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Obituary: The Revd Dr Christopher Armstrong

08 October 2021

Denis O’Brien writes:

CHRISTOPHER ARMSTRONG, sometime monk of Downside Abbey, who later pursued his priestly vocation in the Church of England and the Church in Wales, died on 9 July, aged 86, his last years clouded by increasing loss of memory.

Christopher was the son of Hilary Armstrong, translator of the Enneads, and Deborah Wilson. He went to Downside when the school and the monastery were at the height of their fame. Answering a vocation to the priesthood which had stirred in him as a boy, he entered the monastery soon after leaving the school.

He was ordained priest at 24, and, with little knowledge of any world other than the monastic, he was now committed to a lifetime of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

With other Downside monks, he went to the Benedictine house of studies in Cambridge, and enrolled as an undergraduate of Christ’s College. After a first-class Honours degree in modern languages, he stayed on in Cambridge to study for a doctorate, which he was awarded for a thesis on the Quietists. The choice of subject was indicative of Christopher’s attachment to an intensely personal form of Christian living, far from the oppressive orthodoxy prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council.

It was in his final years in Cambridge that he found the inner freedom that his monastic upbringing had left too little room for. He was dispensed from his vows, married the woman he loved, and found new happiness in a life that was no longer celibate.

Appointed as lecturer in French at Aberdeen, for the first time he led a life of his own making, although increasingly feeling the pull of something closer to the vocation of his earlier years. With the example of his wife, Meriel, a devout Anglican, pointing the way, he joined the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1971, and, three years later, took up again the life of priest, serving in various parishes in the Church of England, before being appointed in 1980 director of academic studies and tutor at Westcott House, Cambridge.

Christopher was an obvious choice for being called on to write a biography timed to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Evelyn Underhill, one of the rare mystical writers to emerge in the Anglican Church in the early decades of the last century. He gave himself wholeheartedly to the task and produced in 1976 a masterpiece of sympathetic understanding, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941): An introduction to her life and writings.

For his final charge, Christopher was appointed successor to the poet R. S. Thomas as Vicar of Aberdaron, where he endeared himself to his parishioners. As one of them remarked, he did not cross the road to avoid meeting a parishioner he might see coming his way, as Thomas had apparently been wont to do, very probably not wanting to be distracted from the inner world of his poetry.

In retirement, Christopher and Meriel moved to Yorkshire, to be nearer their daughter, Bridget, and two grandchildren. There, he was ever willing to engage in debate on the great themes that he had explored in luminous studies published over the years: “Saint Anselm and his Critics: Further reflection on the Cur Deus homo”, Downside Review (1968), “The Dialectical Road to Truth: The dialogue”, French Renaissance Studies (Edinburgh University Press, 1976).

In his essay on Anselm, which was awarded the Norrisian prize, Christopher took issue with John McIntyre, Professor of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh, author of St Anselm and his Critics: A re-interpretation of the “Cur Deus Homo” (Edinburgh, 1954). Christopher saw, as others, including McIntyre, had not seen, that the subtlety of Anselm’s intricate arguments was also a new dawn in the history of theology, bending words and meanings to a use that they had not been put to before.

In his contribution to French Renaissance Studies, a dazzling display of familiarity with a wide range of texts also leads to a new insight, recognition of a parting of the ways, in the 16th century, between words used as a battering ram to prove the truth or falsity of experiences that can never be fully our own and the use of words to elicit truths that lie within each of us, but that can be brought to light only by an exchange of words, enabling us to see ourselves as others see us.

The insights displayed in Christopher’s writing and in his preaching will be sorely missed. His quiet but intense magnetism will be an even greater loss to those of his friends and contemporaries who were drawn irresistibly to liking and admiration for someone whose dedication to a spiritual ideal, despite the vicissitudes of his priestly life, never failed and never wavered.

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