Members of the Sussex Record Society will have been sad to hear of the death of Bishop Eric our President in November 2009, but no doubt gratified to see the warm tributes paid to him in obituaries in the national press. What did not come through strongly in those articles is what a loss he was to our society – amongst several others – and a full sense of his stature as a ‘scholar bishop’. This obituary notice thus attempts to portray this other side of Bishop Eric’s life and in the process explain why he was the perfect President for the Sussex Record Society.
From his notoriously shy manner, few may fully appreciate – even those who have read his autobiography – what a distinguished scholar we had in our midst. He was the author of over 60 books, articles and papers and served on numerous Church commissions and working parties. He went up to Exeter College, Oxford in 1933 where he took several degrees, got ordained and served between 1941 and 1946 as Librarian of Pusey House, where he encountered the distinguished church historians F.L. Cross and T.M. Parker. Between 1943 and 1946 he was also Chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford.
Oxford clearly suited him well, for he became a Fellow of Exeter College in 1946, in which capacity he served for 23 years until 1969, and moved in the illustrious circles of famous historians like Sir Maurice Powicke, Claude Jenkins and Richard Southern. Bishop Eric won the prestigious Alexander Prize for an essay on ‘Pope Alexander III and the canonization of saints’ subsequently published in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 27, 1945. His BD thesis on Canonization and Authority in the Western Church was published by OUP in 1948. A member of Convocation from 1949 and an expert on its history, it was scarcely surprising when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1951.
Bishop Eric was extremely proud of his Lincolnshire roots, and held a prebend of Lincoln Cathedral between 1952 and 2001, which thus gave him opportunities to play an active part in the work of the Lincolnshire Record Society. He apparently used to time his annual prebendal sermons to coincide with record society annual general meetings. In collaboration with Walter Haltzmann of the University of Bonn, Bishop Eric edited ‘Papal Decretals Relating to the Diocese of Lincoln in the Twelfth Century’ for the Lincolnshire Record Society, 47, in 1954. He was a seasoned record society scholar even before he got to Sussex and at Lincoln he worked closely with the formidable medievalist Dr Kathleen Major.
Marriage to Patricia Kirk in 1953 meant that Bishop Eric was an obvious candidate to produce a biography of her father which he duly did in 1959: The Life and Letters of Kenneth Escott Kirk, Bishop of Oxford 1937-1954. Yet canon law was his great interest and even while compiling the above, he found time to give the Lichfield Cathedral Divinity Lectures in 1956, which were published a year later as An Introduction to Canon Law in the Church of England. In 1961 his Bampton Lectures of the year before were published as Counsel and Consent: Aspects of the Government of the Church as Exemplified in the History of the English Provincial Synods, for which he was awarded his Oxford DD. It is no surprise that his brief association with Worcester as Dean of the Cathedral between 1969 and 1974 also culminated in his becoming President of the Worcestershire Historical Society in 1970.
Episcopal office as Bishop of Chichester in 1974 did not lead to a cessation of Bishop Eric’s historical interests. He contributed an important article on ‘History and Action in the Sermons of a Medieval Archbishop’ to the festschrift produced for his friend Richard Southern edited by R.C.Davis and J.M. Wallace-Hadrill in 1981. More significantly, Bishop Eric was instrumental in founding the Ecclesiastical Law Society in the late 1980s and contributed an article on ‘The Spirit of the Canon Law and its Application in England’ to the first issue of its Ecclesiastical Law Journal published in 1987. He became the founding President of that society, a post he held – like ours – till his death. And indeed, he was obviously greatly cherished by this specialist group of scholars for in 1998, Norman Doe, Mark Hill and Robert Ombres edited English Canon Law: Essays in Honour of Bishop Eric Kemp, published for the society by the University of Cardiff Press. This was fitting because Cardiff has been in the forefront of the revival of courses on canon law in this country. It has been said by Bishop Christopher of Guildford that the Ecclesiastical Law Society is Bishop Eric’s ‘living memorial’.
Bishop Eric served as President of the Sussex Record Society from 1983 until his death in 2009. While we never had the benefit of him finding time to edit a volume for us, he will always be remembered for his wise counsel, his light and deft chairing of annual general meetings, and his kindness to young scholars in his field. The clutch of posts that he still held at the end of his life testify to the esteem in which he was held and it is no surprise that he was also a long-standing Vice-President of the famous Canterbury and York Society. He was aptly honoured for his work when he received an Honorary DLitt from the University of Sussex. This honest and meticulous scholar contributed articles on the lives of Kenneth Kirk and Norman Williams for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at the start of this century under the modest by-line ‘E.W. Kemp’. Bishop Eric was exemplary in organising his files and ensured that even in his own lifetime boxes of manuscripts were lodged safely at Lambeth Palace and the West Sussex Record Office. He also donated many of his books to what is now the University of Chichester to supplement the library of the old Chichester Theological College which also found a home there. These were far-sighted and generous gestures that were typical of the man; he will be sorely missed by the Church and numerous scholarly societies.