Address at the dedication of a memorial to Owen and Henry Chadwick

Professor Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity, University of Cambridge

Thursday, 1st February 2018 at 6.00 PM

We’re here to dedicate a great rarity, a monument to scholars. Owen and Henry Chadwick were unchallenged leaders in their own fields of learning, laden with distinctions, honorary degrees, knighthoods. Owen was a member of the Order of Merit, Henry was the first man since the seventeenth century to be a Head of House and hold Regius Chairs in both the ancient universities. In addition, both were major ecclesiastical statesmen. The 1970 report of the Archbishops Commission on Church and State, which Owen drafted, set the agenda for the modern Church of England’s relations with the state. Henry almost single-handedly set the pace for Anglican Roman-Catholic ecumenical conversations during a period of unprecedentedly positive engagement between the two churches. And both of them were fascinating, multi-talented, lovable human beings: once met, never forgotten.

Their scholarship was stupendous. Owen established himself with an early masterpiece, his most charming book, Victorian Miniature, deliciously evoking the worlds of a warring squire and country parson in nineteenth-century rural Norfolk: he clinched his pre-eminence with his magisterial two-volume study, The Victorian Church. But arguably he wrote even better about Roman Catholicism than he did about Anglicanism. It’s well known how profoundly he was influenced by one of his heroes, the Catholic historian Lord Acton, less often realised that Owen’s immersion in Acton’s marvellous library, one of Cambridge’s unknown treasures, helped to determine the agenda for much of his best writing. One of my own favourites, The Popes and European Revolution, is a gloriously baggy monster of a book whose piling up of apparently random detail brings the Italian Church of the eighteenth century vividly to life: and it drew much of its source material from Acton’s library. It’s a hugely entertaining read: I specially commend to you the three dead-pan pages Owen devoted to the eighteenth-century controversy over whether clerical wigs should be considered head-gear like a hat (in which case they must be removed during the canon of the Mass), or rather be counted as the priest’s own hair, in which case they need not. Closer to our own terrible times, his study of Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War is the finest and most sensitive study of Pope Pius XII’s troubling silence about Nazi attempts to exterminate the Jews.

Part of Owen’s genius as an historian lay in his unerring instinct for locating the telling source—like his tracking down to a flat in New York of the papers of Darcy Osborne, the Foreign Office’s man in the Vatican during the Second World War. Elizabeth Poyser, late archivist to the archbishops of Westminster, once told me that while he was writing the very fine chapters on Roman Catholicism for his Victorian Church, Owen made only two short visits to the Westminster archives: but he seemed to have a sixth sense for exactly which files would yield the crucial insight.

He was a notoriously idiosyncratic writer, master of the one sentence paragraph, and his mature style can sometimes resemble Mr Jingle’s telegraphic conversation in Pickwick Papers. This was in part because he dictated his books to his wonderful secretary Marion, often from a deck-chair in the Master’s garden at Selwyn. My very bad-tempered corgi Sam once rudely halted the composition of Volume II of the Victorian Church by charging across the College lawn while Owen was dictating, and seizing Igor, Owen’s dog, by the throat: it was a traumatic experience Igor, even more traumatic for a callow graduate student in considerable awe of his supervisor. And Owen could carry that stylistic terseness alarmingly into real life: years after the event, I was told by a member of the interview panel that his reference for my appointment to a university lectureship in 1979 consisted of little more than the words ‘This is your man’.

Henry was a less distinctive stylist than Owen, but his learning was even broader and deeper. His greatness as a teacher are attested by the veneration he inspired in the stream of brilliant scholars who sat at his feet in Oxford—Peter Brown, Garth Fowden, Andrew Louth come to mind. But he was a slow starter: before anyone thought of him as a scholar he was in demand as a brilliant musician, whose dazzling piano technique might have ensured him a successful career as a concert pianist : he was proud of the fact that Zoltán Kodály had once turned pages for him during an Oxford recital.

As an undergraduate he was far more religious than the sporty Owen, but in an evangelical mode that gave no premonition of his later work for unity with the Roman Catholic Church. He told me once that he was presiding at a Christian union prayer meeting in his undergraduate rooms at Magdalen, when the Master, AB Ramsay, dropped in unexpectedly. ‘Don’t droop on the furniture like that, Chadwick’, Ramsay had barked, ‘that’s no posture for a gentleman to address his Maker’.

But once ordained Henry got into his stride: he was always a great translator, as anyone who has read his marvellously pacey version of Augustine’s Confessions will know, and it was his 1953 translation of Origen’s treatise against the pagan philosopher Celsus that established him as an outstanding patristics scholar. In 1954 he became editor of the Journal of Theological Studies, a post in which over the next thirty years his astonishing breadth of reading and photographic recall of everything he had read became legendary. And in 1959, not yet forty, he became Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and set about transforming Oxford into a world centre of excellence in patristics.

Henry dispensed his immense learning with the lightest of touches: he was master of the colloquial aside: an eloquent account of the aged St Augustine toiling late into the night on his gloomy anti-Pelagian writings would be followed by a pause and a roguishly arched eyebrow, ‘It would have been better for everyone if Augustine had saved his candles and made an early night of it!’ I remember after Henry’s sparkling Cambridge valedictory lecture Steven Sykes, who had been elected to succeed Henry as Regius Professor: sitting with his head in his hands and groaning ‘how am I supposed to follow that?’

In 1969 Henry had been appointed Dean of Christ Church, a role he seemed born for, but in the event he was given a rough ride by difficult colleagues. Some of the dons, he once told me ‘seemed to believe that I kept the complete works of Machiavelli to hand for ready reference in the Deanery’. The great books—Priscillian, Boethius (written in Oxford though published after he left) went on appearing, but in 1979 he decided to return to Cambridge, as Regius Professor, and to his undergraduate College: so he and I were elected fellows of Magdalen the same day, he being five minutes senior to me. For the next two years we remained the junior fellows, taking wine round to our colleagues after dinner: it was like an apprenticeship to a world class old-style butler ‘May I press some of this excellent Madeira on you?’

The most important intellectual endeavour of Henry’s life was his work for unity between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. From 1969 till 1990 he was both metaphorically and literally the towering Anglican presence on ARCIC, the commission charged with resolving the theological disagreements between the two churches. To prepare himself, he read twice through the entire corpus of Anglican and Roman Catholic controversy since the sixteenth century. He also mastered the multi-volumed Latin Acta of the Council of Trent, and he liked to shock fellow Anglicans by declaring that he could accept every one of Trent’s doctrinal formulations. ARCIC produced a series of truly momentous agreements, of which the most important was the report on the theology of the Eucharist. Famously, progress on that document stalled when the Roman Catholic representatives were unable to agree among themselves on the meaning of Transubstantiation. Overnight, Henry drafted a masterly footnote which resolved the impasse.

It all took its toll: at one of the more exhausting ARCIC meetings in Venice during a torrid summer, Henry collapsed: he was hospitalised, though the fainting fit turned out not to be life-threatening. As he surfaced from unconsciousness, he saw the anxious faces of his ARCIC colleagues gathered round his bed. A faint Chadwickian voice greeted them from the pillow: ‘I see I am not in heaven’.

Henry’s role in ARCIC made him the inevitable Anglican negotiator for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canterbury in 1989. During the preparations, he had lunch with the Pope, and he relished the ambiguities of the signals sent during the encounter. At lunch the Pope firmly insisted on the impossibility of reversing Leo XIII’s condemnation of Anglican ordinations, but, at the end of the meal, he presented Henry with a priestly stole! It’s a decidedly un-Chadwickian object in gold lamé, but it remained a treasured possession. Many of us here will remember it laid on his coffin at his funeral, a mute and moving symbol of his unrealised hopes for the restoration of full communion between our two Churches.

Great men are often all too conscious of their greatness. But both Owen and Henry had an endearing line in deflatory self-mockery, like Owen’s recollection of the occasion in one of the southern states of America when he turned up to lecture on the Victorian Church, to find a packed auditorium of 2,000 people. Gratified that so many Americans wanted to hear his views, he was crest-fallen to discover they had come in such numbers because the lecture was advertised as being given by the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History. And I was amused once while taking students round the church at Cley in Norfolk, where Owen in retirement acted as priest in charge, to see on display the splendid gifts which the Patriarch of Moscow had given Owen during one of his missions as Archbishop’s Envoy to the Russian Orthodox Church: the explanatory label stated only that they had been presented by the Patriarch ‘to a member of Cley parish’.

And then there was Henry’s story of killing time on a free afternoon while he was lecturing at an American University : it had a notable classical museum, so Henry duly turned up there, only to find the museum was about to close. When he expressed his disappointment, the lady on the desk asked his name, then made an internal phone-call. Within seconds the flustered director appeared, gushingly welcoming. ‘Professor Chadwick, O what an honour.’ There followed the full red carpet treatment: shutters were drawn back, display cases unlocked, drawers pulled out, rare treasures produced and placed in his hands, refreshment offered. At the end of the tour Henry was profuse in his thanks for such hospitality. ‘Professor Chadwick’, said the director, ‘for the man who deciphered Linear B, nothing could be too good’. Henry thought it kindest not to correct the mistake.

Any church in Christendom that can boast priests so humane, so brilliant, so manifestly good, should count itself blessed. Both world and Church have changed, and the circumstances that produced the Chadwick brothers have all but disappeared: we won’t see their like again. More than most brothers, they loved and supported each other all through their lives: it’s only right that they should be commemorated together here, with the nation’s greatest, in this ancient house of prayer.