Nicholas King SJ was born into a strongly Catholic family in Bath, UK, and was educated at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, and St John’s College, Oxford, where he studied Classics. He had always enjoyed the study of Latin and Greek; in those days in the (perhaps rather odd) British educational system, it seemed quite normal that he started Latin and French at the age of 8 and Greek two years later. A series of good teachers made it natural to apply to read the subject at Oxford (as far as he can recall, he never thought of anything else).
We asked him one or two questions:
How did you become a Jesuit?
When I went to Oxford, it was with the firm intention of becoming a barrister (and the strong hope of being comfortably off). I had done a certain amount of debating as a schoolboy, and the editor of our local newspaper had lent me a copy of the life of F. E. Smith. Greatly to my astonishment, however, at a particular moment, which I can date to within a few minutes, I knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the only thing that I could do and be happy was to join those very Jesuits who had educated me at Stonyhurst, and had put up with my adolescent eccentricities. I applied then and there to the Jesuits, but they very sensibly told me to finish my degree. That was four-and-a-half decades ago, and I have seen no reason to change my mind (so far!).
What have you done in your life as a Jesuit?
Ours is a very long period of training (my siblings tell me that it is because I am a slow learner), so I had two years of novitiate, near Liverpool, then four years of Philosophy and Theology at Heythrop College in the University of London, post graduate studies on Early Judaism, at the Oriental Institute in Oxford, ordination in 1980 (a mere ten years after joining the Jesuits), and finally, ‘tertianship’. This is a final year of spiritual training, including the 30-day silent retreat (‘Spiritual Exercises’) that Jesuits do twice in the course of our formation that Jesuits have to do before being admitted to full membership of the Society. That ‘tertianship’ was done at Spokane, in the far North West of the United States.
What jobs have you done as a Jesuit?
Well, even in our formation we do quite a range of interesting things as part of our training, including, in my case, periods of a month or more looking after ‘meths’ drinkers (I am not sure that many people drink methylated spirits these days), working in a factory, as a ship’s visitor on Liverpool Docks, looking after delinquent American youths, and one or two other things. My ‘day jobs’, however, have always involved teaching. The first was in the shape of the excellent Jesuit institution of ‘regency’, a break from studies on the way to ordination, which normally involved some school-teaching. In my case, it was a highly enjoyable year of teaching classics and cricket at St Ignatius, College, Enfield, a comprehensive school that we run in North London.
The next bout of teaching was after my ordination in 1980, when I tutored in New Testament and taught the Greek of the New Testament at Heythrop College in London. I did that for two years, and then was sent to St Aloysius College in Glasgow for two immensely enjoyable years, teaching RE and cricket, as well as some French. After that I went for the ‘tertianship’ aforementioned. Then I taught at Stonyhurst for four years, which I found great fun.
You were in South Africa for 12 years after that. How did that come about?
Quite unexpectedly, a letter came from a Jesuit in South Africa, asking whether I should mind if they asked the Provincial to send me out there, as there was a job that they thought I could do. As soon as I read the letter, I knew that it was a ‘vocation within a vocation’; and although there were enormous problems about getting freed up for it, eventually it happened, and I left for South Africa in October 1989. It was a wonderful time, in a wonderful country; grand apartheid was in its death-throes, though able to give a good kick occasionally, and I was a privileged witness to the change-over. One memorable task that I had was the job of District Observer for some seven polling-stations in the Natal Midlands for the two days of our first democratic elections in April 1994. That was a wonderful time to be alive; and there was a strong sense that we were present at the making of history. Certainly the whole South African experience has strongly affected my life and my faith.
You are now teaching at Oxford University. How did that come about?
A job that I was doing, Dean of Studies at a seminary in Pretoria, came quite naturally to an end. In that context of post-apartheid South Africa, it seemed important to bring it about that non-white staff should have the key roles in a seminary where the students were almost entirely black; and then I was asked to come to Oxford “just for three years, then you can come back to South Africa”. That was nine years ago, and I am still here; I have to say that I missed South Africa quite dreadfully at first, but I am now very fond of Oxford and the teaching and writing opportunities that this place gives me, not to mention the thoroughly able students who come here.
What about your books? What was the first one that you wrote, and how did it come about?
That was an odd thing. When I was a novice, my novice-master suggested that I should study Spanish, because a good deal of the early Jesuit material was written in that language. Then he lent me a most interesting book on the early Jesuits’ understanding of community life; so I read it, and then found myself saying “someone should translate this”. So I did. The Book was called “Friends in the Lord” (Amigos en El Señor), by Javier Osuna SJ, and it had been his doctoral thesis, so in addition to translating it, I had to abridge it to some considerable extent, and it was published by The Way Publications in 1974. I learnt a great deal from doing that translation.
How did you get involved with Kevin Mayhew?
That was a book called What Is A Gospel?, based on some lectures about the four gospels that I had given at our Jesuit Summer School (“Living Theology”), which appeared in 1982.
Have you worked with any publishers other than Kevin Mayhew?
Not for some years, but back in 1995 there was a book called “Setting the Gospel Free”, which was a scriptural approach to Liberation Theology, set in the context of a South Africa that was still opening up to the new dispensation in that country. It was originally published in South Africa by Cluster Publications in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa; but I see that it is now published in Oxford by The Way. Then in 1997 there was a book called “Jesuit Companions”, a series of thumbnail sketches of Jesuits whose lives had been transformed by their encounter with St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. And in the late 1990s I had the only sabbatical of my life so far, and wrote a book on “Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament”. I called it “Whispers of Liberation”, and Paulist Press produced it in 1998.
You mentioned cricket a while ago: do you play a good deal?
Cricket and squash have meant a great deal to me over the years, and until recently I was still representing my old College, St John’s, here at Oxford, in both sports. Now however, osteo arthritis has meant an enforced retirement.
Do you miss it?
Yes, enormously, but you have to grow up some time. And, to be perfectly honest, I was aware that my performance was getting less and less plausible, and it was probably a good thing that I should be forced into official retirement before the undergraduates nerved themselves to indicate that my time had come. I still maintain some connection with sport in that I was asked to be the “Senior Member” of the University Squash club, which means benevolently attending meetings and matches, and ponderously hinting at past glories.
You are Chairman of the Catholic Biblical Association. How did that happen?
In the oddest of ways. When I returned to the UK, I heard of its existence, and applied to join. The then Chairman, on receiving my application, asked if I would join the Executive Committee, which is, you will admit, at least an indication that people were not exactly queuing up to be on it. And when the Chairman then expressed his desire to stand down, I was the only one who did not see it coming.
How do you feel when figures such as Desmond Tutu and Rowan Williams offer such praise for your work?
A bit embarrassed, to be perfectly honest. They are both good and generous men.