Canon Nicholas Sagovsky writes:
IT IS just over a month since the Revd Paul Nicolson, who died suddenly on 5 March, was pictured on the front cover of the Church Times (21 February). Aged 87, he sat on the pavement outside Church House during the meeting of the General Synod, with a paper cup and a cardboard sign that read, “With and for street and family homeless”.
Paul was an irrepressible, lifelong campaigner, who, after a colourful early adulthood, dedicated his abundant energy to working on the side of the angels. A faithful priest, a man of simple, unclouded faith, he was a life-enhancing friend to an extraordinary range of people, and a clear-sighted prophet to anyone who would — or would not — listen. He knew he could be difficult to live with, but how we shall miss him!
Sitting outside was typical of Paul. He had no interest in ecclesiasticism, but when he needed to get the Synod behind some new initiative on behalf of the poorest, he was a past master at working the system. He believed that the gospel requires us to focus on the most needy. “If you take that literally, that’s what inspired everything I tried to do.”
Paul’s confidence in confronting power and authority came from his privileged upbringing. After school, he went to America rather than university, and then did his National Service in the Royal Green Jackets; he made a lifelong circle of friends among the rich and the powerful.
After the army, he followed his father into the family firm, selling Veuve Clicquot champagne around the best restaurants, hotels, and clubs in London. His 12 years as a champagne salesman left him with a store of sparkling anecdotes, on which he drew liberally to lighten painful conversations about social injustice.
In later years, the question of ordination became more pressing. Newly married to Robina, and with a growing family, he applied to Cuddesdon College, where Robert Runcie was principal. Cuddesdon trained parish clergy only, but Paul had read about French worker-priests and wanted to be like them — outside the parish system, self-supporting, working in industry, an MSE (minister in secular employment).
Runcie read his man well: “Let’s explore the unknown,” he said, before two bishops refused ordination. Runcie then approached Harry Carpenter, Bishop of Oxford: “I told Harry that Paul is scarred with episcopal incomprehension.” In 1967, Paul was ordained deacon by Harry Oxon:, and, in 1968, priest in the study of Robert Runcie, who was by then Bishop of St Albans.
For 14 years, Paul worked in the personnel department of ICI. High numbers of redundancies got him interested in employment law — and in what was really going on. In 1971, having himself been made redundant (and wondering whether the real problem was that his face and his views didn’t fit), he took ICI to an industrial tribunal, which he lost. He responded by forming the Confederation of Employee Organisations in support of those who, by the “closed-shop” legislation of the time, could lose their job because they belonged to the “wrong” trade union.
Ten years later, with the support of Robert Runcie, he became Vicar of Turville, in the Hambleden Valley, famous as the location for The Vicar of Dibley. Paul was surrounded by extremes of wealth and poverty. For 16 years, he made it his priority to support the poorest.
In 1989, Mrs Thatcher introduced the poll tax. Non-payers were imprisoned not because they wouldn’t pay, but because they couldn’t pay. Paul went to court with them to prove that this was the problem and to show magistrates that they could remit the debt. He worked with lawyers who won case after case.
A sharp barrister unearthed the practice of being a McKenzie Friend: there was precedent for a lay person being permitted to stand by a person brought to court without legal representation. Paul was one of the first to apply this to cases of debt. With the draconian cuts to legal aid in 2013, McKenzie Friending has now become standard practice throughout the court system. Paul also laid bare the lack of regulation of debt enforcement by bailiffs, and, as a result, there is now a Code of Practice which provides greater protection for the vulnerable.
Paul asked questions about why people did not have enough to meet their needs. He uncovered the fact that benefit levels had never been set using any measure of need. So he commissioned work on minimum income standards from the Family Budget Unit to establish the actual cost of a “low-cost but adequate” standard of living.
From this came the scientifically based UK Living Wage and the London Living Wage (LLW), both now set by the Living Wage Foundation. The LLW (currently £10.75 an hour) has transformed the lives of countless low-paid workers. The fundamental insight — that people should measurably have enough for healthy living — was Paul’s.
Paul focused on the need for housing. Once more, he worked with experts to identify why so many people cannot afford proper housing in London. As a local resident, he was a fierce critic of housing policy in Haringey. Driven by the profit to be made from redevelopment around the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the Council evicted many of its most vulnerable tenants, often rehousing them outside London. Paul fought the Council all the way.
When he died, he was heavily involved with the drafting of the Elimination of Homelessness Bill, which — if it ever becomes law — will compel councils to count the homeless in their borough, and make an inventory of unused property and land. The Secretary of State will then be forced to use the resources identified to provide truly affordable housing for the homeless (Letters, 13 December 2019). What a memorial that would be!
It is hard to imagine anyone who knew more about the workings of the benefit system than Paul, or who wrote more Letters to the Editor exposing its failings. With this wealth of knowledge behind him, he founded Zacchaeus 2000 (Z2K), a charity that uses casework to prevent homelessness and to help people to access the benefits that they are entitled to.
As a high-profile campaigner, Paul thought his activities might imperil the charitable status of Z2K; so he resigned as chair and set up Taxpayers Against Poverty, which was not a charity and gave him greater freedom to sound the tocsin against the effects on the poorest of the government’s programme of “austerity”.
No sketch of Paul’s life should omit the part played in it by prayer. In the late 1980s, a small group met in St Faith’s Chapel, in Westminster Abbey, to pray for peace. For most of an hour we sat in silence, but from time to time we said one of the prayers for peace which he had written for Turville. Here is one, addressing Jesus as “brother”, because, in Paul’s words, “Jesus is a brother to men and women and to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, other faiths, and many to whom any kind of faith is difficult”: “Jesus our brother, lead us out of illusion, out of injustice, out of oppression, out of suffering, out of poverty, out of darkness into the light, the light of hope, of peace, of love, of understanding, into the wonder, into the mystery. Amen.”
This prayer will be said at his funeral on Monday. Sadly, in the present circumstances, only a few close members of the family will be there. Later in the year, God willing, there will be a great gathering to celebrate Paul’s extraordinary life, through which the lives of so many others have been changed for the better.
On the day that he died, he was planning to sit with his cup “in solidarity with the poor” outside Downing Street. Few priests can have left a more challenging legacy.
The Revd Paul Roderick Nicolson is survived by his children, Krissie, Claire, Tom, Hugo and Rod, and nine grandchildren.