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Obituary: The Revd Professor Owen Chadwick

24 July 2015


Charitable scholar-priest: Professor Owen Chadwick preaching at Michael Ramsey’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey, 27 June 1988

Charitable scholar-priest: Professor Owen Chadwick preaching at Michael Ramsey’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey, 27 June 1988

The Very Revd Dr David Edwards writes:

OWEN CHADWICK, who died on 17 July, aged 99, was one of the two cleverest Anglican clergymen in his generation; the other was his younger brother Henry. The Crown honoured him with the Order of Merit and a knighthood; his fellow scholars with election as President of the British Academy and with a hamper of doctorates and distinguished lectureships. He was also the most charitable of priests.

For almost the whole of his life, the background was Cambridge. A barrister’s son, born in 1916, William Owen Chadwick went to St John’s College mainly to play rugger. He was converted to God, to gentleness, and to intellectual exertions by a don, Martin Charlesworth, who had recovered his own faith late in life and largely, it seems, through thought about Christianity’s triumph over the Roman Empire. After achieving firsts in history and theology, he tackled a period outside Cambridge, beginning with preparation for the priesthood in Cuddesdon near Oxford. The year was 1939.

That time of wartime idealism — Churchill’s “Christian values” against another and worse Caesar — left in him a permanent spirituality. His account, The Founding of Cuddesdon, to mark the college’s centenary in 1950 was candid about the early controversies caused by suspicion of the dominance over the young seminarians exerted by the Anglo-Catholic vice-principal, Henry Liddon. But when he preached at a college festival years later, Chadwick said that it was right for Cuddesdon men to think of England as a “strange land”, not because it was people by “savages and devils”, but because they had been well taught that they must look for “another country”.

Two books of 1960 and 1990, The Mind of the Oxford Movement and The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, showed that he remained fascinated by Newman, Keble, Pusey, and their disciples, not because he shared the dogmatism, but because they were holy men who had a vision of the Church as the Body of Christ. He came to think that Catholicism was most attractive when it was “hesitant and stutters” (as he said when commemorating Charles Gore in Westminster Abbey in 1972), and towards the end he expected women to be bishops and was not alarmed; but it remained his conviction that “God gave a Bible, and a Church with a Word, and sacraments which are given to us and not manufactured by us, and a priesthood to consecrate”.

Before returning to Cambridge, he did a spell as a curate in Huddersfield and another as chaplain in a public school (Wellington). When he became a Fellow of Trinity Hall in 1947, for nine years, it seemed at first that his interests would concentrate in the earlier centuries. His first book — and his most original contribution to scholarship — was a pioneering study of the fifth-century John Cassian (dedicated to Charlesworth), and later he edited under the title Western Asceticism translations of Cassian’s Conferences, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and the Rule of St Benedict.

But he was not to make his mark as a historian of monasticism. He put much of his energy instead into activities as Master of Selwyn College (1956-83) and Vice-Chancellor (1969-71), well supported by his wife Ruth and by the home they made for their four children (with a holiday home on the Norfolk coast).

He completely accepted the university’s wish that Selwyn should no longer be restricted to Anglicans, and in consequence the college expanded dramatically during his reign — in numbers and in academic and sporting prowess. One who was in the college then recalls that “the students worshipped him.” Even the dons were not very critical. He also found time to take the lead in the foundation of a new college, Wolfson. While he was the university’s senior officer, a period of student militancy against every form of authority ended: his unflustered, semi-detached charm helped, as did his presidency of the Rugby Football Club, which he had once captained.

Somehow he managed to avoid total immersion in such work for institutions and individuals. He was Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History (1958-68) and Regius Professor of Modern History (1968-83), and the book of essays in his honour, History, Society and the Churches, showed the respect and gratitude of many students of church history. But he himself also wrote, so prolifically that in Who’s Who he was to report, “Publications include . . .” instead of listing them all. His style was to present one fact after another with the minimum of comment.

Although the bestseller among all his books was the Pelican history The Reformation (1964), in most of his work he went beyond the age of Luther and Calvin.

In From Bossuet to Newman (1957), he began with the great bishop and preacher who under the ancien régime in the 17th century claimed that, unlike the splintering Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church had never changed in doctrine. What might appear to be a novelty merely made explicit what had been present in the faith of the Church ever since the days of the apostles.

For many years an Anglican, Newman felt obliged to make the same claim about the Church of England. As his transfer to Rome became unavoidable, however, he saw that theology could not be an “affair of the memory” alone — with the result that Chadwick could end his study with the question, as smooth as anything that Bossuet wrote: “In what meaningful sense may it be asserted that these new doctrines are not new revelation?”

The revelations that most interested him as a historian came from archives. During his retirement, when he might have relaxed in the enjoyment of admiration and affection, he celebrated the opening of the Vatican’s archives in Catholicism and History (1978), and spent many months chained to libraries, often abroad, to write three big books in the Oxford History of the Christian Church (which he co-edited with his brother Henry): The Popes and the European Revolution (1981), A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (1998), and The Early Reformation on the Continent (2002). These were accompanied by a detailed study, Britain and the Vatican in the Second World War (1986).

Three hundred and forty-one pages of the first of these volumes supplied a detailed survey of Italian and other Catholicism before the French Revolution. His attitude was not hostile. He could not approve of the belief that the ringing of the church bell would protect a village during a storm, but he did see the value of an illiterate public being urged by the bell to worship and thus move beyond credulity to creed — and he did approve of “cultivated and intelligent” bishops who were critics of “superstitions and stupidities”, but also “lovers of the early Christians, and of simplicity, and of the Bible” (as he was).

After the Revolution, the Church lost many endowments, and eventually the papacy lost its kingdom in central Italy; but slightly better-trained priests led slightly better-educated people in a religion that was still warmly emotional, but not so unintelligent. This might have been the necessary renewal, but the Church’s leadership was inadequate. Chadwick was as polite as he could be about the 19th-century popes, but they were essentially pastors who did not understand what was going on outside the parish churches, and he was far from thinking them infallible. He saw only two big signs of hope: Leo XIII’s blessing on democracy and modern knowledge (although it was very cautious), and Benedict XV’s neutrality in the Great War (although it was ineffective).

His book about the Vatican during the Second World War, based on many unpublished sources, was a study of diplomacy by a diplomat. He recorded the facts, and the reactions to them of a pope who was more paternal than prophetic, and of rival ambassadors who brought pressures to come off the fence. He left the verdict to history, not to one historian. A shorter account, The Churches and the Cold War, took a similar approach to dilemmas — discretion or valour? — when Christians had to survive under Communism as Catholics had had to live under the regime that engineered the Holocast.

Unsurprisingly, however, he loved to read and write about his own countrymen, and two short studies published in 1959-60 proved it. Mackenzie’s Grave told the story of an Anglican mission to Central Africa when innocence ended in tragedy, and A Victorian Miniature resurrected the highly strained relationship between a benevolently despotic squire and a fanatically sincere Evangelical parson in a village near Norwich. Both books were vivid because based on letters and diaries; but in both the narrator was not too involved.

These miniatures were followed by the two large volumes of history of The Victorian Church (1966 and 1970). The story began in the 1830s when it seemed that no human power could save an effete and corrupt Establishment under attack — and it ended with the verdict that “Victorian England was religious,” and “its churches thrived and multiplied,” in a country which “continued to accept the Christian ethic as the highest known to men”, and which contained just enough thinkers who knew that “all truth is of God.”

Reviewers set up a chorus of praise; but some limitations could be noted even in this magnum opus: there was more about the countryside than about cities, more about intellectuals than about the people, more about the Established Church and the politicians than about Nonconformity, whether Protestant or Catholic.

Much of the second volume dealt with the Victorian crisis of faith under the impact of, for example, Darwin: the Bible had provided the religion of Protestants, and now it was seen that, like the pope, holy scripture was not infallible. The Gifford Lectures on The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1975) explored the Continental crisis. Here the style was more impressionistic and provocative, but reviewers praised many touches and the book’s sensible proportions. He had assessed both social and intellectual factors with a magisterial wisdom.

His conclusion was that this century in this continent brought about the decline of “religion as an instrument of social consensus, family or community habit, public and civic rites, and even social control” — but “religious men knew what they knew.”

Twenty years later came a book with an even broader sweep: A History of Christianity, addressed to non-specialists. Here the style reverted to the straightforward, matter-of-fact tone of the history of the Reformation, and the glamour of the book came from its many illustrations in colour.

Perhaps Chadwick, normally a man who practised reserve, bared his heart most plainly in a lecture of 1984, printed but never put into a book. The Fisherman and His God was about Izaak Walton. The 17th-century angler was praised for thoughts that were, it seems, also the lecturer’s own. In hours of peace and silence, preferably in a meadow by a river, joy and gratitude well up, and “into the quietness comes an intuition that nature points beyond nature.” The intuition can flower into faith in God, but “as soon as the intelligence plays upon this faith we are out of our depths,” so that “your faith which is so direct, so immediate, may rest, perhaps ought to rest, with a large degree of agnosticism.” Between them, Walton and Chadwick had caught a slippery fish, Anglicanism.

In 1966, he was invited to chair an Archbishops’ Commission on Church and State. This spent four years considering views put forward from right and left, but its report, much of which he wrote, managed to include recommendations that were widely acceptable because they sprang out of the central position which he shared. For a Church, worship is all-important, because through it Christians can “know”; but in England clericalism and dogmatism must be checked by the laity, which feels “a large degree of agnosticism”.

Thus it was eventually agreed that Parliament should no longer debate the details of the Church’s doctrine and worship, but that the Prime Minister should still have the decisive say in the appointment of bishops and deans, with a commission to produce two possible names for the filling of a vacant see. The Church of England was to remain established, subject to a degree of state control, but able to use its privileges for access to a people who, it was claimed in tentative negatives, did not regard England as a non-Christian country. It was a compromise that worked for the time being.

It was rumoured that Chadwick was offered high office in the Church; but, if he was, he said no, and he was right. The days were past when Cambridge scholars such as Cranmer, Parker, Andrewes, Lightfoot, or Westcott could remain active students while also sustaining an episcopal ministry. But he used his rare gifts by writing very fine biographies of two scholarly bishops, Hensley Henson (1983) and Michael Ramsey (1990). Of the two, he was much closer to Ramsey, who often consulted him (as did Robert Runcie). The less congenial Henson — a militant man with many opinions (which could, however, change) — evoked the greatest of this scholar’s gifts: unsentimental sympathy with the dead as well as the living.

He believed that “moral judgement corrupts the historian,” although it was “the essence of man”; and he praised his Cambridge forerunner Creighton, who refused to denounce even the Renaissance popes. He wrote at length about Newman’s spiritual stature, but also appreciated why Charles Kingsley so thoroughly disliked him — and he was fair to Kingsley, too. He smiled (it would seem) when recording Keble’s advice to Newman, “Don’t be original” — yet he was indignant when a new biography, avoiding hagiography because it was original, put the emphasis on Keble’s “limitations”.

A refusal to be a hanging judge can itself be a moral act, rewarded by many insights into human reality; this moral judgement was at the heart of all Chadwick’s work.

His last book was a study of the early stages of the “Continental” Reformation. This eschewed the chronological narrative of his Penguin history, being a large collection of essays on social and spiritual life and the theological revolution. The fruit of much investigation and mediation, the book was again admired, but those who dared to criticise could lament the absence of complete references to the sources. Thus the character of this widely ranging author was illustrated at the end of his published work: he was magisterial, but also conversational, above all the ecclesiastical historian of his time, but never above being readable.

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