With a mixture of great sadness and gratitude to God, we remember our friend and former colleague, The Reverend Canon Dr Robert Withycombe, who died on Monday 13th March after a long illness. Robert taught many students at St Mark’s. He established the Centre’s great commitment to remembering the historic communion of saints, as learned through the study of the history of the church. Robert and his wife Susan-Mary have been regular attenders and contributors at St Mark’s long after his retirement. We thought it appropriate to share some highlights of his life here.
Robert Stanley Morse Withycombe was born and brought up in Sydney. He was educated at Knox Grammar Prep School (1947–1950) and Sydney Grammar School (1951–56). He studied at Sydney University from 1957 to 1960, reading English, Latin, Philosophy and History, and graduated as Bachelor of Arts with honours in History. Bruce Mansfield’s lectures in Reformation History were a formative experience for Robert.
While at Sydney University he joined the University Regiment, training as an officer having had experience as a cadet at Sydney Grammar. He also belonged to the Sydney University Evangelical Union and served as its Secretary in 1959–60.
He then enrolled at Moore College, reading for a London BD and ThL during 1961–63. Noel Pollard, lecturer in church history and librarian, encouraged Robert’s interest in these fields and became a lifelong friend. While at College, Robert served as catechist at Lilyfield in 1961 and Darling Point (1962–63).
He was made a deacon at the end of 1963, and served as a curate at East Willoughby and Castle Crag in 1964, and was also employed as a Tutor in Moore College.
He was ordained as a priest at the end of 1964, and travelled to the UK, where he studied in Cambridge for a PhD in History, supervised by the Rev’d Professor Owen Chadwick, Master of Selwyn College. Robert was a member of Selwyn College, but lived close by at Tyndale House. While in Cambridge, he served as a curate at St Barnabas’ Church, Mill Road (1965–67).
Having submitted his thesis (on “The Development of Constitutional Autonomy in the Established Church in later Victorian England”), he returned to the Southern Hemisphere early in 1968. In March that year he married Susan Mary Simpson in Sydney, and they then travelled to New Zealand, where he worked as General Secretary of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship (now Tertiary Students’ Christian Fellowship) from 1968 to 1971. He was based in Wellington but travelled frequently and visited all universites and most tertiary colleges in New Zealand.
He returned to Sydney at the end of 1971 with his wife and baby son to take up an appointment at Moore College as a resident Lecturer in Church History and Dean of Students. He also lectured church history part time at Sydney University. During this period he first became interested in the ministry of Francis Bertie Boyce.
He was appointed Warden of St Mark’s Library and Institute of Theology at the end of 1975 and moved to Canberra. He remained at St Mark’s in this capacity, and also lectured Church History to the newly formed Canberra College of Ministry, from 1975 to 1986, apart from a period of study leave in Cambridge from February to August 1979.
From 1987 to 1996 he served as Rector of St Luke’s Church, Deakin, continuing to teach church history part-time at St Mark’s. During this time, he served on Bishop-in-Council, was elected a Canon of St Saviour’s Goulburn, worked on the Board of the Canberra Girls’ Grammar School, and was a member of the General Synod International Affairs Committee. A staunch advocate for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, Robert was elected at the Canberra and Goulburn diocesan Synod to serve on General Synod when the ordination of women was high on the agenda. In 1989, he returned to Cambridge for a six-month period of study leave, and began to work on archives relating to Australia and New Zealand at Lambeth Palace Library.
In order to devote himself more fully to academic teaching and research he left St Luke’s in 1996, and soon afterwards received a grant from the Canadian Government to study the constitutional development of the Anglican Church in Canada. In Canberra he taught church history and New Testament Greek at St Mark’s, and also at the Canberra College of Theology when Russell Warnken was Principal and Susan Phillips Librarian.
His interest in the Anglican Church’s interaction with the British Empire, and how the Church responded to conditions in the colonies very different from those at “Home”, led him to find primary sources in letters from colonial clergy to colleagues in the United Kingdom, in particular to the Archbishops of Canterbury (preserved in Lambeth Palace Library), and to St Augustine’s College, Canterbury. In order to make these resources more accessible to scholars in Australia and New Zealand he published some selections of these letters and persuaded the relevant authorities to microfilm the collection at St Augustine’s. The microform is now available at the National Library of Australia, under the title Occasional papers (St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury.
With the help of colleagues at Macquarie University (Leighton Frappell, Ruth Frappell Teale, and Raymond Nobbs) he also compiled and edited a calendar of material held at Lambeth Palace, published in 1999 as Anglicans in the Antipodes: an indexed calendar of the papers and correspondence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, 1788–1961, relating to Australia, New Zealand, and the … Pacific (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999).
During this time he also qualified as an indexer, and among other assignments worked on the archives of St John’s Parramatta. His interest in ecumenical activities led him to serve as Secretary to the ACT Churches’ Council for many years. He continued to minister as an Anglican priest, taking services from time to time at St Paul’s Manuka and assisting the hardworking rector of the widely scattered rural parish of Cooma – especially during the peak periods of Christmas and Easter. He acted on several occasions as locum tenens of that parish.
His published works include books on colonial Anglican ministry in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific; Australian and New Zealand religious history over the last two centuries; and a pioneering biography in 2009 of Bishop Montgomery of Tasmania, who, interestingly, was also the father of the famous British Second-World-War Fieldmarshal, Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery. His final book, published in 2018, was a biographical study of early-twentieth century Anglican clergyman and social reformer, Bertie Boyce.
Robert’s association with St Mark’s has been formative and enduring. To his final days he continued as a Senior Research Fellow in History at the college, and one of our lecture rooms, the Withycombe Room, is named after him.
We honour his long and fruitful contribution to the Anglican Church of Australia, to scholarship, and to the life and mission of St Mark’s National Theological Centre. A funeral for Robert will be held at St Paul’s Manuka at 2.30pm on Thursday March 23rd with an informal gathering to be held at St Mark’s afterward.
Rev’d Associate Professor Andrew Cameron
Director, St Mark’s
Dr Michael Gladwin
Senior Lecturer in Church History, St Mark’s
Select publications by Robert Withycombe:
Occasional papers from St Augustine’ College Canterbury, published 1853–1941: A handlist of materials relating to Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia and the South Pacific (Canberra ACT: St Mark’s National Theological Centre, 1992.
Anglican Ministry in colonial Aotearoa-New Zealand and the South Pacific: Some Early Letters (Canberra: St Mark’s National Theological Centre, 1993).
Anglican Ministry in colonial Australia, Some Early Letters: A collection of texts for a course on 19th Century Australian Religious History (Canberra: St Mark’s National Theological Centre, 1993).
The St John’s Parramatta endowment trust: A brief History (Parramatta NSW: Trustees of the St John’s Parramatta Endowment Trust, 1998).
Australian and New Zealand Religious History, 1788–1988: A collection of papers and addresses delivered at the 11th Joint Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools and Society for Theological Studies held at Burgmann College, Australian National University, 5–8 September 1988, Edited by Robert S.M. Withycombe.
Montgomery of Tasmania: Henry and Maud Montgomery in Australasia (Brunswick East, Vic.: Acorn Press Limited, 2009).
Bertie Boyce: Pioneer Clergyman, Social Reformer (Reservoir, Vic.: Morning Star Publishing, 2018)