Obituary: Professor Robin Barbour, university lecturer and theologian

Born: 11 May, 1921, in Edinburgh. Died: 18 October, 2014, in Perth, aged 93

Professor Robin Barbour: Theologian, war hero and former Moderator who led moves to try to stem the Kirks decline in membership

Robin Barbour was one of the most outstanding churchmen of the 20th century. He was born in 1921 into a remarkable family. His father, George Freeland, laird of Bonskeid, Pitlochry, was a distinguished philosopher and theologian and his mother, Helen Hepburne-Scott, was known for her warmth and generosity. She brought the traditions of social reform to his background of Christian mission and it was on these foundations of intellectual rigour, strong faith and generosity of spirit that Robin was to stand his entire life.

His early education was at Cargilfield School in Edinburgh. Later he moved to Rugby. Although his roots were in the Church of Scotland, at Rugby he was confirmed into the Church of England. One of his closest friends there was Hugh Montefiore, who later became a senior bishop in the Church of England.

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From Rugby, Robin went to Oxford University. His studies there were interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. He joined the Scottish Horse, an artillery regiment originally raised by the Duke of Atholl. With his strong links to Atholl, Robin was later to write the history of that regiment.

His distinguished war service in the Italian campaign resulted in him being awarded the Military Cross.

Returning to Oxford, he gained a double first in classics and philosophy. After gaining a teaching qualification in Edinburgh, he studied divinity in St Andrews. From there he gained a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to Yale University.

On his return to Scotland, he was appointed chaplain to overseas students at Edinburgh University and was ordained into the Church of Scotland. Through his chaplaincy and his involvement with the Scottish Council for African Questions, he exerted a profound influence on these foreign students, many of whom were from the African colonies which were moving towards independence.

He maintained a strong international outlook all through his life, and his work as the secretary to the New Testament Society brought him friends from around the globe.

It was during these early years in Edinburgh that he became a member of the Iona Community, the ecumenical body founded by Dr George MacLeod of Govan Old Church during the depths of the Depression in the 1930s.

Robin had a deep respect for this radical figure, who became a close friend.

Robin was later appointed a lecturer in New Testament studies at New College. There he worked closely with Professor James Stewart. In a poll taken by the American magazine The Christian Century at the start of the millennium, Professor Stewart was regarded as the most outstanding preacher of the 20th century.

Robin’s more scholarly approach to New Testament studies was a healthy antidote to what was sometimes called “James Stewart’s lecture room sermonising”.

Not surprisingly, Robin was recruited to the panel of Biblical scholars assembled to translate the New English Bible (published in 1961). In 1970 he was appointed Professor of New Testament in Aberdeen University.

There he continued to be faithful to the Christian Gospel and at the same time speak responsibly to the world of his day.

In the 1970s, the Kirk, concerned about the decline in membership, appointed Robin to chair a committee of 40 people to consider what changes were necessary to halt the decline. Because of its membership size it became known as “the Committee of Forty”.

Those who were opposed to reform often referred to it as “Ali Barbour and the 40 Thieves”. In 1979, the year after the committee’s report was accepted by the General Assembly, Robin was nominated Moderator. In 1981 the Queen appointed him Dean of the Chapel Royal. For the next ten years, the Queen, who valued his advice, drew on his wide experience of the Church.

I often marvelled at the vast breadth of his knowledge. Even in his nineties, when his body became too frail to mend any more, his mind remained as sharp as and avid for knowledge as ever. This man of great warmth took to reading books which he felt he should have read, but in fact had never done -– Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, Walter Scott’s novels, and many more among them.

Robin’s academic achievements and many church and civic honours were nothing like as important to him as his meeting one evening in Edinburgh with Margaret, who had become a friend of his sister’s at the university.

For both Margaret and Robin, it was love at first sight. They fell deeply in love, married in 1950 and were the best of friends for the next 64 years.

Robin is survived by Margaret, his four children Freeland, David, Alison and Andrew, and eight grandchildren. A memorial service will be held on the 8 November in Dunkeld Cathedral at 2:30pm.