Who was Henry Chadwick?

Few are aware that a world-class research collection assembled by an ‘aristocrat among British scholars’ now sits at St. Michael’s Abbey.

In celebration of the Abbey's special collections library--current home to the personal library of Sir Henry Chadwick, K.B.E. (1920-2008)--the Abbot's Circle is thrilled to present a three-part account of the great scholar's life, his library, and how it came to St. Michael’s Abbey. In this first installment, abbey Librarian and Archivist Thomas Kiser explores Sir Chadwick's life, work, and enduring legacy.

Few are aware that a world-class research collection assembled by an ‘aristocrat among British scholars’ now sits at St. Michael’s Abbey of Orange County, CA. With construction completed in 2020, the beautifully appointed abbey features a grand Romanesque church adorned with Byzantine mosaics and secco murals. Adjacent to the church is a modern special collections library designed by Danish liturgical artist Maja Lisa Englehart, friend of library benefactors Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. Within this contemporary enclosure sits a 15,000 volume collection that reflects the storied career of the former owner who "set about transforming Oxford into a world center of excellence in patristics." ¹

Across the Atlantic, in the midst of memorials to Jane Austen, Milton, Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott, Westminster Abbey displays a tablet dedicated to Sir Henry Chadwick, K.B.E. (1920-2008) together with his brother Owen. The inscription reads “Priests and Scholars”. Regius Professor of Divinity, dean of both Oxford and Cambridge colleges and leading historian of the early church, Henry Chadwick was many things to many people. His library tells the tale. One little book came to him from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger “with esteem,” another from Hans Kung. His library evokes images of a global savant who left enough of a mark on twentieth century Christian scholarship from 1940-2008 that Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in the Guardian, “The Anglican Church does not have a pope, but it does have Henry Chadwick.”

Thirty years after the revised edition, many will cite Chadwick’s The Early Church (Penguin: 1993) as the standard English textbook on Early Christianity. Those professed in religion or philosophy will cite his monumental scholarship on St. Augustine, Boethius, or Origen. (It has been said that he was the best contemporary scholar on Origen, whose Contra Celsum reappeared in Chadwick’s English prose for Cambridge in 1953, bringing us, according to Peter Brown, “to the heart of the dialogue between paganism and Christianity.”²) His masterful understanding of the thought of St. Augustine led to a translation of a classic of Christianity for Oxford, The Confessions, in 1991. This was the fruit of nearly a half century of reading the classics with which Augustine himself was familiar, revealing to us, at the same time, the thought-world of late antiquity. And in Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy, a complete engagement of the classical liberal arts revealed the difficult process by which Boethius himself wrote on the nature of God in the sixth century.

A display in the abbey's special collections library.

Henry Chadwick was indeed an historian, yet he was imbued with the disciplines of philosophy and theology, drawing him ever nearer to his subject. This enjoining was to be a career theme and results were often profound, extending beyond the confines of academia. While his main concern was the relationship between classical and Christian thought in the early church, his focus was always on divisions, either those of history or the present day.  One such example from the present day was the practice of separating ancient from Christian history, a reality which Chadwick challenged as artificial and unfortunate, working to establish at Oxford the new field of Late Antiquity. In his final book East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church (Oxford: 2003), the medieval estrangement of the Greek and Latin worlds fell under his lens. Not even the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism escaped his intellectual grasp. In the words of Peter Brown, “on a matter of such urgency as the divisions of Christians (in the present as in the past) there simply could not be too much scholarship, there could not be too much clear thinking; there could not be too much alert searching of the past.” 

For Chadwick, the study of history was more than antiquarianism, he was engaging the memory of an institution that reached into the distant past. The church had become divided by the effects of time and fallen human nature, and in order to repair that memory a great deal of reading would be necessary. And Chadwick was willing to put this reading to good use. His vast knowledge of the councils and fathers left an impression upon Pope Paul VI, who requested he represent the Anglicans in official dialogues with Rome. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) lasted from 1969-1990. In preparation, Chadwick is said to have read twice through the entire corpus of Anglican and Catholic controversy since the sixteenth century and to have mastered the Latin acts of the Council of Trent. He drafted a document entitled Salvation and the Church (1976) that distilled decades of learned publications on the early church, many of which are in his library. 

Among all the ARCIC agreements, the most important was on the theology of the Eucharist. Eamon Duffy recounts that were it not for a panacea drafted overnight by Chadwick, an impasse involving an internal dispute among the Roman Catholics might have been unavoidable. The Commission would not reunite the churches, however an exhausted Chadwick was presented with an interesting gift in the end. After negotiating with John Paul II during his visit to Canterbury in 1989, and learning the Catholic Church would not reverse its position on the validity of Anglican orders, his holiness presented him with a stole. This symbol of priestly authority Chadwick accepted with gratitude, and it was laid on his funeral coffin in 2008.

Henry Chadwick at ARCIC Meeting. Rome, 1987. Box 57, Folder 7, Henry Chadwick Papers.  St. Michael’s Abbey, Silverado, CA.

To list achievements in a few words would be to underestimate not only Chadwick’s “olympian” academic career but his exemplary life in service as Anglican priest, musician, publisher, administrator, husband, and father. As Eamon Duffy would recall, he was known for a light touch and self-mockery. Andrew Louth remembered “He would not speak so much as pronounce, though this did not diminish the warmth of his conversation.” ³

Louth went on to describe Chadwick’s library as simply vast. Looking on at some of the books, one cannot help but think of how he put them to use with his characteristic generosity, sharing his scholarship with the world, whether by teaching, lecturing abroad, or in official dialogue.

Henry Chadwick by Walter Bird. Bromide print. 5 October 1966. © National Portrait Gallery, London. (Used here with permission.)

Henry Chadwick, priest, theologian and historian: born Bromley, Kent 23 June 1920; ordained deacon 1943, priest 1944; Assistant Master, Wellington College 1945; Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge 1946-58 (Honorary Fellow 1958); Editor, The Journal of Theological Studies 1953-85; Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford University 1959-69, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1974-75; Canon, Christ Church, Oxford 1959-69, Dean 1969-79 (Honorary Student 1979); Delegate, Oxford University Press 1960-79; FBA 1960; Gifford Lecturer, St Andrews University 1962-64; Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University 1979-83 (Emeritus); Honorary Canon, Ely Cathedral 1979-83; Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge 1987-93 (Honorary Fellow 1993); KBE 1989; married 1945 Margaret Brownrigg (three daughters); died Oxford 17 June 2008.

1) Eamon Duffy, Address at Dedication to Memorial, 2018

2) Peter Brown, Biographical Memoir: Henry Chadwick (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society), 2010

3) Andrew Louth, Obituary: Henry Chadwick in The Independent, 2008

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