10 January 2016

A family of Cambridge
theologians with deep
roots in Co Monaghan

Dean Joseph Armitage Robinson (1858-1933) … a great Cambridge theologian whose parents were Irish-born (Portrait: Aidan Savage/Wells Cathedral)

Patrick Comerford

All Saints’ Church is in the heart of Cambridge. It stands on part of the site of Westcott House, the Anglican theological college on Jesus Lane, on a corner opposite Jesus College, and just a few steps away from Sidney Sussex College, where I was studying once again last autumn.

All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane, Cambridge … one of the best-preserved Victorian Anglo-Catholic Gothic Revival churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I visit All Saints regularly, and when I dropped in once again a few weeks ago while I was at Westcott House, the church was hosting an exhibition by a local pottery group. All Saints closed as a parish church over 40 years ago and since 1981 it has been vested in the Redundant Churches Fund, now the Churches Conservation Trust. It is occasionally used for worship by a variety of groups and is kept open almost daily by volunteers and the students of Westcott House.

All Saints remains one of the best-preserved Victorian Anglo-Catholic Gothic Revival churches in England. The church was designed by the architect George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907) and was built in 1863-1864. The beautiful interior includes works by William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Eamer Kempe, Frederick Leach, Wyndham Hope Hughes and other artists of the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements.

All Saints was Bodley’s first church in the Decorated Gothic style of the early 14th century (1300-1320). It is one of his most successful churches and became his favourite.

The site of the original All Saints’ Church, opposite Trinity College and close to the Divinity Schools (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The parish dates back to the Middle Ages. The original church stood opposite Trinity College and close to the Divinity Schools, on a site now marked by a triangular piece of open land and a memorial cross. This was the old Jewish quarter of Cambridge, the church was known as All Saints in the Jewry and the vicars were appointed by Jesus College.

A landmark church

Much of the interior decoration of All Saints’ Church is the work of William Morris and his partnership (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The old church was rebuilt and restored on several occasions, but the site was cramped and dark, and by the mid-19th century it was too small. Jesus College donated the site for a new church in Jesus Lane, the foundation stone was laid on 27 May 1863, the church was consecrated on 30 November 1864, and the new church, with its tower and spire, was completed in 1869-1871. It was once the tallest building in Cambridge, and the spire of All Saints, modelled on the parish church in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, remains a landmark that can be seen throughout Cambridge.

Inside, works by William Morris include the large five-light East Window and later decorative features include work by Charles Eamer Kempe and Frederick Leach. The Cambridge church historian, Owen Chadwick, who died last summer, says Kempe’s work represents “the Victorian zenith” of church decoration and stained glass windows.

The chancel arch painting of Christ in Glory is by Wyndham Hope Hughes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Bodley devised all the wall paintings in the nave, the nave aisle, the sanctuary, and the east end of the south chancel aisle. The walls and roofs are decorated with colourful stencil patterns in red, green and gold, with pomegranates and seeds as a sign of the Resurrection, monograms of IHS and IHC for Christ and a crowned M for the Virgin Mary, as well as inscriptions from the Psalms, the Beatitudes and the Book of Revelation.

The pulpit was designed by Bodley and the panels were painted by Wyndham Hope Hughes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The ceilings are decorated with symbols of the Four Evangelists and the roofs are the work of Frederick Leach. The tempera painting on the chancel arch of Christ in Glory, flanked by his mother and Saint John the Evangelist and surrounded by angels, is by Wyndham Hope Hughes. The pulpit was designed by Bodley and the panels painted by Hughes show Saint Peter, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John Chrysostom.

The church has an oak chancel screen and the rood beam was fitted as a girder to counteract a structural weakness in the base of the tower. The choir stalls are also designed by Bodley, while at the west end, the octagonal 15th century font survives from the old church.

The East Window is one of the great treasures of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The East Window (1866) is one of the great treasures of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, with 20 figures designed by Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and William Morris. The nave windows include one designed by Kempe as a memorial to three former vicars and showing three saintly Cambridge Anglicans: the priest poet George Herbert, the theologian Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott and the missionary Henry Martyn.

The last addition to the church is a window celebrating women in the Church (1944). The four women depicted are Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker prison reformer; Josephine Butler, the social reformer who worked with prostitutes; Mother Cecile Isherwood, who founded a community of Anglican nuns in South Africa; and Nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed in World War I.

With a decline in the number of resident parishioners, All Saints’ Church closed when the last vicar, the Revd Hereward Hard, retired in 1973.

A Monaghan family

Saint Patrick’s Church, Monaghan, where generations of the Robinson family were baptised, married and buried (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One of the early vicars of All Saints was Joseph Armitage Robinson (1858-1933), a Cambridge theologian who is part of the long theological tradition that includes Charles Gore, Joseph Lightfoot, Fenton Hort and Brooke Westcott and that reaches back to John Cosin, Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker. He was one of the great Patristic scholars at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Armitage Robinson was part of the generation of Cambridge theologians that followed the great Dublin-born Patristic scholar, Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), who, with Brooke Westcott, was the editor of The New Testament in the Original Greek. But I was surprised to learn during recent visits to Cambridge that Robinson also had strong Irish family connections, for both his father and his mother were Irish-born.

His father, the Revd George Robinson (1819-1881), was the vicar of a poor Somerset parish near Bristol and Bath. George was born in Monaghan where his father, Joseph Robinson (1782-1866), a printer and bookseller, lived at No 1 The Diamond, beside the parish church. Joseph was descended from a family that lived in Seagoe area of Co Armagh since the 17th century, and later in Monaghan and Clones. He is buried in the vault of Saint Patrick’s Church, Monaghan.

George Robinson was educated at Trinity College Dublin and was ordained deacon (1844) for Donaghcloney in the Diocese of Dromore by Henry Pepys, Bishop of Worcester, and priest (1845) for Barr in the Diocese of Clogher by John Leslie, Bishop of Kilmore. In 1847, he moved to England, where he was curate in Saint James’s, Clapham, Vicar of Keynsham, Somerset and Vicar of Saint Augustine’s, Everton, Liverpool.

George Robinson was back in Ireland in 1854, when he married Henrietta Cecilia Forbes in Collon, Co Louth. She was a daughter of Arthur Forbes and Caroline (Armitage), of Craigavad, Co Down. George and Henrietta had 13 children, including six sons who were priests and two daughters who were deaconesses. He died in 1881 in Marseilles, where he was buried.

Patristic scholarship

First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge … Armitage Robinson was a Fellow and Dean, and Forbes Robinson was a Fellow, chaplain and Junior Dean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Inside Great Saint Mary’s, the university church in Cambridge, where Armitage Robinson was assistant curate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Armitage Robinson studied classics and theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and graduated in 1881. After graduation he was a Fellow of Christ’s College (1881-1889), and became a chaplain to Lightfoot, who had become the Bishop of Durham in 1882. He then became Dean of Christ’s College (1884-1890), and was also Assistant Curate of Great Saint Mary’s, the university church in Cambridge (1885-1886), before becoming Vicar of All Saints in 1888.

The Chapel of Emmanuel College … Forbes Robinson was Chaplain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During Robinson’s three years at All Saints’ Church (1888-1892), artists from the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts Movement continued to decorate and enrich the church. For a brief time (1891-1892), his curate at All Saints was one of his many clerical brothers, Canon Forbes Robinson (1867-1904), a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. Forbes Robinson later became Chaplain of Emmanuel College (1891-1896) and Chaplain and Junior Dean of Christ’s College (1896-1904), and was an expert in the Coptic Gospels.

When Armitage Robinson resigned from All Saints, he became Norrisian Professor of Divinity (1893-1899) in Cambridge, and a canon of Wells Cathedral (1894-1899). As a theologian, he succeeded to the mantle of the Cambridge ‘triumvirate’ of Westcott, Lightfoot and Hort. He wrote a commentary of the Epistle to the Ephesians, he visited the libraries of Venice with Archbishop Gregg of Dublin, visited Patmos and Athens, and was known for his work on Patristic texts, including the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas and the works of Saint Irenaeus, Saint Perpetua and Origen.

Armitage Robinson was Rector of Saint Margaret’s, Westminster (1899-1900) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He left Cambridge to become Rector of Saint Margaret’s, Westminster (1899-1900), and a Canon of Westminster Abbey (1899-1902). Then, at the age of 44, he became the Dean of Westminster Abbey (1902-1911), where he revised and modernised the coronation ceremonies.

Armitage Robinson became the Dean of Westminster Abbey at the age of 44 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He moved to become Dean of Wells Cathedral (1911-1933), where he had close links with Dom Cuthbert Butler and the Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey, took part in the bilateral Anglican-Roman Catholic conversations at Malines convened by Cardinal Mercier and Lord Halifax, and became known for his publications in history.

Robinson received an honorary doctorate (DD) from Trinity College Dublin in 1908, and in 1920 he returned to his father’s alma mater as the Donnellan Lecturer, with a series of lectures on Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. When he died on 7 May 1933, he was buried in Wells Cathedral.

Family of theologians

Bishop John Robinson, author of Honest to God (1963), was a nephew of Armitage Robinson (Photograph: Trinity College Cambridge)

Five of the Robinson brothers were Church of England priests, a unique tally in any family. Apart from Armitage and Forbes, the others were: Canon Arthur William Robinson (1856-1928), a canon of Canterbury Cathedral and the author of several books, who inherited a house called The Wood just outside Monaghan; the Revd John Robinson, who died while he was a CMS missionary in Nigeria; and Canon Charles Henry Robinson (1861-1925), who died while he was Editorial Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, later USPG and now Us).

Another brother, Edward Forbes Robinson (1864-1921), was a missionary teacher in South Africa, where he died, and Dr Frederick Augustine Robinson (1870-1906) was a medical missionary with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), and died in Natal. Two sisters, Elizabeth and Cecilia, were deaconesses, and a third sister, Henrietta, married a priest, the Revd Charles Edward Bishop.

Canon Arthur Robinson’s son was the famous theologian, New Testament scholar and bishop, John AT Robinson (1919-1983), author of In the End, God (1951) and Honest to God (1963) and Bishop of Woolwich (1959-1969). He studied theology at Westcott House and before becoming a bishop was the Dean of Clare College, Cambridge. After retiring as Bishop of Woolwich in 1969, he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in theology and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. He preached his last sermon, ‘Learning from cancer,’ to a packed college chapel six weeks before he died.

John Robinson was Dean of Clare College, Cambridge, before becoming Bishop of Woolwich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Robinsons are an outstanding clerical, theological and missionary family, but until my visits to All Saints’ Church I was not aware of their family roots in Ireland and the Church of Ireland.

John Robinson was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, before he died (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in January 2016 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory’).

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