‘…I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man…’, words so often said by Canon Charles Acton, and by all of us, when reciting the Creed at Mass. Christmas Day, the annual commemoration and celebration of the Incarnation, was the day Canon Charles died peacefully. Mary-Ann and Jane, his two youngest sisters, and a nephew and a niece were at his side in Swindon Hospital following a collapse earlier in the day. He was spending Christmas with his sister Catherine and her husband Joe. ‘This is the day our Saviour was born: what a joy for us, my beloved! This is no season for sadness, this, the birthday of Life – the Life which annihilates the fear of death, and engenders joy, promising, as it does, immortality’, words from a sermon by Pope St Leo the Great in the Office of Readings for Christmas Day.
Canon Charles’ work and passion was teaching and explaining the doctrines of our Faith, including the doctrine of the Incarnation. So many Priests of the Diocese of Westminster, and beyond, will recall Canon Charles’ lectures and one-to-one tutorials, with his characteristic clarity of thought and economy of words. Canon Charles taught with precision the truths of the Catholic Faith. His homilies were always brief yet profound and stimulating, with no words superfluous or wasted. His focus was on doctrine, never on the teacher or homilist, and on his commitment to the student and others who heard his words.
The Honourable John Charles Acton, always known as Charles or Charlie, was born on 26 January 1943 in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. He was the son of John, Third Baron Acton, and Daphne née Strutt. Charles was baptised by Mgr Ronald Knox on 21 February 1943 at Aldenham. In 1948 the Actons emigrated to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and Charles was educated at home until 1952 when he went to St George’s College, run by the Jesuits, in Salisbury until 1959. As a boy, Charles was taught to read by his mother. He participated in family pursuits including playing chess, bridge, roulette, ping pong and tennis. Horse racing was an important aspect of family life, and Charles readily took to this, sometimes missing school to go to the races. He enjoyed life with his family at home, and school was difficult for him. He was allowed to leave school at sixteen years of age. While at school Charles became an Altar Server and he took up boxing. Charles began work as a journalist for various newspapers in Rhodesia and then for The Times of Malta for a year. He then returned to England to be a journalist with The Tablet, edited by his uncle Douglas Woodruff. His thoughts about the Priesthood were shared with Fr Michael Hollings and Mgr, later Archbishop, Derek Worlock who was Private Secretary to Cardinal Griffin, and both were supportive of his intentions. Mgr Worlock commented on the 19 year-old Charles’ ‘very pleasant humility but also considerable character and determination’ in July 1962 when recommending him to the Cardinal for acceptance as a student for the Priesthood. The medical report tells of ‘a healthy person, probably a little highly-strung…’ Charles went to Allen Hall, St Edmund’s College, Ware to study for the Priesthood from 1962-65 before continuing his studies at the Venerable English College and Gregorian University, Rome. Those who knew Charles at seminary recall a very shy young man who quickly gained a reputation as being very intelligent, thoughtful and already giving signs of being a serious scholar. Charles was studious and had a particular interest in the works of Bernard Lonergan, the Jesuit philosopher and theologian and author of ‘Method in Theology’. Charles was Ordained to the Priesthood by Cardinal William Heard in the chapel of the English College villa at Palazzola on 14 July 1968.
On his return to England Fr Charles was appointed Assistant Priest at Our Lady of Victories, Kensington 1969-71. On 11 September 1970 The Daily Telegraph carried a photograph of Fr Charles with Holy Water, blessing a roulette wheel at the De Vere gambling club, the only local club granted a licence under the Gaming Act, 1968. Fr Charles’ family continue to be amused at this dimension of Charles’ ministry, as roulette and gambling at horse races is ‘in the blood’.
Fr Charles returned to Rome for further studies and qualifications in Sacred Theology, 1971-74. He was then appointed to Allen Hall as a member of the teaching staff until 1999 when he took up a teaching post at the International Franciscan Study Centre, Canterbury. In 1992 Fr Charles was appointed to the International Theological Commission at the invitation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict, serving two consecutive terms. In November 2002 Fr Charles became a member of the Metropolitan Chapter of Canons of Westminster Cathedral, serving as Canon Theologian. Colleagues and students at Allen Hall recall Fr Charles’ typewriter being heard from the corridor outside his room as he tapped away for several hours of the day producing copious and comprehensive notes for his students. Fr Charles generously shared his knowledge and passion for theology, and he was respected for his dedication to colleagues and students alike. He had a special concern for students who struggled with learning, and he treated all with patience and kindness. Fr Charles believed that a solid theological formation would give a firm foundation to the students’ future priestly life and he encouraged gifted students to pursue further studies. Fr Charles saw the positive side of every student and personal criticism was not in his nature. He was self-effacing and humble, and when some letters came by post addressed to The Honourable and Reverend John Charles Lyon-Dalberg-Acton and put on the post table adjacent to the Common Room many students were amazed, and impressed. Teaching colleagues and students were sorry to see him move from Allen Hall to go to Canterbury and were delighted when he returned in 2004 and was appointed Dean of Studies. He continued as a full time member of the seminary staff until the summer of this year, when he became Theological Advisor Emeritus and continued as a tutor. Declining health meant lighter duties, and becoming Canon Emeritus. Writing to him in May 2016 Cardinal Vincent thanked Canon Charles for his ‘thoughtful, insightful and intelligent’ work in the formation of so many of our Priests.
Canon Charles’ many and varied leisure interests included keeping up with family matters, horse racing, boxing, the cinema and politics. He enjoyed going for meals with family members and friends. Contemporary political biographies were among the theological tomes on his bookshelves. Many relatives, friends and colleagues will have known Canon Charles, and will remember him, as a wise and courteous, although shy and diffident, man who was intensely private and deeply humble, a man who enjoyed company and who was also happy in his own company and in that of books and learned journals. He was a man of integrity who had a gentle sense of humour, a man of learning who was, above all, a gentleman and a diocesan Priest dedicated to the teaching of theology. We are indebted to him, and to God who gave him to us.