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Owen Chadwick, 20th May 1916 – 17th July 2015

By Patrick Seamus McGhee, @Patricksmcg

Patrick is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching atheism and unbelief in post-Reformation England.

The clergyman, theologian and historian of religion Rev. Prof. Owen Chadwick died on 17th July 2015 aged 99.

In a career spanning over seven decades, Chadwick was recognised as a conscientious and compassionate historian whose work was fundamentally founded upon his concern with the intertwined relationships between history, conscience and Christianity. In a fascinating interview with Alan MacFarlane, Chadwick spoke about sports, politics, war and his religious beliefs as well as his academic pursuits.

Detailing his political development in response to the emergence of Nazism, he explained that, ‘Just as some people reacted against Hitler by becoming communists, I reacted against Hitler by becoming Christian’.  He saw the shadow over Europe in his own lifetime as directly comparable to the context of his historical interests, commenting that ‘there seemed to be a curious parallel between this barbarism in central Europe with the fifth century AD, which I wanted to know badly about’. He also touched on his love of lecturing to Part II and Special Subject students at Cambridge University and fondly recalled that, ‘young minds are absolutely brilliant things, and that was very exciting’. Chadwick played rugby for the university at Varsity between 1936 and 1938 and in this latter year he was captain, leading his team to triumph over Oxford.

His published work included critical studies of post-Reformation religion but contextualised developments in the church with nuanced and insightful reference to a variety of themes, people, places and times, including the religious nature of nineteenth-century ‘secularisation’ and the role of religion in the Cold War era. Students of the Reformation should read his succinct article on Lancelot Andrewes, which has a very particular focus on three critics of Andrewes’ sermons but serves as a useful example of Chadwick’s accessible writing style, his attention to the details of language and definitions, and the firm connections between religion and history, past and present, upon which he insisted. In addition to his numerous academic works, Chadwick held several positions during his time at the University of Cambridge. He was Master of Selwyn College from 1956 to 1983, was made an Honorary Fellow of St. John’s in 1964, held the Dixie Professorship of Modern History (1958-68), was Regius Professor of Modern History (1968-83), and became Vice-Chancellor in 1969, a position he held until 1971.

In a thoughtful and touching obituary for the Guardian, Prof. John Morrill has written:

‘Chadwick was immune from arrogance and self-importance. He retained a relaxed warmth and easy good nature, with an infectious reactive laugh. Indeed he had the unusual ability never to laugh at his own jokes and always to laugh at other people’s. It was an aspect of his most priestly and humane quality: the ability to listen. He could (rarely) switch off and appear uninterested, but never when people presented him with their sadness or anxiety. Theologically and intellectually he was cautiously liberal, but pastorally he was conservative with a strong streak of paternalism, and this brought balm to hundreds of people he met. He had the rare ability to make people feel better about themselves.’

Rev. Prof. Owen Chadwick, born 20th May 1916, died 17th July 2015.

 

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