Obituary: Charles Davis

Adrian Hastings
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:19

ON 21 December 1966 Charles Davis, the best-known Catholic theologian in Britain and editor of The Clergy Review, announced that he was leaving the Roman Catholic Church in which he had ceased to believe. He was also about to marry an old friend, Florence Henderson, a member of the Grail, an international society of committed Catholic women. He had made the first decision before telling Florence. It was as much a surprise to her as to everyone else.

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.

Adrian Hastings

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.

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