If you’ve grown up in Sydney Anglican churches chances are your understanding of what church is and what it’s for has been significantly shaped (perhaps unknowingly!) by two people – Donald W. B. Robinson and D. Broughton Knox. However, no one has undertaken a systematic and extended articulation and appraisal of this approach to church ….until now – we chat to Moore College lecturer Chase Kuhn about his new book The Ecclesiology of Donald Robinson and D. Broughton Knox.
What first lead you to be so interested in this topic?
I changed contexts in America moving from Los Angeles, CA to Birmingham, AL and noticed significant differences in church culture between the two locations. These differences, as superficial as they may have been, led to deeper questions of what the church is and/or should be. Some kind and patient mentors pointed me to the work of Robinson and Knox and sent me to Sydney for a Summer to spend time working with Anglican churches. From this experience I began to notice that there was no systematic treatment of their work. The rest is history.
We realise it’s a difficult question as you’ve just written a whole book about it but …how would you summarise the Robinson-Knox view of church?
The shortest explanation I can give people is that the church is a gathering. Nothing more, nothing less. This is grounded in a recognition that the thing that makes the church the church is the presence of Christ, and this presence being experienced in the congregation of believers.
This view of church is sometimes seen as unique or unusual, what’s so different about it?
This view seems odd to some because it emphasizes an activity, namely “gathering,” over-against thinking of church as an identity or institution. The reason this is strange is because so many perceptions of church are institutional (read, denominational) or people think about “being” the church in the world. Robinson and Knox did not devalue the denomination or Christian identity, they simply stressed that these things are not properly ecclesial. Naturally, notions of a universal church on earth do not fit within this theology either, and so thinking about global church unity has no place. This too can be bothersome to people who hold an ecumenical ideal for the church. Again, Robinson and Knox did not devalue unity amongst Christians, however with regards to ecclesiology they stressed that unity is expressed in the congregation, and catholicity is only ever realized in the heavenly congregation.
How does the Robinson-Knox understanding of church impact what we do church?
The ecclesiology of Robinson and Knox brings a sharper focus to what church is. The emphasis on the activity of gathering leads to questions of “what for?” Their answer was that the people of God gather for fellowship with God and with one another around the Word. Therefore, church is always Word-centred. The church is a creature of the Word, and the church’s life and sustenance depend upon the Word. Therefore, the church is, according to Article XIX, where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered – proclamation and the sacraments both being Word ministries.
What, in your opinion, are the strengths of their understanding of church?
The strengths of this ecclesiology (and I am lumping them together here) is that the Word of God has been taken seriously, both in formation and practice. That is, both Robinson and Knox cared to listed afresh to what the Word said about God’s purposes for his people in biblical theology. The church features as a very important part of God’s plans for and dealings with his people. Robinson and Knox were careful to allow the text of the Bible to set the parameters of their ecclesiology. This ecclesiology was therefore shaped by the Word, but also stressed the importance of the Word in the life of the church.
With this, I believe that their work brings a different sort of dignity to the church. That is, even the smallest of gatherings is the church because Christ is present even there.
Are their aspects of the Robinson-Knox view of church which you disagree with or would like to nuance?
The work of Robinson and Knox remained quite abstract, and has often been seen as lacking concrete expression and application. How, for example, could Robinson write what he did and then become Archbishop? Did he brush aside his theology for the sake of a good ministry opportunity? I don’t think so. In fact, I have speculated about reasons for his episcopal ministry in view of his ecclesiology. This example, however, highlights that there is work to be done in thinking through the concrete application of their ecclesiology. What does/should polity look like within their theology of the church? Is there anything about the constitution of the church that demands leadership structures, or are these “norms” in scripture optional?
The team at the ACR are quite chuffed that in your book you’ve relied on articles which Knox and Robinson wrote for the Australian Church Record back in the 1940s and 1950s. How significant were these ACR Vault articles for your research?
These articles were of great importance for two reasons. First, both Robinson and Knox engaged in the issues and theological discussions of their day through writings in the ACR. This gave me insight into the “battles” they were fighting. Second, while many of these were occasional pieces, a great deal of their ecclesiology was developed and articulated through these short pieces.
The sneaky privilege that I was allowed, by special permission, was access to the Knox archives which contain his annotated editions of the ACR. Most of the editorials were written anonymously, but Knox, being the editor, had penciled in who had authored each section. This gave me understanding of the different voices contributing to the ecclesiological discussion. Most importantly, I was able to identify the distinction between Robinson and Knox.
 Vice Principal of Moore College 1959-1973, Archbishop of Sydney 1983-1992
 Principal of Moore College 1959-1985