One of the most distinguished church historians of his generation
Owen Chadwick, who has died aged 99, was an Anglican scholar-priest of the old school. He combined academic brilliance with administrative gifts and pastoral sensitivity, making him an outstandingly successful Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, from 1956 until his retirement in 1983.
One of six children, his younger brother Henry also became a prominent theologian and later a collaborator with Owen in editing the multi-volume Oxford History of the Christian Church (1981 to 2010). Owen went to Tonbridge School, where he excelled at rugby, a pursuit continued at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he won three blues. He also represented the British Lions on their victorious 1936 tour of Argentina.
Rejecting his mother’s Christian Science, he arrived at Cambridge in 1936 as an agnostic but moved towards Christianity, inspired by the example of the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller. This coincided with a change from classics to history. Keen to study the fourth and fifth centuries, he moved into theology and was influenced by Martin Charlesworth, President of St John’s, “a wonderful teacher; a rip-roaring man, full of go and humour, and generosity”.
A proposed scholarship to Germany was thwarted by the Second World War; instead, Chadwick studied for ordination at Cuddesdon, near Oxford. After a curacy in Huddersfield, he became chaplain at Wellington College and then Fellow and historian at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, from 1947. At the time of his appointment, Selwyn College was an Anglican institution for men; he quickly opened it up to non-Anglicans and later (in 1976) to women, and the college was fully incorporated into the university. In 1958 he was elected Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, and in 1968 moved to the Regius chair.
Chadwick was a master of the pithy sentence and one-liner. In many ways he combined the approaches of the two great Victorian occupants of his chairs, Mandell Creighton (about whom he gave his inaugural lecture) and Creighton’s nemesis, Lord Acton. Like Creighton, who refused to condemn even the worst crimes of the Renaissance popes, Chadwick read the past on its own terms, resisting easy moral certainties. His admiration for Acton, about whom he wrote a book, led him to always look for the big picture. Christian historians, Chadwick held, had the task of bringing “historical understanding and moral conviction … into harmony when moral judgment corrupts the ‘historian’ and yet moral judgment is the essence of the ‘man’”.
He admitted that “like everybody else, [I] have prejudices but I don’t know what they are so I don’t worry about them”.
His greatest book was his two-volume history, The Victorian Church (1966 and 1970), which grew out of his earlier interest in the Catholic revival in the Church of England. His essays on the Oxford Movement are masterclasses in how to write affectionately without lapsing into hagiography. His Victorian Miniature (1960), a portrait of the parson and squire of Ketteringham, near Norwich, at loggerheads, is regarded by many as his literary masterpiece. His Gifford lectures on secularisation (The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century, 1976) reveal a massive learning.
Later he turned to the study of Roman Catholicism, making great use of the Vatican archives, and adopting a dispassionate approach to sometimes controversial topics (as with The Popes and European Revolution (1981); Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War (1986); The Christian Church in the Cold War (1992); A History of the Popes 1830–1914 (1998). He also produced colourful biographies of Hensley Henson (1983) and his friend Michael Ramsey (1990).
In his later years, he served as assistant priest at Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, once asking for boiled potatoes at the fish and chip van. Despite his many accolades (he was appointed KBE in 1982 and became a member of the Order of Merit in 1983), he remained a humble seeker after truth: “I enjoyed lecturing to Part II people,” he said, “because although most of the class would be beta and a few gamma, there would always be three or four minds worth learning from; that was very exciting.”
In 1949 he married Ruth Hallward, who died in January. Their two sons and two daughters survive him.
Owen Chadwick OM, Anglican priest and historian, born 20 May 1916, Bromley, Kent; died 17 July 2015, Cambridge.
Mark D. Chapman is professor of the history of modern theology at Oxford University and vice-principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon.