Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

D.W.B. Robinson and the puzzle of Sydney Anglicanism

“Donald Robinson was something of a puzzle,” writes Rory Shiner

Donald William Bradley Robinson, AO (1922-2018), Bishop in Parramatta (1973-1982), Anglican Archbishop of Sydney (1982-1993), could appear to observers as something of a puzzle. Not that he was complex or difficult personally. On the contrary, Robinson was famously measured and straightforward in his dealings with people – able to play the ball and not the player to an almost superhuman degree. Rather, his life and work puzzled observers by holding together a suite of commitments and values often assumed to be at odds. This is true of Sydney Anglicanism itself, which is more complex and more interesting that either its detractors or its partisans tend to realise.

To crack this puzzle is to understand one of the most profound developers of religious thought in Australia. And it is, in turn, to understand something important about the diocese of Sydney.

As an evangelical, a scholar and an Anglican, Donald Robinson was undoubtedly a conservative force.

Robinson the evangelical was an unambiguous member of that group of Christians who hold to the God-inspired nature of the Bible, the death of Jesus for sinners, and the necessity of a personal repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Robinson the scholar worked within the Cambridge tradition of New Testament exegesis – a tradition combining the tools of critical biblical study with a cautious and reverential attention to the details of the text of scripture.

Robinson the Anglican churchman sought to defend the distinctive traditions of worship, church government, and theology of that communion. He fought against the ordination of women as priests, the relaxation of historic teaching on divorce and the abandonment of clerical dress and unauthorised worship.

This combination of evangelicalism, conservative scholarship and loyal Anglicanism paints a cumulative picture of a weapons-grade conservatism, fighting for preservation of tradition on all fronts and at all costs. That picture would, however, be false. For alongside these commitments stood a radical, independent and curious mind willing to follow lines of evidence and avenues of inquiry to daring and adventurous locations.

As a scholar, Robinson wrote a wide range of articles and monographs pushing toward original and occasionally eyebrow-raising conclusions. He argued that the word “saints” in the New Testament was a technical term for Jewish Christians; he wrote a book on baptism so radical it was apparently turned down by the publisher (it was even described by a British evangelical as a “kind of baptismal Honest to God”); he argued that the New Testament canon was not in principle closed and a discovery of a new letter of St. Paul’s in the sands of Egypt should spark a process of ecumenical discernment and possible inclusion into the Bible; and so on.

As an evangelical, Robinson refused to allow his encounter with scripture to be unduly shaped by what gatekeepers had previously decided it must mean. He exercised a profound and appreciative interaction with the best of scholarship – be it Catholic, liberal, Anglo-Catholic, Orthodox or secular in its provenance.

And, as an Anglican churchman, he was a leading figure in liturgical revisions of the1960s which lead ultimately to the extraordinary An Australian Prayer Book (AAPB). The book was the product of a sustained collaboration of Anglo-Catholic and evangelical liturgists. At one stage of that process, Robinson made it into the press as the archetypal “troublesome priest” for his radical re-writing of the Lord’s Prayer. The headline proclaimed: “Leave the Lord’s Prayer Alone: Man in the Street Doesn’t Want Change.”

Like I said, Donald Robinson was something of a puzzle.

The life of Donald Robinson

Donald Robinson was born on 9 November 1922 in Lithgow, NSW where his father, R.B. Robinson, was the rector of the local Anglican church. His father had been converted under the preaching of D.J. Knox, whose son, D.B. Knox, would be the more senior partner with Donald in the theological revolution that would sweep through the Sydney diocese in the 1960s and 1970s.

The family moved to the inner Sydney suburb of Leichhardt in 1923 were his father was the rector at All Souls. The family remained in Leichhardt until 1933. It was here that Robinson first ingested the Anglican liturgy that would be such a powerful part of his life, his work and his affections.

In 1933 the family moved to Chatswood on the North Shore of Sydney, where his father was rector of St. Paul’s. Here Donald began his secondary schooling, first at North Sydney Boys and then at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). While not a remarkable student, he studied Greek at both institutions, which set a strong foundation for his scholarly career. He was also highly active in Christian witness at the school. Unlike many evangelicals, Robinson recalls no conversion experience.

When Donald was 17, the family moved to Moore Theological College in Newtown. This was where the diocese housed R.B. Robinson for his role leading the Home Mission Society. So began a relationship with Moore that would last for some sixty years. He gave his last lecture there in 2002.

Robinson studied Arts at Sydney University – Latin, Greek and English. His student days were interrupted by war service mainly in Brisbane and Papua New Guinea. Though originally with the Artillery in Newcastle, he was recommended by his Greek professor to the Central Bureau of Military Intelligence to work with the code-breakers in Brisbane. His role was as a “traffic analyst,” which he described as “studying everything about the message without being able to read it.” These abilities at pattern-recognition, already noted at Sydney University, would become critical to his approach to the New Testament.

In 1946, he was elected President of the Sydney University Evangelical Union (SUEU). In October of that year, he and the Vice-President, Marie Taubman, “mutually agreed” to marry one another. They were formally engaged in December of that year, though the engagement would stretch over the best part of three years as Robinson set sail for Cambridge where he had been accepted at Queens’ College to read for the Theology Tripos.

Robinson described 1947 as “the summer of his life.” He travelled by boat to San Francisco, then overland to Chicago and then north to Toronto. His final destination was Boston, where he was a student representative of the International Leaders Conference of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students at Harvard University – the conference that launched the modern form of the IFES. The meetings in Boston were chaired by the prominent Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who apparently complained at the lack of a “decent cup of tea, which always makes a situation more civilised.” (It’s hard not to enjoy the thought of a Brit complaining about tea in Boston.)

On the same trip, he helped lead a Christian summer camp with Brevard Childs, who went on to become the great Old Testament scholar at Yale Divinity School. Both Childs and Robinson shared a lifelong obsession with the question of how gentile Christians were to relate themselves to the Hebrew scriptures. They remained life-long friends.

It is significant that Robinson, a conservative evangelical, chose to do his basic theological training at Cambridge. He felt he “knew enough about Moore” and that Cambridge would provide the “best basic training in sound theology.” This is an interesting point of contrast with British evangelicalism at the time. Where British evangelicals would often go to Cambridge in spite of the Divinity school; Robinson went because of it. He drank deeply from the work of Cambridge scholars like C.H. Dodd and C.F.D. Moule.

Donald and Marie married back in Australia on 30 July 1949. He returned with her to Cambridge and completed his studies. They came back to Australia in 1950, with their son Martin, who had been born in England.

Robinson was priested on 21 December 1951. In 1952, T.C. Hammond (then principal of Moore College) invited Robinson to be his curate at St. Philip’s, Church Hill, a position he held in conjunction with the role of Lecturer at Moore College. He commenced lecturing at Moore in March of 1952. With Hammond’s retirement in 1953, Robinson became a resident tutor at the College. Marie and Donald’s other three children – Anne, Mark and Peter – were all born while in Newtown.

Given the relatively small student numbers at Moore College in the 1950s, Robinson’s teaching load spanned areas as diverse as Church History, Old Testament, Liturgy, and “Special Doctrine.” The demands of his curacy at St. Philip’s were also significant, including, for example, conducting 319 weddings over the two years of 1952 and 1953.

Of the many ways in which Robinson’s approach to theology was to shape Moore College, two in particular stand out: his biblical theology course, and his contribution to an ecclesiology that by the 1980s would acquire the label “the Knox-Robinson view of church.”

The biblical theology course at Moore College

Biblical theology, broadly conceived, is a discipline that seeks to understand the Bible on its own terms, and seeks particularly to discern the New Testament’s relationship to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible).

In 1954, Marcus Loane asked Robinson to teach the “Special Doctrine” course to first-year students at Moore. The course had originally focused on the central evangelical doctrine of the Atonement. Robinson, having recently studied the doctrine of church at Cambridge with C.F.D. Moule, persuaded Loane to allow that to be his focus at Moore. This was to be the basis for the biblical theology course.

The biblical theology course was developed through personal contact between Robinson and the leading Anglo-Catholic scholar, Father Gabriel Hebert. Robinson was in almost continuous discussion with Hebert from 1952 to 1960. He was particularly influenced by Hebert’s understanding of the nature of theological education as an effort to engage with God by entering the scriptural story.

Robinson encouraged the students to enter the Bible “on a journey of exploration and discovery, without knowing what it would tell us next.” The Bible was to “speak for itself, whether or not we knew what to do with it in the end.” There are clear affinities here with Karl Barth’s re-discovery of “the strange new world of the Bible.” The fact that it was not immediately obvious how this would “land” in contemporary Australia was part of the thrill. For students, it felt as if they were reading the Bible for the first time.

Graeme Goldsworthy, the scholar who has done more than anyone else to export this approach to the world, recalls his first encounter with Robinson’s approach:

On one occasion during my final year the Vice-Principal, as he was then, was lecturing us on a matter of biblical interpretation when he gave, almost parenthetically, a description of his understanding of the structure of biblical revelation … It was simple, profound, and like a bolt of lightning which produced a radical and permanent shift in my thinking on the Bible.

This approach to scripture has been carried to the UK, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand and the United States. It is used in the training of lay and clerical leaders, in preaching seminars across the majority world, and taught to thousands of young people through movements like the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and youth conventions such as those run by the Katoomba Christian Conventions. It owes its particular origins and shape to Robinson.

The origins of the Knox-Robinson view of church

The so-called “Knox-Robinson view of church” is an ecclesiology that emphasises the priority and spiritual significance of the local church gathering over the denomination as the church of God.

Two myths pertain to the “Knox-Robinson view” and Sydney Anglican ecclesiology more generally. The first is that Sydney’s ecclesiology is the product of a parochial theological culture. This is not correct.

In 1950 D.B. Knox was propounding a view unrecognisable as the later “Knox-Robinson” view. The first written piece with a distinct “Knox-Robinson” flavour appears in 1959 from Robinson himself. Between Knox’s 1950 paper and Robinson’s 1959 piece lies a vast chasm, with Knox’s reasonably conventional “little flock” treatment contrasting sharply with Robinson’s original and energetic 1959 paper, “The Church in the New Testament.” Knox’s next publication on the topic was not until 1973, by which time Knox had radically revised the viewpoint of the 1950 paper, bringing many of Robinson’s insights to bear.

As mentioned, Robinson’s interest began in some of the debates happening in Cambridge in the 1940s. There Robinson became sensitive to the potential confusion and ambiguity caused by the tradition of Christians to use of the word “church” to designate the totality of Christian people. (Ironically, Knox’s 1950 paper is an excellent example of the sort of linguistic and anachronistic fallacies to which Robinson was becoming alert.) The development of a constitution for the Anglican Church of Australia and wider ecumenical work on ecclesiology from the World Council of Churches were a further impetus for Robinson’s work on the topic.

Whatever one makes of the conclusions Knox and Robinson drew in their ecclesiology, it cannot be dismissed as the product of an isolationist and sectarian theological culture. It was demonstrably the opposite – a scholarly movement energised by wider biblical scholarship and movements within ecumenical theology and national church life.

The second myth is that Knox and Robinson self-consciously set out to produce a “Knox-Robinson ecclesiology.” “There wasn’t any such thing!” Robinson claimed. Historically, there is little evidence of the two scholars formally working together. One can infer that Knox developed some of Robinson’s exegetical insights in theological directions. But both authors exhibit points of disagreement and differing emphasis in their respective ecclesiologies. One must therefore avoid conflating the “Robinson” of history with the “Knox-Robinson” of faith.

Bishop in Parramatta, 1973-1982

In September of 1972, Archbishop Loane announced in the Southern Cross that Donald Robinson would replace the retiring Bishop Begbie in Parramatta. As Bishop Donald Cameron described it, Robinson was:

taken from a life which was run by the routine of a College, a day ordered by bells, and thrust into one of the most rapidly growing areas of Sydney where the church was thinly represented.

It was a decision that surprised many of his friends and colleagues. Robinson had taught at Moore College for twenty years, and his teaching and research were highly valued. The combination of Knox the theologian and Robinson the exegete was a carefully calibrated partnership. Robinson was the most gifted and promising scholar in Sydney Anglican circles, and yet he accepted a role that would inevitably curtail his own contribution to New Testament scholarship.

Several friends implored him to stay at Moore, sure that he was emerging as a scholar of international significance. Yet a strong sense of duty and genuine love for the church compelled him to Parramatta. Despite the regrets of his friends, there is not a hint of regret from his pen that he made the move to Sydney’s west, to serve the church as a bishop.

A Prayer Book for Australia

It was during the 1970s that Robinson’s work on An Australian Prayer Book (AAPB) came to fruition. He had served on the General Synod’s Prayer Book Commission since its inception in 1962. The 1966 General Synod set up a new liturgical commission to continue the work. According to Robinson, despite the diverse churchmanship of the commission, it was an easy group of people to work with, characterised by “a remarkable degree of mutual understanding and friendliness.” They were only given the brief to continue drafting new liturgies. However, a more ambitious cause gripped the commission – the writing of a whole new Prayer Book.

Prayer Book revisions continued across the 1970s, led by Robinson and Anglo-Catholic liturgist, Brother Gilbert Sinden. By 1977 the commission was able to present a completed manuscript of An Australian Prayer Book to the General Synod. It was approved with only one vote against. The AAPBbecame available for use on 5 April 1978 and passed into wide use, apparently without controversy. Indeed, in a somewhat bad-tempered review, Australian literary scholar Barry Spurr complained that “it has already superseded [the Book of Common Prayer] in many parishes at most services.”

The AAPB stands among Prayer Book revisions as a testimony to Anglo-Catholic and evangelical co-operation grounded, not in compromise and studied ambiguity, but rather in a genuine attempt to attend to scripture and tradition. Kenneth Cable and Stephen Judd describe the AAPB as an instance of “remarkable agreement between church people of very different theological persuasions.”

Archbishop of Sydney, 1982-1993

On 1 April 1982, Bishop Donald Robinson was elected to the See of Sydney. Unlike previous incumbents for whom the trip from England (Gough), or West China (Mowll) or a lengthy tenure as administrator (Loane) provided significant lead-time, Robinson started almost immediately. This denied him the “greater muzzle velocity” available to his predecessors. At the Synod in October of that year he described himself as still engaged in a “struggle to surface.”

It was a pace of life that would not let up. Extensive travel, an ambitious programme for new churches in Sydney’s west and the regular run of an archbishop’s duties were supplemented by several significant controversies. Two in particular shaped his time in office: the ordination of women to the priesthood and the retention of Anglican forms of worship and order (such as the use of the Prayer Book, clerical dress and the role of bishops within the church).

On the ordination of women as priests, he stood with the majority of his Synod, resisting innovation at the national level. But on Anglican worship and order, he often stood against his Synod, taking a position with which the Anglican Church of Australia (ACA) was largely sympathetic, and with which his own clergy were not. He lost both battles. On 7 March 1992, the archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnley, ordained ten women to the priesthood, with others to follow around the country. Back in Sydney, distinctive Anglican forms continued to be modified or disappear from the churches altogether, despite increasingly earnest pleadings from Robinson.

The Synod had elected a defender of what it held dear. The trade-off was a person who also held dear traditions from which the clergy wanted relief. A vision for ministry and mission that was at once both less Anglican and more distinctively “Sydney” was gathering pace. Frustration with Robinson was compounded by the fact that many of the reforming clergies’ proposals for change were grounded in exegesis they had first learned from Robinson.

Robinson understood himself to be duty-bound in his positions, whether they displeased the ACA, on the one hand, or his own diocese, on the other. In a revealing passage from 1988 he says:

In a time of change and uncertainty such as we Anglicans are going through at present, when national and provincial church constitutions are proving inadequate to secure the church against erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word, the final line of defence in many instances may be simply that ‘the bishop’ is faithful to his charge. The diocese is the unit of the church.

In neither cause did he prevail. But he remained at his post, duty-bound, and defended his cause, contra mundum.

Robinson retired in 1992. Both supporters and detractors regularly testify to his deep sense of principle, his integrity in leadership and his refusal to allow public debate to undermine personal respect and friendships. On retirement, Donald, Marie and Mark moved to their house in Pymble. Robinson also resumed teaching at Moore College, a role he continued in until 2002, marking exactly fifty years since he first taught on the College’s faculty.

Robinson suffered the losses of his beloved wife Marie in 2014, and his much-loved son Mark in 2015. He himself entered his eternal rest on 7 September 2018.


Sydney Anglicanism is much admired and much criticised. Whatever one’s personal response, it is the most dynamic and energetic theological culture in the Australian church scene. While undoubtedly conservative, it is also original, scholarly and – in a way that surprises many – exegetically adventurous.

It has nurtured an extraordinarily diverse collection of scholars. It has fostered a sustained engagement with scripture exciting enough to provide theological back-bone for the radical house-church movement associated with Robert Banks, on the one hand, and deeply engaged in the Anglican tradition enough to nurture the work of Bruce Kaye, on the other. Its evangelicalism has shaped modern evangelical student ministry, while its liturgical work shaped the AAPB. It is, as I say, both more complex and more interesting than either its distractors or its partisans tend to realise.

To dismiss Sydney Anglican theology as merely “conservative” is to miss its dynamism. It is a puzzle. And it is a puzzle that is inexplicable apart from the extraordinary work of the scholarly bishop and loyal servant of Christ Jesus, Donald William Bradley Robinson.

Rory Shiner is the pastor of Providence City Church in Perth, Western Australia. His PhD from Macquarie University was on the origins, development and influence of Donald Robinson’s biblical scholarship. Reprinted with the author’s permission from ABC Religion & Ethics

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