The Order of Merit has fascinated me for years. It was invented in 1902 by King Edward VII because he wanted to wear a medal round his neck, in addition to all his other stars, sashes, and bangles, because his evil nephew, the Kaiser, had one. So, he designed an order for 24 people - open to men and women equally - who have achieved distinction in civil or military life. To start with, in those Empire days, half the OMs were military. These days, there hasn't been a military member since Lord Mountbatten, who was assassinated in 1979. They have included all sorts of characters - heroes of the Boer and First and Second World Wars, poets and painters, historians and philosophers, scientists and architects. The roll includes the names Kitchener, Nightingale, Jellicoe, Fleming, Trevelyan, Berlin, Eliot, Hodgkin, Britten, something like 180 of them.
But in all this time, only three priests. One was M R James, the ancient historian and ghost-writer and Provost of Eton, another is Lord Eames, the former Archbishop of Armagh, and the one in the middle was Owen Chadwick, who has just died at the age of 99. He was a church historian, Master of Selwyn College Cambridge, a Cambridge University Professor, author of many books, and widely respected not only within the university but within the Church of England.
My first acquaintance with the Chadwick family - which was pretty distinguished all round - was when Owen's little brother Henry was called on to address a group at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, the original speaker having failed to turn up. This was second nature to Henry, having spent ten years as a canon-professor at Christ Church, and another ten as its dean. He strode, majestically, like a prince of the church, and addressed his charming words of wisdom to us, over his imperious nose, and beneath his crinckly white locks. Eric Heaton, his successor, and the Dean in my time at Christ Church, had the nose, and the charm, but not the locks, and somehow you'd never think of Eric as a "prince of the church", but Henry had it to his fingertips.
So, when my kind friend Annette, the wife of the director of music at Trinity College in Cambridge, suggested, whilst I was enduring the ordeal of learning to drive, that we go for an adventure into the countryside, and call on Owen Chadwick, Henry's big brother, I thought I knew what I was in for. I could not have been more wrong. Whilst incontestably in command of his marbles and his library of knowledge, he was the most unassuming, un-princelike person you could imagine. He was also far smaller than his immense, looming, brother - something he had put to good use in his rugby-playing career, apparently. He was delighted to see Annette, whom he knew from Selwyn days, when her husband was teaching there, and appeared entirely happy to see a stranger too. He lived nextdoor to a pub, so he suggested we go and get some beer - he went with a jug, and then we sat in his garden with half-pint glasses. This is the first, and only, time I have ever been bought a beer by a member of the Order of Merit.
We got chatting about this and that, and he was modest about his Reformation textbook which I'd used for my A-levels - I think he said he'd written it for money. Then we talked of the Oxford History of the Church which he'd edited and written with his brother, "such a bully". Then I thought I'd be naughty and ask him about his "authorised" biography of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. "I thought it started out very well, and then it got a little bogged down in detail", I ventured. "It did! I got bored." Well, I wasn't expecting that.
And soon we continued on our way, to the North Norfolk coast, to what I imagine Annette didn't realise was a nudist beach, but it was pretty enough with or without, and so back to Cambridge, having encountered a delightful, if diminutive, giant along the way.
For Owen Chadwick, Deo gratias.