Obituary: The Rev Professor Peter Hinchliff

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The sudden death of Peter Hinchliff deprives the Anglican Province of South Africa of its leading historian, and Oxford of a professor of ecclesiastical history whose wide range and balanced judgement made him an invaluable colleague beyond the bounds of his disciplinary specialism.

Hinchliff was born in South Africa, where his father, an English priest, had worked since 1914. After graduating at Rhodes University he studied theology under Austin Farrer at Trinity College, Oxford, returning home for ordination at Grahamstown to a curacy to Uitenhage. There he met and married Bunty Whitehead, whose gentle warmth sustained him over 40 years in a devoted family. The foundations of his dual career in church and university were laid with research for his South African Liturgy (1959) and his history The Anglican Church in South Africa (1963). His biography John William Colenso (1964) remains a standard work on this Bishop of Natal, and is reliable both on the ideas and the gruesome ecclesiastical politics. The same interest in the missionary, political, and cultural dimensions of church history no doubt guided the choice of a subject from the other spatial and temporal end of African church history, Cyprian of Carthage (1974), while his Bampton lectures, Holiness and Politics (1982), echo it too.

As the squash and hockey-playing subwarden of St Paul's Theological College, at Grahamstown, and from 1960 Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Rhodes University, Hinchliff influenced many future clergy of different denominations, and through his preaching as canon and chancellor of Grahamstown Cathedral he played a notable part in the rising opposition within the Church to apartheid. This combination of preaching and academic work was the strong thread running through a public life and which took very seriously the intellectual's responsibility to give reasoned argument in both contexts. The regard in which his preaching was held is reflected in the canonries held at four cathedrals.

The deep commitment to the Church which fuelled his study of its history led to an interlude as secretary of the Missionary and Ecumenical Council of the Church Assembly (Mecca), but after Hinchliff had spent three years in London, Balliol College, Oxford, provided him with the ideal opportunity to combine his pastoral, administrative and academic gifts as fellow, chaplain, and tutor in theology. His reserved manner fronted a quiet efficiency in getting things done with a minimum of fuss and his care and continuing friendship with former members strengthened that community. After 15 years he relinquished the chaplaincy, but continued to nourish a brief flowering of theology at Balliol and took his turn as tutor of admissions.

His first loyalty was to the college, and his disappointment at its decision to give up his subject on his departure was plain. His health meant that he needed to conserve his energies and he did not waste time on faculty chores of doubtful value. However, he was meticulous in discharging his share in its administration and his elevation to the long-vacant chair of Ecclesiastical History pleased his colleagues. In this post, which is combined with a canonry of Christ Church, he worked hard to re-establish the subject, making a valued contribution to both theology and history faculties. The work of graduate students received careful scrutiny and constructive criticism. They appreciated his finely tuned judgement and like his former undergraduate pupils many became close friends. Here the stern exterior was soon left behind and a dry humour revealed. His new professorial responsibilities involved a round of committees and there too the simple directness with which he related to his colleagues was appreciated.

Hinchliff's writings during these Oxford years continued his exploration of Christianity in some of its intellectual cultures, happily exemplified in two Balliol men: Benjamin Jowett and the Christian Religion (1987) is a fine piece of its kind, and a recently completed manuscript on Archbishop Frederick Temple will share Hinchliff's recent and most mature reflections on this theme. His next project, a history of Christianity setting the Church in its social contexts, is already engaging a team of younger scholars but is now sadly deprived of its editor and inspiration.

Twelve books showing range and versatility are no mean memorial to a life equally involved in pastoral care, mending bridges within the broad catholic spectrum of the Church of England, and such practical affairs as representing the university on General Synod. But it is the person who will be treasured by those who knew him best. A historian can be expected to be truthful and a churchman to speak out the truth that needs to be heard, but what cannot so easily be guaranteed: Peter Hinchliff was a good man.

Robert Morgan

Peter Bingham Hinchliff, church historian: born 25 February 1929; ordained deacon 1952, priest 1953; DD 1965; Subwarden, St Paul's Theological College, Grahamstown 1955-59; Lecturer in Comparative Religion, Rhodes University 1957-59, Professor of Ecclesiastical History 1960-69; Canon and Chancellor, Grahamstown Cathedral 1964-69; Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford 1972- 92; Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford 1992-95; married 1955 Bunty Whitehead (three sons, one daughter); died Oxford 17 October 1995.