Ian Clive Robinson
(April 17, 1937 –October 30, 2020)
by the Ven. John Ferns
Ian Robinson’s death leaves a gap that will be hard to fill, in articulate advocacy for the continued use of the King James Bible (1611) and the Book of Common Prayer (1662, 1962) in Anglican worship. Robinson was educated at a Methodist Junior School (where his father led a Sunday school involving 400 children), at King Edward VI School, Retford, Nottinghamshire, and at Cambridge University where,studying under F. R. Leavis at Downing College, he received first-class degrees in both parts of the English tripos. He then taught English Language and Literature at Swansea University, Wales from 1961 to 1997. He was a Trustee of the English Prayer Book Society and a frequent contributor to its journal Faith and Worship.
Ian Robinson’s best known book, The Survival of English (1973), in particular the chapter “Religious English”, demonstrates how the New English Bible (1970) fails, in its language and style, to achieve the depth of meaning and belief attained by the King James translators. To replace “Save me, O God; for the waters are come up unto my soul” (Psalm 69, 1611) with “Save me, O God; for the waters have risen up to my neck!” (NEB, 1970) is to substitute a contemporary cliché (up to my neck in it) for the spiritual Christian idea of ‘soul’. Also, in “Religious English”, Robinson shows how the new liturgies that led to the Alternative Service Book (1980) and the Book of Alternative Services(1985) were unable to approach the degree of convinced faith that Thomas Cranmer establishes in his 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. Of the Prayer Book’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead”, used at his own funeral, Robinson writes, “The 1662 Burial Service begins with one of the most challengingly hopeful assertions in the world. I am surely not the only person to have been struck dumb with wonder as the minister, advancing into the church followed by the very coffin, shouts ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord …’. The tension between this statement and the presence of the corpse (unequivocally so called in the rubric of the 1662 book) is at the heart of the old service. A funeral is the occasion for asserting in the act of burying a corpse the possibility of making something of a life whose natural end is the grave”.
Robinson’s work on Anglican liturgy continued in Prayers for the New Babel (1984) and Cranmer’s Sentences (2003). In the latter, he challenges C. S. Lewis’s view that where it is possible to love William Tyndale and Sir Thomas More it is hard to love Cranmer. Robinson writes, “That Cranmer can be loved is a fact I know from experience: I don’t even find it very difficult.” He then quotes Cranmer’s letter from prison to Mrs. Wilkinson, “The true comforter in all distresses is onlie god thorow his sonne Jesus Christ. And whoever hath hym, hath company enough: althoe he were in a wilderness all alone. & he hath 20 thousand in his companye, if god be absent, he is in a miserable wilderness & desolation. In hym is all comfort & without him is none. Wherefore I beseech you seke youre duelling there, as you maye trule & rightly serve god & duell in him & have hym ever duelling in you.” Robinson’s comment is telling: “Criticismis not restricted to technicalities, and I say further that only a real man could have written this.” Ian Robinson too was “a real man”, one of the most intelligent, kind and generous men I have ever known.
Robinson’s later work included the series Coming to Judgement (2001-06), the second volume of which was entitled Who Killed the Bible? (2006) in which he continued his critique of modern and contemporary Bible translations. His penultimate book was called British Values and The Book of Common Prayer (2017). In 2006, he republished, for the first time since 1859, and introduced the Tudor Book of Homilies. It was printed by Robinson’s own Brynmill Press in collaboration with the Preservation Press of the Prayer Book Society USA with the help of the Society’s Chairman, the Revd. Peter Toon. Robinson officiated at Peter Toon’s commital service in Ryhill, Yorkshire in 2009.
Ian Robinson made three visits to Canada. The first was in 1985, when, as Hooker Visiting Professor at McMaster University, he spoke at McMaster, Brock and Dalhousie Universities. On that visit he attended a traditional Prayer Book Morning Prayer service at St James’ Anglican Church in Dundas, Ontario, conducted by Canon Tom Crawford during his brief rectorship at St. James’. Ian expressed his satisfaction with the simplicity and sincerity of the service.
He visited Canada for a second time in 2001 with his “comrade in arms” Duke Maskell. They had recently published a jointly written critique of the contemporary British university, The New Idea of a University (2001). Robinson had also just published the first of the four books in his Coming to Judgement series, The English Prophets (2001). Both men spoke at a symposium at Brock on the state of the contemporary university, and at McMaster on Paradise Lost (Robinson) and D. H. Lawrence (Maskell). As well, Robinson preached at St. George’s Reformed Episcopal Church (formerly St. George’s Anglican Church) in Hamilton, Ontario. Naturally, his sermon stressed the centrality of both the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in Anglican tradition and worship.
Ian Robinson’s last visit to Canada was in 2011. On this occasion, he preached once again at St. George’s. Also, he spoke twice at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario. His first lecture was entitled “The Christian Idea of Tragedy in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dickens’ Bleak House”, after which he was presented with a red Redeemer University T-shirt which, with comic irony, he accepted as the equivalent of an honorary degree. Later, he took part in a public discussion of Bible translation with Redeemer Biblical scholar, Dr. Al Wolters. Dr. Wolters defended modern and contemporary Bible translations while Robinson stressed the literalness and overall superiority of the King James Version. On All Souls’ Day (November 2), Robinson addressed the Toronto Branch of the Prayer Book Society of Canada at Trinity College, University of Toronto at the invitation of the branch’s president, Dr. Diana Verseghy, and later attended a service of Holy Communion at St. Thomas’s Anglican Church. He also visited Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario where he spoke to Michael Di Santo’s students on “How to Read Shakespeare’s Blank Verse”. Finally, he spoke at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario to Laurence Steven’s students, again on Shakespeare’s prosody. These lectures were incorporated into his final book, How To Read Shakespeare’s Verse, in 2019.
My last meeting with Ian Robinson occurred on March 21, 2012 at the annual memorial service for Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, organized by the Oxford branch of the English Prayer Book Society, at St. Michael’s Church at the North Gate. Following a service of Morning Prayer, the congregation processed to the site of Cranmer’s martyrdom outside the gates of Balliol College. After a silence and prayer, the congregation continued to the Martyrs’ Memorial where a wreath was laid. After lunch with
Ian, Gillian and I walked with him to Oxford railway station where we were to catch our respective trains. We noticed Ian lean heavily against a crossing-light post near the station, and realised then that he must be unwell. Nevertheless we were shocked by the news of his death. As our friend Terry Kleven said, “He gave us so much.” My strongest memory of Ian is of his saying to me, “I am only in trouble when I can’t pray.”
Ian Robinson’s graveside funeral at Retford Cemetery was conducted by the Revd. Dick Lewis according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with, as Ian requested, “no additions or emendations”. It was attended by his widow, Dr. Hilary Robinson, their son John and his wife Emma Kerry, daughter Christina and her husband Professor Bibekbrata Gooptu and their children Lila Jane and Kiran John Gooptu, and Ian’s brother-in-law Nicholas Berrow. With them we mourn him, as do his many friends.
Ian Robinson’s last book that involved discussion of Anglican liturgy was British Values and The Book of Common Prayer (2017). It opens with an epigraph from James Thomas East’s hymn, Wise Men Seeking Jesus that reads: “But if we desire Him / He is close at hand; / For our native country / Is our Holy Land.” Our Holy Land is in whichever land we find Jesus. As Ian said, we are only in trouble when we can’t pray.
(From the PBSC Newsletter, Lent 2021. The Ven. John Ferns is a retired archdeacon of the Reformed Episcopal Church who attends St. George’s Church in Hamilton, Ontario.)