Henry Chadwick and the road to happiness

Posted in Blog, Christianity

Henry Chadwick (1920 –2008) was an academic, a theologian, a Church of England priest, a dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – and as such, head of Christ Church, Oxford – and also, later, master of Peterhouse, Cambridge. A leading historian of the early church, Chadwick was appointed Regius Professor at both the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. An accomplished musician, having studied music to degree level, he took a leading part in the revision and updating of hymnals widely used within Anglicanism, chairing the board of the publisher, Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd., for 20 years.

When he died in 2008, Rowan Williams’ obituary of Chadwick in The Guardian, described him as a ‘profoundly shy and private man’. That did not accord with my own memory of him – for I met him once. When I served as a Trustee of Bible Society, we decided to move the Society’s priceless collection of books and bible manuscripts to be housed  in Cambridge University Library. After a ceremony in 2002 at which the collection was formally handed over to Cambridge, I found myself sharing a lift with Chadwick  – just me and Sir Henry, for he had become a knight of the realm. Heavens, I thought, do I open a conversation with Henry Chadwick? I need not have worried for he chatted happily explaining that the lift had been behaving temperamentally and expressing the hope that we would reach the ground floor without incident. We did, he set off for Peterhouse and – of course – we never met again. Six years later he died at the age of 87.

But he lives on in his books. I have three of them on my desk as I write this, all of them very readable and some with touches of delightful humour. The first is his The Early Church, part of a series which he edited with his distinguished brother, Owen, ‘The Pelican History of the Church’. The second is his Augustine: A Very Short Introduction and the third is his translation of Augustine’s Confessions. In the second of these books, Chadwick tells the story of Augustine’s conversion to Christ in July 386 and how Augustine realised that Jesus ‘embodied the gift of God’s love by the humility of his incarnation and death. Access to this movement of God to rescue fallen man is found through the assent of faith and through adhesion to the community of Jesus’ followers, a structured community entrusted by him with the gospel and with sacramental covenant signs of water, bread and wine. Thereby the Spirit of holiness united man to God, to give hope for the life to come, of which Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate pledge, and to transform the individual’s personal and moral life to be fit for the society of saints in the presence of God’.

This summary of what happened in a garden in Milan in the summer of the year 386 is a tribute to Chadwick’s grasp of the essentials of our Christian faith – God’s gift to us of Jesus, the significance of his life, death and resurrection and the role and importance of the community of the followers of Jesus who have been entrusted with a gospel to proclaim, holy communion to share and the Holy Spirit to transform and empower.

Henry Chadwick shared Augustine’s view that there is something other-worldly about authentic Christianity. Our faith derives its reference-points and criteria from considerations beyond the process of time and history. Convinced that this world is God’s world, neither Chadwick nor Augustine believed that this life can belong to a secular world or that the primary values are power, honour, wealth and sex. Chadwick highlighted for us Augustine’s view that none of these values can be a road to happiness either for individuals or for society.