Nicholas Lash, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University talks to Jonathan Petre about the Pope's visit, unity and the future of the Church.
THE NOISE of the street outside hardly penetrated to the oak-panelled office of Professor Nicholas Lash, the NorrisHulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University.
Our conversation was only occasionally disturbed, either by the rumble of a heavy lorry winding through the narrow road, or by Professor Lash himself rapping the table in front of him to emphasise some point.
But many of the issues raised by Nicholas Lash — who describes himself as "an old fashioned Chalcedonian Roman Catholic" — were hardly conducive to such calm. Catholicism, he said, is facing major problems, and must change its whole structure in order to remain healthy. English Catholicism, in particular, had almost no sense of its social and cultural reponsibilities because, he explained, "if people start to take the Gospel seriously, they are apt to find themselves sufficiently unpopular that they may even find themselves crucified."
Nicholas Lash found himself in academic theology through a rather circuitous route. Born in 1934, he was educated at Downside School where his main interest was mathematics — a fact deducible from his habit of doodling geometric shapes on his notepad while he spoke.
He left Downside at 16 and joined the army for six years, which he "thoroughly enjoyed" but would have been "bored stiff" had he remained a soldier for life.
He then spent six years studying for the priesthood at Oscott College in the West Midlands, followed bysix years as a serving priest in an industrial parish in Slough — "my life at that period seems to have gone in six year chunks" — where he served under Fr David Woodard.
Above his desk hangs a photograph of the first joint owned, joint built, joint run Catholic-Anglican church in this country, St Andrew's at Cippenham, for which he and Fr Woodard were responsible.
In 1969 he came to Cambridge and in the following year was elected a fellow of St Edmund's House. He lectured and wrote on subjects ranging from the methadology of John Henry Newman to the beliefs of Karl Marx, and has been Norrisestimating the Hulse professor since 1978. Has he ever regretted becoming an academic?
"Not in the least. If one is going to be frivolous, 1 would say that, as a layman for these last seven years, one of the few things I regret is that one has to suffer what most Catholics have to suffer anyway, listening to other people's sermons."
Although Nicholas Lash possesses a logician's mind, he is immune to the emotional symbolism of his faith, and he was deeply moved by the Pope's recent visit to this country.
"The Pope creates such an immense positive impression as a Christian and as a human being that I think he must have given a hard knock to some of the deep rooted, unarticulated anti-papal mythologies which are still very much a part of the English consciousness."
But he warns against over
ecumenical significance of the visit. "A lot of non-Catholic Christians will still say, with some justification. 'Now, if all Popes were John Paul II that would be fine, but what's the next chap going to be like? They still mistrust the present operation of the system in the Church. Also, when you have someone with that sort of presence, he so overshadows the bishops, that it becomes very difficult not to get the impression that we really have got, above the office of bishop in the Church, a much higher office known as the Pope, and that's just bad Catholic theology."
On the positive side, although he thinks Archbishop Robert Runcie's declared aim of unity between Catholicism and Anglicanism by the year 2000 over-ambitious, Professor Lash sees things moving forward fast. "There is a sense that Churcn unity creeps up behind us without us noticing. For me, the most moving moment in the ceremony in Canterbury was the moment when the Pope and the Archbishop of knelt down together and prayed quietly. The whole tenor of that meeting wouldn't make any sense at all unless it is recognised as a gesture of reconciliation between two Church leaders....
"Only 30 years ago an extremely civilized, urbane, and in no sense a die-hard reactionary, Catholic bishop in this country could write a letter to the Times saying that the Archbishop of Canterbury was a doubtfully baptised layman."
But, Professor Lash thinks, the present Pope is not necessarily all that interested in altering the fundamental structure of the Church which, he believes, is a necessary precondition ot unity.
"The Pope is looking at a much wider scale of chaos and hope and tragedy and human existence, and some questions that seem frightfully important to other Christians really rather bore him. Other Churches see our problem as structural problems, which therefore are not solved by having very nice people operating the structures."
What, then, are these structures that Professor Lash refers to? He believes that there are two models on which the universal Church can base itself, and the choice between them is of first importance.
The first model is the idea of a single, worldwide organisation, with a single central administration. "That is the view of the Church which is much more modern than people suppose, in some respects only 100 years old."
"The other view of the Church, a much more ancient one, would be to see the Church as a family of families, a community of communities, and that, for the health, identity and completeness of each community, it is important for it to be in communion with the other communities."
Here Nicholas Lash made a very central statement of his thought, rapping the table with his finger as he did so. "It seems to me quite clear that the future health of Catholicism depends in no small measure in adopting the 'family of families' model. Apart from anything else, this model is far more intelligible to other Churches. It's no good us saying, as the Arcic documents suggest, that we have adopted that model. We have to show that in practice before we can hope to be trusted."
But, he admits, the commonly held misconception that all power and authority resides with the papacy is a stumbling block to ecumenical progress. "If Catholics — bishops, priests, lay people — say in public 'the Pope has got that wrong', this is thought to be disloyal in principle, and to impugne the doctrine of infallibility. That is the most extraordinary nonsense."
And what of the future of Catholicism in this country? "If we actually believe that we are justified in proclaiming the gospel, then we believe that we have something to contribute to the possibility of human hope.
"That is not for one moment now most Catholics see Catholicism and the wider culture. And that is a massive problem for the future."