18 June 2008

by The Very Revd David Edwards and Dr Lionel Dakers

Distinguished: the Revd Professor Henry Chadwick

Distinguished: the Revd Professor Henry Chadwick

The Very Revd David Edwards writes:
HENRY CHADWICK, who died on Tuesday six days short of his 88th birthday, was, in the judgement of competent scholars, equalled by no contemporary in the world as an authority on the early history of the Church, with the emphasis on doctrine. But he was also heavily involved in current ecumenical studies and in the affairs of institutions ranging from Cambridge and Oxford Universities to the Church Times.. Those who worried that he would never produce his magnum opus were therefore relieved when his volume The Church in Ancient Society was added to the Oxford History of the Christian Church in 2002.

He edited that series jointly with his elder brother Owen, whom he resembled in the mixture of distinguished historical work with an effective ministry to his own age. Also like his brother, he was honoured by a knighthood. He did, however, outstrip Owen Chadwick (always a luminary of Cambridge) by accumulating appointments in both the ancient universities. He was Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford 1959-69, and in Cambridge 1979-83, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, 1969-79, and Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1987-93.

The recital of those facts does not cover the whole of his contribution to the Christian cause. He was also an accomplished musicologist; the first of his many degrees was in music. It was his chairmanship of the publishers of Hymns Ancient & Modern and The New English Hymnal during a period of revision and expansion which led the firm into the ownership of Canterbury Press, SCM Press, and this newspaper, so that he could be teased as the Rupert Murdoch of religious publishing.

That role could not have been predicted about a scholar whose heart was always in libraries. Still less did his early years presage his quietly dominating place in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), a body that failed for practical purposes, but succeeded to an extent that was almost spectacular in bridging the theological chasm created by the Reformation of the 16th century.


Born in 1920, Henry Chadwick was the son of a mother who was very musical, and a barrister who died when he was aged five. A King’s Scholarship to Eton gave him a secure grounding in Latin and Greek, thus ultimately enabling all his academic work; but, meanwhile, being fatherless may have had something to do both with his fascinated love of music and with his Evangelical conversion while at school. He won a music scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, and after theological study at Ridley Hall, was a curate in an Evangelical stronghold, Emmanuel Church, South Croydon, during the Blitz. At this stage, his theology was, it seems, more or less Calvinistic.

With peace came the beginnings of a long and happy marriage, and of a lifetime of research and teaching, first in a year as a schoolmaster, and then in a dozen years in Cambridge as a Fellow of Queens’ College. What he had learned as an Evangelical bore fruit in his responsibility for the college chapel; but his intellectual power and honesty found fulfilment in the work that led to the editorship of the Journal of Theological Studies (1954-85), and to the eventual invitation to lead Oxford’s theology.

This work included a commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, but also took him far beyond any conventionally based Evangelical limits. He edited a series called the Library of Modern Religious Thought, contributing a study of the extremely liberal Lessing; and his sympathetic understanding was not confined to Germans. When Soundings stirred the waters as a book of essays from Cambridge, he reviewed it with care and courtesy in Theology: on the atonement, for example, “neither Anselm nor Abelard can be regarded as intelligible to 20th-century Europeans without a mass of historical commentary.”

His academic status was made incontrovertible by his work on Origen. In 1953, his edition of Origen’s Contra Celsum was a significant work of mature learning; and next year his joint editorship of Alexandrian Christianity opened the gates of that theological city to those who did not share his mastery of Greek.

His inaugural lecture as a professor in Oxford hinted at his future absorption in the Anglican dialogue with Rome: already, in 1959, he was saying: “It ought to be possible for historical theology to cut across the confessional.”

He pointed out that the first geographical centre of the Christian Church was Jerusalem, and when Rome arose ecclesiastically, the pattern of authority in the Church remained not a circle with one heart, but a two-centred ellipse. He had in mind the continuing vitality of the Eastern Church — no mere periphery — but perhaps also, with a becoming modesty, his own Anglicanism as an ellipse stretching to the West.


Yet he did not attack Roman legalism as the villain in this complicated story. On the contrary, he was to produce a study of the sacramental teachings of two key figures in Western Catholicism, Hippolytus and Ambrose, as well as a magisterial book on the use of Greek philosophy by the Eastern Fathers, in addition to a best-seller on the Early Church for the Pelican imprint of Penguin Books.

The impression that he made on Oxford, as a scholar and as a man, resulted in a request to the Crown that he should be appointed Dean of Christ Church. This was a challenging post, for the duties were not only those of the headship of the cathedral, where he was already a Canon; he was also now the head of a large college, whose members inevitably included some seniors who were anti-clerical. Since his appointment in 1969, changes have lightened the Dean’s involvement in day-to-day administration; but Chadwick accepted the double burden, and found it exhausting.

The problem was increased by duties in the university as a whole — and by his determination not to let his responsibilities as a manager end his output as a scholar. After seven years, he produced a study that was up to his own exacting standard. It made an original contribution to the solution of problems surrounding the career of Priscilla, a Spanish bishop executed for sorcery in 386. The subtitle of the book, “A study of the occult and the charismatic in the early Church”, indicated the areas where the Bishop had disturbed his more staid fellow churchmen.

The paradox was that Chadwick devoted himself to the obscure evidence about this eccentric martyr while presiding over the richest college in Oxford and, over six months, he wrote up his investigation by rising three hours before his participation in the early services and the day’s committees and other chores.

Having achieved this feat, he resolved to write an equally demanding book on Boethius, the many-sided intellectual who was executed for treason, c. 524. Again, the scope was to be indicated by the subtitle: “The consolation of music, logic, theology and philosophy”.

In none of these fields was Chadwick at a loss, and he was thoroughly at home with the faith of Boethius that the harmony of music, strengthened by the Creator’s self-revelation, led into reasoned theology. But the down-to-earth longing for more quiet for study made him glad to accept the leading Cambridge chair in theology after ten years as Dean. Four less stressful years included the completion of his Boethius, prompting another chorus of academic praise. But, again, his peace was disturbed: he felt it his duty to serve in the ARCIC dialogues.


His share in these theological conversations determined their shape; he was a member 1969-81 and 1983-90. His approach was that of a scholar who refused to be content with the repetition of popular slogans. In his insistence on precise wording, he took documents from history to meetings, and inexhaustibly he made impromptu reference to past disputes and their outcomes. Back to the sources! But his approach was also that of an Anglican, aware of tensions, and eager to get everyone singing from the same hymn book.

For him, the great moment came when, in a meeting at Windsor Castle, these delegates from Churches separated by history sat in silence, realising that they had just agreed on the nature of the eucharist and therefore on the character of the priesthood serving it. There was a preparatory argument: he it was who wrote the footnote explaining what Roman Catholics meant by transubstantiation.

He lived to be very disappointed. The two books of essays in his honour, Christian Authority, edited by Gillian Evans (1988), and The Making of Orthodoxy, edited by Rowan Williams (1989), show how baffling it could seem to scholars that the two Churches should continue to be essentially unreconciled.

They were already in “partial communion”, as the authorised existence of ARCIC proved — so surely they could agree that authority must be dispersed between the “Petrine ministry” in Rome, the bishops in regions and dioceses, and the faithful whose “reception” was needed if newly formulated doctrines were to be judged loyal to the gospel of the apostles. Surely, in the twin lights of history and current reality, some diversity should be allowed, even encouraged, in the statement and restatement of apostolic orthodoxy?

It did not seem unreasonable to hope. Archbishop Ramsey fully shared Chadwick’s belief that if what had for long appeared to be theological obstacles could be removed, other steps could follow. Archbishop Runcie sent him to the Vatican as a safe pair of hands in tricky negotiations before the papal visit to Britain. And, when a pope gave him a priest’s stole, the presentation did not seem to imply that Anglican orders were completely null and void. (On early mornings in Oxford, he had used the Roman Missa Normativa.)

History may still vindicate such hopes. Chadwick wrote that in his time, Newman had seen that “Protestant language about the imputed merits of Christ being the believer’s only hope is, in another idiom, saying what Catholics affirm in the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass, ‘the Father looking on us sees not us but Christ in us.’”


There may come a day when divided Churches do concentrate on asking what the Father thinks of us all, and when (as Chadwick put it) “those engaged in dialogue are allowed to ask what positive affirmation they seek to protect,” in response to that divine forgiveness. And those positive affirmations, lifted out of the mire of controversy and excommunications, may be found to be parts of Christianity.

In the immediate future, however, hopes were dashed. From the ramparts of the Vatican, Cardinal Ratzinger poured large doses of cold water, with the blessing of John Paul II. In the Church of England, the Evangelicals became the strongest movement, and not many of them had gone on Chadwick’s own Romeward journey of mind and soul. Decisively for the time being, women were ordained priests: the General Synod’s defiance of the papacy in 1992 was an echo of the 1530s.

No crafted formula — ARCIC’s work was regarded by Chadwick as an agreement on “almost all the main points” — had as much power as the wrecking fact of disagreement about what he had tactfully called “the Pope’s part in the process by which the Holy Spirit preserves the Church from error”. It was like partners discovering that they had much in common, but were not yet willing to be tied down to marriage.

Chadwick also published two assemblies of his scholarly papers, and a semi-popular collection, Tradition and Exploration. A short paperback on Augustine was admired by fellow scholars, and gratefully understood by novices; he also translated and annotated Augustine’s Confessions. He was tolerant about the saint’s harder side, and managed to make his passion about God intelligible in a secular age.

He had become the Church of England’s most respected guru. He deflated not only fundamentalism, but also extravagant claims for the Royal Supremacy or for episcopacy as being essential from the beginning. But he now adhered to Catholicism in the sense in which Boethius and Augustine had adhered.

He had one more surprise to spring. When he had retired to Oxford, announcing his delight in the prospect of scholarly leisure, at the age of 67 he accepted an invitation to return to Cambridge as Master of that university’s oldest college, Peterhouse. He was a strange successor to Lord Dacre, better known as the anti-clerical historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, but he presided eirenically over the college. For him, the situation, less complicated than Christ Church, was in many ways an ideal evening to his public life.


When he had returned to Oxford for his second retirement, he still felt young enough to embark on fresh projects, including a learned contribution to the Cambridge Ancient History.

And how did he strike people as a person? He was very sharp, except in personal relations: when doing business, he was unsentimental; when writing, he had a taste for irony; and when talking, he had a wit that could summarise and devastate. He was also very tall, and could seem benevolently and elegantly aloof. Yet the chief impression made was that he was a dedicated and kind priest, who stood head and shoulders above almost everyone else because of his intellect, which included an astonishing memory.

His intellectual achievement was summed up in his masterpiece, which had to wait for completion until the new century, The Church in Ancient Society, covering 600 years. It was as elegant as his life, wearing immense learning lightly, and combing a scholar’s total commitment to truth with a priest’s deep sympathy with both high and popular forms of Christian piety.

He is survived by Lady Chadwick and their three daughters and two grandsons, and by his brother, the Revd Professor Owen Chadwick.

Dr Lionel Dakers adds:
A significant aspect of Henry Chadwick’s life and work was his long connection with the world of music, which went back to his undergraduate days as a music scholar at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In 1939, he was awarded the prestigious John Stewart of Rannoch Scholarship and gained the B.Mus. degree.

His musicianship, in particular his remarkable skill as a pianist and organist, made him much in demand — as when Boris Ord, the organist of King’s, would enlist him to be one of the two performers in the demanding two-piano version of Chabrier’s España, a formidable task for a fledgling undergraduate, the more so when the audience were invariably distinguished guests.

At Oxford in the 1950s, the Hungarian composer Kodály turned the pages for him in a performance of Schubert’s E-flat Trio at one of the soirées Margaret Deneke would hold at her house in Norham Gardens, and where the guests would include people such as Sacheverell Sitwell, F. R. Leavis, and Patrick Hadley, the Professor of Music at Cambridge.

Chadwick always claimed that these early forays were an important diversion in his emerging career. For many years, he played a crucial part in the annals of Hymns Ancient & Modern, and was chairman of its council for 20 years, where his unerring business sense was influential. He was a member of the editorial committee that produced 100 Hymns for Today, More Hymns for Today, Worship Songs Ancient and Modern, and the New Standard edition of the main book. His last significant contribution in this field was to chair the committee that produced Common Praise.

In all these ventures, his scholarship, wisdom, and abiding love of poetry and music were large factors in determining the shape and content of what was in many respects a radical rethinking. He never failed to make all concerned aware that A & M should remain basically a traditionally orientated book. His reasoning on the updating (or lack of it) of language revealed perceptive thinking.

Had he chosen to make music his career, he would no doubt have been as distinguished as he was in his theological career, such was the breadth of his knowledge and insight.

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