Most contemporary historians, I suppose, have had the experience of meeting the dramatis personae about whom one is writing. In a recent conference paper, I discussed a 1965 encounter between Michael Ramsey and a leading Anglican evangelical, now retired to Oxford, and in the audience. With perfect courtesy he disagreed with my analysis, but did unwittingly point me in the direction of an additional source, now worked into the paper, which is much the better for it.
What, however, do you do when the author of the main secondary work in your field was also a participant in the events which he describes? Even worse: what if that author is the (now retired) Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history, and then regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, and president of the British Academy? Such is my vexed relationship with Owen Chadwick, holder of all these offices, and author of the standard Life of Michael Ramsey.
One would need to read the book carefully to notice (such is his self-effacement), but Chadwick was involved at the very centre of the events he describes. Chadwick was a member of the Church of England’s commission on synodical government, and chairman of the influential commission on church and state which reported in 1970. While Ramsey was archbishop of York, the two men were part of the same delegation to Moscow to meet leaders of the Russian Orthodox church in 1956.
Even less well known was their contact over scholarly matters. Ramsey read and appreciated Chadwick’s The Victorian Church. He also sought Chadwick’s counsel on the draft pamphlet Image Old and New, Ramsey’s reply to John Robinson’s Honest to God, which Chadwick gave in in a state of ‘doubt and difficulty’.
It would help, of course, if one could say that Chadwick’s book was a bad one; or even that it was now unsatisfactory by dint of age and the changing state of the field. Of course (as I am bound to say) there is more to say on Ramsey. Chadwick doesn’t deal directly with the debates about secularisation and the Sixties that have been prompted by Callum Brown in recent years. He also tends to underplay the force and significance of conservative opinion, and particularly conservative evangelicalism. More prosaically, having been completed before the Ramsey Papers at Lambeth Palace Library were catalogued, the book has no references to the papers which a scholar could follow.
Despite all this, it isn’t a bad book or even an inadequate one. More than one person suggested to me that I would have my work cut out to supersede it, since it is a fine piece of work; and that is my problem. If, as A. N. Whitehead put it, all western philosophy has been but footnotes to Plato, then at times writing about Ramsey has felt like so many minor adjustments and refinements to Chadwick’s overall picture. Many times have I seized with glee upon a chink of new light, only for a check to reveal that Chadwick had it covered, even if obscured by an inadequate thematic index.
Even the style is a problem. There is a mandarin quality to Chadwick’s writing; of the wise doings of a great and sensible man among other sensible men of a similar age and class. Matters are just so; courses of action are obvious once the right minds had been brought to bear on an issue. This style tends to flatten out some of the turmoil of the period, the very present sense of crisis in British religion. This much can be refined, finessed, disrupted. But the prose style is seductive too, somehow making matters so plain that it disarms criticism. In fact, I found myself having to examine my own prose for traces of Chadwick; more than once have I unwittingly reproduced one of his sentences, so aptly had it summed up the matter in hand.
Perhaps all this is merely a symptom that I have lived with the book for too long; nothing that a change of focus or a stiff dose of more bracing reading wouldn’t sort out. It helped that I eventually realised that I didn’t need to replace Chadwick’s book at all; better simply to receive it gratefully as a foundation on which to build. But I would be intrigued to hear of other historians’ relations with similar monumental works in their fields, if they were prepared to share their thoughts.