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Owing a debt to Owen Chadwick (1916-2015)

On learning of the death of Owen Chadwick, I was moved to tears. Immediately, I jotted down how much we were in his debt as a friend of scholars, mentor to many, pithy and witty writer, faithful priest, brilliant preacher, diligent professor, supervisor and administrator, with a vast hinterland of history and culture.

He was Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge for 27 years from 1956. When I read New Testament studies as a postgraduate there in 1979-1980, he gave me a small, inspiring grant to study the Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed churches in Yugoslavia during the summer vacation.

I begin by considering his obituaries and his writing of history, and then will remember his own words on secularization and on the role of friendship in scholarship.


The outpouring of fond reminiscences of this beloved Cambridge professor and priest has been widespread. The obituaries, especially in The Guardian, by John Morrill of Selwyn, in The Times, anonymous, and in The Church Times, by David Edwards, have been as magisterial as their subject.

Edwards begins his obituary with wry observations:

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.

The Times obituary includes a clue to a PhD dissertation waiting to be written and a key commission on Church and State:

He was separated from his beloved brother in Oxford by the long promised railway between the two cities that was never built. They wrote long and affectionate letters to each other every weekend…

The Church of England asked him to chair the landmark Archbishops’ Commission on Church and State between 1966 and 1970. It effectively persuaded the government to give the Church of England more power in appointing bishops.

Morrill states in The Guardian that Chadwick was:

one of the most remarkable men of letters of the 20th century. He held two Cambridge University chairs over a period of 25 years, was its vice-chancellor during the student unrest of the late 1960s, chaired a commission that transformed the structures of the Church of England and declined major bishoprics…

His writing was marked by short sentences: no modern writer employed so few subordinate clauses. He had a penchant for one-sentence paragraphs. His writing was always crisp and vivid, as notably in the single-word chapter titles of his final book.

His life, thought and works may be gleaned from these obituaries, and from his fine festschrift, edited by Derek Beales and Geoffrey Best, History, Society and the Churches: Essays in Honour of Owen Chadwick (Cambridge: CUP, 1985).


Max Warren, Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster and former General Secretary of the Church Mission Society, was appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York in February 1966 to chair the Commission on Church and State. However, almost immediately he had an angina attack and had to resign, handing over the position to Owen Chadwick. Warren, also a historian (of mission in particular), had a profound respect for his successor.

Volume 1 of Chadwick’s magnum opus, The Victorian Church (London: A&C Black), was published in 1966 and Volume 2 in 1970. In response, Max Warren wrote to his son-in-law in India, Roger Hooker, on 1 August 1966. I included the letter in Christianity Connected: Hindus, Muslims and the World in the Letters of Max Warren and Roger Hooker (2002):

I’ve just finished Owen Chadwick’s ‘The Victorian Church Part 1’ — 572 pages, a whale of a book, but utterly magnificent, with more brilliant aphorisms than any book I can remember. It is magnificently objective and shows the period with which he deals 1829-1859 under a searchlight which illuminates innumerable corners.

I’ve got a number of comments which I’m going to write to him. I think he exaggerates somewhat the extent to which ordinary folk were moved by the great controversies of the age. In my reading of innumerable documents about the Missionary Movement I do not find that these controversies had much effect. (Christianity Connected, p. 204)

Warren went on to comment on the Catholic and Evangelical movements in the nineteenth-century Church of England:

He certainly reveals the extraordinary wrong-headedness of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, and the limited horizons of the evangelicals. The Oxford Movement helped towards more reverent worship, but virtually every issue which their leaders stressed have the verdict of history against them. This comes out very strikingly and Owen is no partisan. He shows with clarity the limitations of evangelicals who confined themselves to too narrow a front, and forfeited leadership of a serious sort until comparatively recently. But for all their narrowness, and it was shockingly narrow, they went deep. They never compromised on the need for conversion. This was their enduring strength and explains why continuously there have emerged men and women who outgrew narrowness but did not lose depth. I’m sure this is a point we need to remember…

He then pondered movements in the Church of England in his own time, and wrote prophetically:

What I think we are seeing to-day is the slow emergence of a third force in the Church, not to be confused with the Broad Churchmen of the 1850’s. This third force consists of Churchmen who value decency & beauty in worship, have a deep social conscience, and are deeply concerned about the need for evangelism (without any clear idea of what it is), and who are genuinely ecumenical. I foresee these being the strongest group in the C of E in 20 years’ time, unless the Conservative Evangelicals get there first! It is a race! – a real race!

I could not include all the letters of Warren and Hooker. One of the extracts I left out (from the same letter) referred to the rumour of Chadwick being offered the bishopric of Durham:

No Bishop of Durham has yet been appointed. I believe that Owen Chadwick has been offered it and is being pressed to take it. I hope he refuses. He’s the most brilliant Church Historian we’ve got. As Master of Selwyn — Dixie Professor of Eccl. History, he’s magnificent. But I would be reconciled to his accepting it in consideration of the fact that he would counter-balance the woolly-minded prelate the Bishop of Ripon who, being a Medieval Church Historian, is fascinated by un-reformed Romanism!

The Bishop of Ripon he referred to, at that time, was John Moorman.

There have been critiques of these two volumes from two leading mission historians. Kevin Ward wrote the Introduction to The Church Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799-1999 (2000), edited by him and Brian Stanley. He notes perceptively that the modern missionary movement is virtually omitted in this seminal work:

The only indexed reference to CMS refers to John Henry Newman’s criticism of the Oxford CMS association (of which he was the secretary) for ‘leaning to friendliness with dissenters’! He resigned in 1830 (I:68-69).

Andrew F. Walls, made a similar criticism in his ‘Structural Problems in Mission Studies’, IBMR 15 (1991), pp. 146-155, republished in his The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996), pp. 143-159.

This lacuna is somewhat surprising, for Chadwick had written an early gem of a book on mission history, Mackenzie’s Grave (1959), recently republished by Wipf & Stock.


Perhaps, Owen Chadwick’s greatest book is The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (1975). This was based on his Gifford Lectures 1973-1974, and he shrewdly considered movements and people, including Marx, Darwin, Mill, and Comte. I am enjoying rereading it now: a few early quotations must suffice to give his style and insights.

First, he provides a pithy summary of the Reformation, which he had written about on several occasions during his career. His early classic textbook, The Pelican History of the Church: The Reformation (1964) and his final book, The Early Reformation on the Continent (2002) book-ended much diverse scholarship.

The Reformation made all secular life into a vocation of God. It was like the baptism of the secular world. It refused any longer to regard the specially religious calling of a priest or monk as higher in moral scale than the calling of a cobbler or of a prince. Christian energy was turned away from the still and the contemplative towards action. The man who would leave the world turned into the man who would change it. Religion centred upon ritual veered towards religion centred upon ethic. Supreme good which once was Being now began to be Doing. Once they waited for the New Jerusalem which should descend from heaven, now they resolved not to cease from strife till they had built it in this green and pleasant land. (p. 8)

The problem of secularization is not the same as the problem of enlightenment. Enlightenment was of the few. Secularization is of the many. (p. 9)

From this very axiom, miracles do not happen, comes near the heart of that elusive shift in the European mind which we seek. (p. 17)


The theme of friendship may seem strange as a way of approaching history and theology, but Owen Chadwick’s second Cambridge inaugural lecture, when he succeeded Butterfield on 27 November 1968, included the following wisdom:

St Augustine had a saying, Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur, you need to be a friend of a man before you understand him. So by analogy is our relation to men of the past, societies of the past, even documents in the archives. You may suspect, you ought to suspect them all as sure to mislead you vilely unless your critical sense is ever alert; but they do it (for the most part) by their inadvertence or their partial vision. You need no white paint, you need to try to see things as they were. But you need to be inside their minds and to forget the future which they could not know, and to come towards them with the openness of mind, the readiness to listen, which a man gives to a friend. Trevelyan had this amongst his strengths. He was the kind of man, as well as the kind of historian, who understood what St Augustine meant, that the human race is known in friendship.[1]


I conclude with my favourite, almost hidden, quip, which is appropriately at the end of Chadwick’s masterful biography, Michael Ramsey: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), in the annotated bibliography.

He commented on Ramsey’s book From Gore to Temple: The Development of Anglican Theology between Lux Mundi and the Second World War 1889-1930 (London: Longmans, 1960)

These were the Hale Memorial Lectures at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary for 1959. As the Americans were less familiar with the Englishmen Gore and Temple, and more likely to think from the title that the book was about primitive anthropology, the American edition was entitled An Era in Anglican Theology, New York, 1960.

Owen Chadwick, doyen of British historians, is known in friendship, and is owed a great debt by scholars in Cambridge, Britain, and throughout the world. Full of years: 99 and now out into glory.

Part of that debt, I believe, is the writing of postcolonial history and theology in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The featured image of Owen Chadwick was taken at Selwyn College on his 99th birthday. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

The Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings is Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion, a new post founded by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church Mission Society, and Durham University.


[1] Cited by Geoffrey Best in his ‘Owen Chadwick and his Work’ in Derek Beales and Geoffrey Best (eds.), History, Society and the Churches: Essays in Honour of Owen Chadwick (Cambridge: CUP, 1985), p. 8.



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