A priest and a scholar

Ian McCormack offers a tribute to the life and work of Owen Chadwick

I once urinated on Owen Chadwick’s carpet. In mitigation, I should point out that I was just a few months old. My father had been an undergraduate of Selwyn College Cambridge. In his final year there, he stepped out in front of a bus and was duly run over, breaking his leg rather badly and causing him to spend several months out of action, first of all in hospital, and then in the college sick bay. During these latter months, Owen would visit him almost every night after Hall, bringing with him perhaps a little gift of port and certain highlights of the evening’s conversation. Years later, my father felt a deal of affection towards the man who had visited him so faithfully during those lonely nights, and in due course took me, his first born, to visit him at the Master’s Lodge. This was, it should be said, in obedience to a letter he had received from Owen shortly after my father had married (some years after leaving Cambridge, and five years before I was born): ‘Dear Michael, I hear you have married a physiotherapist. Do bring her to see me. Yours, Owen Chadwick’. Of such small acts of consideration is Christian greatness born.

One of the greatest

For have I mentioned that Owen Chadwick was Master of Selwyn at the time of my father’s accident? In the four years that I spent at the other place, I have no reason to suspect that my Head of House ever knew who I was, let alone considered visiting me from time to time. Admittedly I had not been run over by a bus; admittedly my father had served Mass in the Chapel at Selwyn; admittedly times change. And yet, in this simple story of human decency (one of a countless number which might be told by Selwyn men) lies a profound truth: Owen Chadwick was one of the greatest of men.

The Revd Professor Owen Chadwick, who died on 17 July 2015 aged 99, was Regius Professor of History; Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History; Master of Selwyn, Member of the Order of Merit; the list of honours and distinctions could go on for some time. And yet surely the greatest tribute that can be paid to Owen Chadwick (at least by one who met him all but briefly, and in less than propitious circumstances) is this: that he displayed in his life and in his work, what it meant to be a priest and a scholar, and to combine the two vocations in one person. In Owen’s published works (several of which are undisputed masterpieces), but also in his daily interactions with all manner of people, from the humble chapel clerk to the highest of the Realm, he illustrated the nobility and the dignity of the vocation of the scholar-priest. It is a vocation which is all but extinct in the Church of England, and we are immeasurably the poorer for it. In Owen’s work – primarily but far from exclusively his two-volume The Victorian Church – the humility of faith and the detachment of the historian are merged to such an exquisite degree that it is impossible to distinguish between them.

Immensely knowledgeable

Owen’s greatest gift as a writer of history was to speak of his subjects as if he had known them personally. Thus, he wrote of Walsham How, first and possibly greatest bishop of the now lamented Diocese of Wakefield, as ‘so tiny in stature that vergers needed to provide a platform inside the pulpit to enable the congregation to see him. Everything else about him was delectable…[a] delightful little man’. He described the ‘ancient’ Archbishop Harcourt of York walking across a wooden bridge over an ornamental pool at Bishopthorpe when the bridge collapsed and the archbishop and his chaplain fell into the water up to their necks. ‘Well, Dixon,’ Chadwick reports the Archbishop as saying to his chaplain, ‘I think we’ve frightened the frogs.’ Just a month later, ‘amiable and blameless’, the Archbishop ‘faded away’. The obituary in The Times noted that ‘the progress of his professional advancement…though perhaps not much beyond his deserts, was at least fully equal to them’. And he (Chadwick) was the pre-eminent historian of our own Oxford Movement, writing (for example) that ‘it should rightly have been said of Pusey, what was later said of Christopher Wordsworth, that he had one foot in heaven and the other foot in the third century A.D.’

Such snippets give a flavour of Owen Chadwick’s writing: an immensely knowledgeable, amused and suitably detached observer, yet entirely lacking in the cynicism and scepticism which disfigures so much contemporary ecclesiastical history. As priest-scholar, and scholar-priest, Owen Chadwick was simply one of the greatest ecclesiastical historians of all time. It is highly unlikely that we will see his like again.

A priest forever

Yet Owen Chadwick remained a priest at heart. In recent years, after my father retired, he began to return to Selwyn every now and again, and would always look in on the chapel which had been the true centre of college life for so many years. Sometimes he was able to sneak a glance at the Service Register. And there, once a week, was the signature of Owen Chadwick. One of the greatest of all scholars; a man feted by academy, assembly, and the highest echelons of civic society. And yet also a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek. May he rest in peace. Amen. ND

2017-10-19T19:47:37+00:00 October 2015 Articles|