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Obituary: EDWARD ARMITAGE ROBINSON

by
12 July 2013

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield writes:

EDWARD Armitage Robinson, who died at home in Exeter on 30 May, was born in 1921 to a family with strong clerical links. His father, Arthur W. Robinson DD (1856-1928), was a canon of Canterbury, and in 1902 wrote The Personal Life of the Clergy. He later produced a widely used explanation of the Church's Catechism for confirmands. Edward's uncle, after whom he was named Armitage, was Dean successively of Westminster and of Wells (from 1902 to 1933). Edward's grandfather George Robinson had been Vicar of Keynsham in Kent. For ten years from 1959, his elder brother John, who died 30 years ago, was Bishop of Woolwich.

After Marlborough and Christ Church, Oxford, Edward's career as a classicist took him into schoolmastering, first in England and then in Zambia, where he was a headmaster for 15 years. Africa was his first love. It was on that great continent that he was able to pur-sue his keen botanical interest as a plant collector, mostly in Zam- bia, but more widely in South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, and the Congo.

According to Gunn & Codd, E. A. Robinson is commemorated with at least eight taxa that do not appear in southern Africa. Many of these specimens, which include Euphorbia, Cyperacea, Dracaenaca, Leguminosa, Hydrophyllaca, and Convolvuli, which he collected between 1953 and 1965, he presented to Kew.

On one trip back to Africa, he met Wendy Flintoff on board ship. She was on her way to set up a teacher-training college in Bechuanaland, and was clutching a copy of John Robinson's Honest to God (1963). He did not let on that it was his brother's book, but admitted that reading it was like "trying to eat soup with a fork". She took it as a good sign that he was reading Carl Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

They married in August 1964, and their first two sons were born in Africa. Back in England in 1967, where his third son was born, the distinguished marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy, knowing his interest in taxonomy, invited Robinson to join him in Oxford at the Religious Experience Research Unit in 1970. He later succeeded Hardy as the unit's second director. (The unit has been at Lampeter since 2000.)

It was his work with the unit which produced his best writing, as he sought to explore an apophatic understanding of God: Living with Questions (1978) and The Original Vision (1983), which is a study of the religious experience of childhood. Much of his thought derived from a fondness for Nicholas of Cusa.

Robinson's views on education remained profoundly theological; in a lecture in 1985, "The Experience of Transfiguration", whose title, he admitted, was a lecture in and of itself, he argued: "If we are going to justify religious education, especially in these days when the cultural argument no longer has the weight it once did, we have got to see it as fulfilling a unique and irreplaceable function; we have got to show that it can help us to understand life spiritually."

Robinson was also a notable sculptor, using his creative powers to reflect on how the fragmentary nature of our day-to-day world can be drawn together in a harmonious whole. He wrote that "All works of art may be thought of as forms of silence," and, after a period as artist in residence at the Othona community in west Dorset in 1996, he held exhibitions there, and at Exeter, Canterbury, and, shortly before his death, Westminster Abbey, "Forms of Silence".

Aptly, his funeral was held at the Society of Friends' Meeting House in Exeter on 13 June.

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