"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Monday, July 20, 2015

A Good Hill to Die On

I taught a mini-class on ecclesiology last week, and we spent a great deal of time on papal history and the papacy in general. My students asked me for references to general works in Church history, including the history of Orthodox-Catholic divisions and relations, and also papal history in particular. Unhesitatingly I recommended to them, inter alia, various works of the Chadwick brothers, including Henry Chadwick's invaluable and magisterial East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church: From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence (Oxford, 2005).

It's not for the faint of heart, or those without solid background. But for those who have the background, Chadwick's book lays out, in prose so taut and spare as almost to be painful, the disintegration of East-West relations and the long process of estrangement, all of which is treated with great care and even-handedness, offering few rationalizations or comforting places to hide from the painful facts. Though the Guardian obituary for Henry's brother Owen Chadwick says of the latter that he wrote in "short sentences: no modern writer employed so few subordinate clauses. He had a penchant for one-sentence paragraphs. His writing was always crisp and vivid," that could equally be said of Henry in East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church, a book which seems to have been written (or at least edited) by someone with an almost sadistic desire to prune out everything but the most essential points, with no digressions or detail beyond what was judged strictly necessary. I think only a senior scholar could have pulled it off. As I tell my students, especially those fresh out of highschool, it is much harder to write a short essay or book than a long one, and they rarely believe me. But discipline--askesis--if you will is necessary in writing as in life. 

Henry wrote as an Anglican, so in some important ways had no dog in any Catholic-Orthodox fights and could rise above polemics in East and West. He once said of ecumenical scholarship, and the ecumenical movement, that it was a "good cause to die for," and I agree. Henry died in 2008 at the age of 87, after a long and prolific life.

His brother Owen, also a Church of England cleric, theologian, dialogue partner with Orthodoxy on behalf of the Anglican Communion, and historian, lived to be 99, and died last Friday after an equally if not more prolific life as a scholar at the top of his class. He was rightly lauded by his country. Her Majesty made him a member of the Order of Merit, which is within the sole gift of the Sovereign, limited to 24 members, and is thus unique and rare in the British honours system as being free from grubby control by government ministers. (Having said that, I've never understood why the queen sullied so rare a guild by inducting the former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien, as sordid, dimwitted, and oleaginous a mediocrity as ever emerged from her senior dominion.)

I have not read many of Chadwick's books, but have scholarly friends who have and they recommend various of them, including his study of the important patristic figure John Cassian.

I can say something more about two that I have read. More than ten years ago now, when I was grappling with the East-West divide over whether in any significant sense one can say that doctrine "develops," as the West, above all in the person of Cardinal Newman, says it can (and as the East sometimes denies), I found Chadwick's book From Bossuet to Newman a very useful history and chronology, studying figures who are sometimes lost in the massive shadow that Newman casts here, as in so much else.

But it is Owen Chadwick's A History of the Popes 1830-1914 (Oxford, 2003) that I have found utterly invaluable over the years. I think he and others--including the other Cambridge historians John Pollard and Eamon Duffy--are right in seeing this period as crucial for the creation of the modern papacy, with all its centralized power, global prominence--and ecumenical difficulty. Chadwick got in first with his study and it remains a landmark work of papal history, not least for Eastern Christians trying to understand how Vatican I came about with its twin problematic definitions of papal infallibility and jurisdiction (about which I have had a thing or two to say).

For such a crucial period of nearly a century, Chadwick's taut and spare style was on display again: the book, though 614pp. long, could easily have been twice that in lesser hands. Moreover, this is not dry-as-dust prose, either. He had, here as elsewhere, a keen eye for an illuminating tale, an amusing anecdote (as the typically winsome obituarist at the Daily Telegraph recognizes), or a juicy bit of gossip that was relevant but not salacious or vicious.

That latter point seems to come out in something lighter, which I only discovered upon reading the obits: I have just ordered his Victorian Miniature, about which the publisher tells us:
Nancy Mitford once observed that some of the most bitter personal clashes of all time have been 'between the Manor and the Vicarage'. Owen Chadwick's Victorian Miniature paints a detailed cameo of nineteenth-century English rural life, in the extraordinary battle of wills between squire and parson in a Norfolk village. Both the evangelical clergyman and the squire, proudly conscious of his Huguenot ancestry, were passionate diarists, and their two journals open up a fascinating double perspective on the events which exposed their clash of personalities. The result is a narrative that is at once deeply informative about Victorian class distinctions, rural customs and festivities, and richly entertaining in a manner worthy of Trollope.
As a fan of Nancy Mitford, and even more of Trollope's Barchester Towers, which I thoroughly enjoyed more than twenty years ago, Chadwick's book sounds like pleasurably diverting reading now.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review for the Catholic Review of Books!

    ReplyDelete

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