26 June 2020, The Tablet

Obituary: Audrey Donnithorne

Obituary: Audrey Donnithorne

Audrey Donnithorne

Audrey Donnithorne, a British-Chinese academic prominent in efforts to rebuild the Catholic Church in China after the Cultural Revolution, has died. 

Born on 27 November 1922 to Vyvyan and Gladys Donnithorne (née Ingram), two British Anglican missionaries living in Sichuan, China, Audrey spent much of her childhood being educated in England. She always regarded China as her “homeland”.

In April 1940, when she was 17, she travelled through France shortly before the German invasion of that country, and returned to China to spend several years living with her parents. It was during this period that Audrey converted to Catholicism. In 1943, Audrey returned to the UK, serving in the Military Intelligence unit of the War Office until the end of hostilities. Studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, Audrey babysat for the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and became friends with Margaret Thatcher - then known as Margaret Roberts. The two were to remain lifelong friends. 

After graduation, Donnithorne worked as a research assistant at University College London, where she wrote her “magnum opus”, China’s Economic System, published in 1967. In 1969, moved to Australia, where she taught at the Australian National University. Given her new proximity to China, she began to visit the People’s Republic of China from 1973, making contact with substantial numbers of Chinese Christians.   After retirement in 1985, at the age of 63, she moved to Hong Kong, where she was appointed an honorary member of the Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong.

Audrey regularly visited Christian communities across Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. Freely giving of her professional expertise as an economist, Audrey worked to raise and distribute money for the Chinese Church, to connect Chinese Christians with sympathisers from around the world, and setting up study groups. After the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, Audrey helped the church in China rebuild: acquiring study books, funding seminarians, constructing and repairing Church buildings that had neglected for decades. Many of her projects were implemented with the support of Caritas Hong Kong, who Audrey continued to work with throughout her life.

At one point, Audrey was crucial in the reconciliation of a Bishop from the “patriotic”, state-backed Catholic Church in Sichuan with the Holy See, leading eventually to the establishment of unity between the “underground” and “patriotic” Churches in that province. For these and other efforts, the Vatican awarded her the Pro Ecclesia et Pro Pontifice medal in 1993, and in 1995, she became an honorary member of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP).

Her activities had not gone unnoticed by the Chinese government, however, and in 1997 was expelled from the Chinese mainland. On asking one official why such an action had been taken, Audrey received a blunt answer: “You know why.” 

Audrey continued to support the Chinese Church for the rest of her life, carrying on an extensive correspondence with Church leaders, priests and missionaries from her home in Hong Kong, and continuing to give her advice and expert help to the Hong Kong Diocese. In the wake of 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Audrey set up a fund for the reconstruction of churches, schools and nurseries in that province, the place she had been born over 80 years before.

Although her physical strength declined in recent years – affected as she was by recurrent seasonal pneumonia – she retained her mental liveliness and vigour until her peaceful death on 9 June, at the age of 97.

Audrey will be remembered for the depth and breadth of her academic research, her work for the Church in China, her commitment to ecumenism, and her personal charity - on her departure to Hong Kong, she gave her house in Australia to refugees from South Vietnam.  Her memoir, "China in Life's Foreground", was published last year, and her personal papers will be held in the archives of the Paris Missions Society.

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Comment by: MikeM
Posted: 03/07/2020 09:03:37
Audrey at a meeting in 1970s Canberra of Catholic professionals who met regularly to discuss the issues of the day: Yes, Hans Kung believes in God, he just thinks He should be elected.
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