use these resources to provide truly affordable housing for the homeless. The money would come from Quantitative Easing in the same way that QE had been used to save the banks after 2008.

Paul’s work will continue. In 1997, he founded Zacchaeus 2000, a charity which uses casework to prevent homelessness and to help people access the benefits they are entitled to. Under his leadership, Z2K did all they could to mitigate the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill (2011), taking into account the needs of those who would shortly be dependent on Universal Credit. Paul feared his campaigning activities would imperil the charitable status of Z2K, so he resigned as Chair. He then set up Taxpayers Against Poverty (TAP), which was not a charity. This gave him greater freedom to sound the alarm about the effects on the poorest of the government’s ‘austerity’ programme. When the current crisis is over, there will be more need for ever for the work of Z2K and TAP.

In recent months, Paul resorted to still more radical action. At 87, he sat on the pavement outside Church House during a meeting of General Synod, with an empty cup and a sign saying "With and for street and family homeless". He postponed his plan to do the same thing outside 10 Downing Street because he wasn’t feeling well. He died in hospital shortly after. 

Hopefully, there will be a memorial event later in the year. There will be an opportunity to give thanks for Paul’s remarkable life: more important, when we see the extent of what he achieved, we shall have to judge how we respond, and we shall have to discern, in extremely challenging times, how we should act to take his work on. 

Nicholas Sagovsky is a Canon Emeritus of Westminster Abbey.







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