Obituary: Charles Davis
Friday 05 February 1999
The news took both the Catholic Church and England by storm. Davis had given the Maurice Lectures at King's College London a few months before, the first Catholic to do so, and they had just been published as God's Grace in History (1966). He had also recently been appointed Professor of Theology at the new Jesuit-run university college of Heythrop in Oxfordshire, after years of teaching at St Edmund's Seminary, Ware. How could this apparent volte-face be explained?
Davis was born in 1923 in Swindon. He early resolved to become a priest and from the age of 15 lived in one or another seminary, large institutional communities, easily fostering loneliness beneath an atmosphere of superficial camaraderie. He was ordained a priest in 1946 for Westminster archdiocese and was allowed just two years of further theological study at the Gregorian University in Rome, before being appointed to teach theology at Ware, where he had himself studied, and then remained as Professor until the summer of 1965.
I remember visiting him there and being struck, not only by the clarity and conviction of his thinking, but also by a noticeable cultural narrowness. Despite his quite exceptional intelligence, he was never given the chance of serious university study or of tackling any field apart from Catholic systematic theology.
But for many years he hardly felt the constraints. No one seemed more moderate in his advocacy of new ideas, more absolutely loyal to the system. Even the intellectual upheaval that went with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), while it stimulated his thinking and gave him many opportunities to lecture in Britain and abroad, to the enormous benefit especially of lay groups, had not seemed to radicalise him unduly.
Yet suddenly Davis felt the dreary clerical weight of the system, with its heavily authoritarian dimensions, simply intolerable and pointless. While he abandoned Roman Catholicism, he remained, he insisted, a Christian, though refusing to join any other church.
After a brief visiting fellowship at Clare College, Cambridge, where he wrote A Question of Conscience (1967) to explain his decision, he was offered a professorship at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, to begin a new Department of Religious Studies. In 1970 he moved to the University of Concordia, Montreal, where he chaired its Department of Religious Studies for 15 years. He was also President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Reli-gion. He retired and returned to Britain in 1991.
The world he and his wife had chosen to inhabit seemed at first a "desert" through which to find a Christian way, unsupported by the ecclesiastical institution which had hitherto so completely controlled his life. They did it with characteristic earnestness, ever hospitable, intellectually open, yet devout. Charles himself baptised his children, initiating them into an informal "house church", but without withdrawing from public worship.
After a period of attending the Anglican cathedral in Montreal, they found themselves little by little gravitating back towards the Catholic community, helped by many Catholic friends. Registering at one international conference he was expected to name his church. "What should I say?" asked Davis nervously of Raimundo Pannikar, next to him in the queue. "Roman Catholic, of course," was the reply, and that is what he wrote.
A series of books appeared over the years, notably his Cambridge Hulsean Lectures of 1978, Theology and Political Society and his final work, Religion and the Making of Society (1994). Ever since 1966 he had been impressed, perhaps over-impressed, by the importance of sociology and the fact of "secularisation". How to free religion in modernity from the destructive dichotomy between sacred and secular?
While he never regretted the stern decision of 1966, which brought him personal liberation and much happiness, Charles Davis was able in his final years to become a very regular communicant at Catholic eucharists both in Cambridge and in Edinburgh, where he died after struggling for eight years with Parkinson's disease.
It was encouraging that his daughter Claire should be studying for a PhD in Theology at Edinburgh, but for himself it was in writing poetry that he finally found the best way of self-expression. The clarity, forthrightness and intense seriousness of earlier years mellowed into a gentle peacefulness, deeply moving for old friends, at once vindication and transformation of the struggles of the 1960s.
Charles Alfred Davis, theologian: born Swindon, Wiltshire 12 February 1923; ordained priest 1946; Professor of Dogmatic Theology, St Edmund's Seminary, Ware 1952-65; Professor of Theology, Heythrop University College 1965-66; Professor of Religious Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton 1967-70; Professor of Religious Studies, Concordia University, Montreal, 1970-91; Principal, Lonergan College, 1987-91; married 1967 Florence Henderson (one son, one daughter); died Edinburgh 28 January 1999.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Madonna claims jokes about her age tantamount to racism: 'No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black'
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia