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Frank Leslie Cross 1900–1968

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Frank Leslie Cross 1900–1968

To a younger generation of English-speaking theologians the name of F. L. Cross has become almost synonymous with the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. On the Continent of Europe it is revered in connexion with international conferences on academic aspects of theology which somehow broke through denominational barriers at a time when ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestants was virtually prohibited. However his achievements are estimated, it may well be that those who did not know him personally will ask what manner of man Cross was. The answer that would be almost universally given is that he was a shy and retiring scholar, and a man of God.

Frank Leslie Cross was born exactly a year before Queen Victoria died. He was the eldest child of parents who were not young; his father retired from business when Leslie was eleven and the family then moved from Honiton to Bournemouth. As a day-boy he attended the local grammar school, which at that time specialized in science. While he was still at school he passed the London Intermediate B.Sc. examination and won the Domus Scholarship for Natural Science at Balliol College, Oxford.

After one term at Oxford Cross was involved in military service during the last months of the First World War. The letters which he sent home suggest that he was less unhappy than might be expected and looking back on his time in the Army he described the exercises as futile rather than positively frustrating. The Armistice was signed before he was sent to the Front, and in due course he returned to Balliol. He took Honours in Chemistry and Crystallography at Oxford in 1920 and in the same year completed the London B.Sc. He devoted the rest of his life to the study of theology, though the scientific habit of taking nothing verifiable on trust never left him. Since Balliol had no theologians among their Fellows, Cross was sent to Keble for tuition by D. C. Simpson and K. E. Kirk. Despite the handicap of having to learn Greek at a late stage, Cross took First Class Honours in Theology in 1922. He also collected a number of University prizes and scholarships, which in those days were sought for their financial as well as for their honorific value. He went to Germany for a year to work at Marburg and Freiburg on the material for his doctoral dissertation on Husserl, eventually taking his D.Phil. at Oxford in 1930. In 1923 he became an ordinand at Ripon Hall, of which H. D. A. Major was then Principal. He cooperated with Major in editing the papers left unpublished on Hastings Rashdall's death in 1924; these formed three volumes published in 1927–30. Cross certainly came under Major's influence, but it may well be doubted if he ever accepted the more extreme tenets of the so-called Modernism. In 1925 he was ordained to the title of Tutor and Chaplain of Ripon Hall.

In 1927, rather surprisingly, Cross received from the Governors an invitation to become one of the priest-librarians of Pusey House, a house of study founded in memory of E. B. Pusey, with ‘the pursuit of personal holiness’ as one of its avowed aims. He seems to have met with some suspicion in his early years on account of his continued association with the Modernist movement, but gradually, particularly under the influence of Darwell Stone, he made it clear that his theological position was basically Anglo-Catholic. His little book, Religion and the Realm of Science, published in 1930, reflects the influence upon his mind at this time of the scientific method, the moralism of Rashdall and Major, and the intense aesthetic attraction of Catholic ceremonial and sacramental religion. The centenary of the Oxford Movement in 1933 provided the occasion for a number of small works on the subject and probably led him to embark on a study of Newman, published in 1935. This contains letters of Newman which were previously unknown.

Also in 1933 Cross became an Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Bradford, a post which he conscientiously filled for ten years. His correspondence makes it clear that he found the work arduous and inclined to interfere with his other interests, but it was a task which he valued for the contact it gave him with the parochial ministry. It is also worth recording that despite all his diffidence he was exercising a strong pastoral influence over the many undergraduates who sought his counsel at Pusey House, and that the strength of his spirituality impressed others who came in contact with him at this time. He was during the 1930s an ardent pacifist, and he persuaded many to share his views. In 1934 he became Custodian of the Library of Pusey House. He did much to expand as well as to catalogue the library and made known its uses among non-theologians in the University.

In 1934 he was appointed University Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion and from 1935 to 1938 he was also Wilde Lecturer in Natural and Comparative Religion, choosing as his subject the history of the relations between religion and scientific theory. It would seem, however, that his interests were turning in other directions. In 1935 he published a collection of extracts from 17th-century Anglican divines which he edited with P. E. More under the title Anglicanism; from its continued sales it appears that this has become a standard work. The following year he produced his adaptation of Huck's Synopsis of the First Three Gospels, also widely used. But he was already drawn to the early Fathers. On a walking tour in Majorca in December 1935 to January 1936 he records that he spent a good many evenings translating Bardenhewer. He had already lectured for a number of years on Leo and Athanasius, and in 1939 he published a students' edition of the De Incarnatione. Both from his Inaugural Lecture on Athanasius when he became Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity (1944) and from the papers he left unfinished, it seems clear that he meant to produce a critical edition of the text; but his energies were diverted to other channels. On Stone's death in 1941 Cross succeeded him as Editor of the Lexicon of Patristic Greek (as it was then called). On this project he toiled much, working in the Bodleian Library on the intractable slips, persuading others to give freely of their time, and raising funds by appeal and by his own work. When he undertook to look after parishes during the University vacation he would ask for his fees to be paid to the LPG. In 1941 he was also concerned with the foundation of the Theological Literature Association, of which he was one of the two secretaries throughout its useful life. In addition, he set to work, as a labour of piety, on a life of Darwell Stone, which he completed in record time. The book was published in 1943. Even if it fails to give a vivid portrait of its subject, the material it contains remains one of the sources for the history of the Church of England during the period of the Modernist crisis and the controversy over the revision of the Book of Common Prayer.

On Maundy Thursday 1939 Cross and his fellow-librarian, the Revd Dr T. M. Parker, were invited by the Oxford University Press to produce a semi-popular volume to be called The Oxford Companion to the Christian Religion; it was to be analogous to The Oxford Companion to Music. After a year it became clear that it would not be quickly completed, and Dr Parker resigned. Cross continued to work at the first draft in spasms, but with the intervention of the Second World War and other troubles the completion of the book, and its metamorphosis into the first edition of this Dictionary, had to wait until he had become Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity. On the death of Dr N. P. Williams in April 1943 this chair became vacant. At that time it was filled by an election in which all holders of Oxford degrees in Divinity were entitled to vote. When it was first suggested to Cross that he should stand he refused, but after an overnight journey he changed his mind and allowed his name to go forward. Partly because of war-time conditions, the election was not held until January 1944, when Cross was elected by a respectable majority.

The Lady Margaret Chair carries with it a canonry of Christ Church and a large mansion of over thirty rooms in the heart of the college. To this abode Cross took his books in suitcases and devoted his afternoons to taming the garden. At first he had a housekeeper and tried to turn his lodgings into an almost monastic house of study. Later, after his mother's death, his father and sisters came to live in his house, but he still offered accommodation to many generations of undergraduates, in many cases without charge. In the Cathedral his influence was quickly felt, partly because of his regular attendance at every office and partly because he soon introduced an additional weekday celebration of the Holy Communion at an early hour which at times drew a sizeable congregation; at first he was himself the normal celebrant, but as others wished to join in he gladly took his turn in the rota.

The principal achievements of his Professorship were the publication in 1957 of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, as it was eventually called, and the organization of international conferences. The Dictionary was very largely his own work. Other scholars supplied him with information, and assistants helped with compiling bibliographies and first drafts, but he himself welded the material into a unity and his hand is clearly visible throughout. The book has become a standard work of reference, and at the time of his death he was working on the second edition.

The international conferences grew out of his desire for peace and co-operation among scholars and Christians. Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War he took part in a mission to Germany to try to restore relations with German Christians, and when Patrick McLaughlin suggested to him that a gathering of scholars interested in the study of the Fathers of the Church would further relations between Christians of different denominations, he readily agreed to convene such a meeting. The First International Conference on Patristic Studies took place in 1951. In those days the academic nature of the assembly had to be stressed, and even then all members of one of the principal Roman Catholic orders were forbidden at the last moment to attend, on the ground that the gathering was ‘crypto-ecumenical’. This was a severe blow. But about 200 people came, from every continent. The value of the Conference for exchange of views was so obvious that a small delegation asked Cross to arrange another; and since at a late stage he had suddenly begun to call the 1951 meeting ‘The First International Conference on Patristic Studies’ it was not difficult to see that a series was envisaged. The Second took place in 1955, and from then until long after his death the Proceedings were published by the Berlin Academy in Texte und Untersuchungen. The Conferences, at four-yearly intervals, grew, until that of 1967, opened by Cardinal Pellegrino, was more than double the size of the first, and everyone took part without denominational distinction. In 1957, at the first of the parallel New Testament Congresses, which developed from earlier congresses intended to foster the exchange of ideas between the Anglican clergy and academics, Dr [later Cardinal] Heenan, then Archbishop of Liverpool, took the chair for Dr Ramsey, then Archbishop of York. These conferences owed their being to Cross's powers of organization and their success to his attention to every detail and to his powers of control and persuasion; he somehow contrived to keep Continental professors content with their ration of 18 minutes, while he was able to encourage the diffident and young. It is likely that the conferences on Patristic studies played some part in bringing about the enormous increase in popularity of the Fathers as a field of research which is reflected in the output of the University Presses over the next twenty years; it is also likely that they played some part—though it is impossible to assess precisely what—in bringing together Christians of different allegiances and making for an atmosphere in which ecumenism became fashionable. This search for unity certainly figured largely in his plans for his conferences and in his prayers.

Partly at least because of these labours Cross did not produce a large output of original work. He took enormous care over the supervision of his pupils and the encouragement of other scholars. He contributed to the Journal of Theological Studies a number of important articles, including those on the pre-Leonine elements in the Roman Mass in 1949, the African Canons in 1961, and the development of Western liturgical manuscripts in 1965. At the time of his death he was working on the Stowe Missal; he felt confident that he had discovered the purpose for which the original manuscript was written and he was concerned to see just how it fitted into the development of the Roman Mass. He published an interesting reconstruction of 1 Peter as a Paschal Homily in 1954, a view which he later doubted. Other insights on particular points he buried in unlikely places: he propounded his interpretation of Melito's Peri Pascha in a lecture which he never published and he printed his findings first in a review of someone else's edition and then in his own handbook, Early Christian Fathers (1960).

His lectures were badly attended, largely because his delivery was painful. It was equally difficult to follow his sermons, which were frequently first-rate pieces of work and read well. It is something of a surprise to find that he was chosen as Select Preacher at Cambridge on more than one occasion and that he also preached in St Paul's Cathedral in 1939.

He was personally shy and by nature retiring. Throughout his life he disliked parties and found social contacts difficult. He was completely lacking in small-talk and on a superficial level a bad judge of character, and he frequently overestimated people's ability. On the other hand few were able to refuse his requests and he was deeply respected by the college servants who said that he was almost unique in his appreciation of what they did. When he was in charge of college and university livings he invariably visited the parishes in which an incumbent was to be appointed, and he got on well with the country people. He enjoyed walking and, up to 1960, bicycling both in Britain and on the Continent. He spent much time with religious communities, making it his habit during vacations to act as chaplain to communities of nuns whose own priests were on holiday or during an interregnum. These visits provided him with a peace of mind which he seldom seemed to find elsewhere.

Towards the end of his life honours came to him from many quarters. He had obtained his own Oxford DD in 1950; in 1959 and 1960 he received honorary degrees from Aberdeen and Bonn and was later offered others in America; in 1967 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. He retired from his chair in September 1968 and died in the night of 29/30 December of the same year.