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My pilgrimage in mission.


Born in Belfast, Robin Boyd studied there and in Dublin, Edinburgh, and Basel. Ordained in the Irish Presbyterian Church, he served the Student Christian Movement and in 1954 went to India (Gujarat), becoming a presbyter of the nascent (1970) Church of North India. In 1974 he moved to Melbourne, Australia, and ministered in a parish of the Uniting Church (1977). From 1980-87 he was director of the Irish School of Ecumenics (Dublin). His writing includes An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology (1969), and recent work on the eschatology of interfaith relations. Twice happily married, he lives in Edinburgh.


Karl Barth, ecumenism, eschatology and mission, Indian Christian theology, interfaith dialogue, pastoral ministry, mission and reconciliation in India, Ireland and Australia, telos, teleiosis


I was born in Belfast in 1924, soon after my father, Robert H. Boyd, had returned to Ireland after thirteen years of missionary service in what is now Gujarat State, India. In December 1914 my mother--dodging Gentian U-boats--had sailed to Bombay to marry him. My older brother and sister were born in Gujarat; my younger brother, Bill, and I in Ireland, as my father had been appointed convener of the Presbyterian Church's Foreign Mission. My father was a fine preacher and a very effective advocate of mission. My mother shared with us her love of beauty and of prayer; and her devotion to what she called "the real thing"--life in Christ.


As a product of the Enlightenment, my school, founded in 1810, provided neither religious instruction nor prayer. There was a Christian Union, but I did not join it. On summer holidays I joined in the beach services and sporting activities of the Children's Special Service Mission. And in 1938 one of the leaders, whom I remember only as Dr. Arnold, from Glasgow, gave us ten words, which I wrote down in my Bible: "Aim high; Fight shy; Say why; Stand by; Live nigh." He encouraged me to think.

In 1939 my brother Jack went off to join the Indian Army. He was killed in Burma on Palm Sunday 1942. My sister, Honor, served as a nurse through the severe German air raids on Belfast in 1941. I entered Trinity College, Dublin, to study classics for two years before going off to the war. My friend Tom Lyle encouraged me to join the Student Christian Movement (SCM), and I was soon in a study group on the parables of Jesus. It was an exciting new world, where any questions could be asked, no one had all the answers, and we were urged to search out the most scholarly commentaries. And there were women students, fewer than men, but just as clever and welcome to take any leadership role. In my understanding of theology and prayer, I was greatly helped by Donald Kennedy, the Presbyterian chaplain and later a colleague in India. I had friends too in the Evangelical Union (EU), notably Alan Cole, who would later write fine Bible commentaries and teach theology in Chinese.

In 1943 I volunteered for war service. I worked as a cryptographer in London as part of the Bletchley Park enterprise. I joined the St. Paul's Watch, guarding the cathedral every Friday night. And on Thursday nights I was in the Home Guard ("Dad's Army"); one night we really did fire our rockets at what proved to be the first German "flying bombs" (V-1s).

In 1945 I returned to Dublin to complete my degree. In 1946 I attended the first postwar general committee meeting of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) at Bossey in Switzerland, and met Willem Visser't Hooft, Robert Mackie, and, especially, Suzanne de Dietrich, whose erudite passion for "re-discovering the Bible" was inspiring. There was wonderful singing, led by Marie-Jeanne de Haller--strong, unsentimental, theologically grounded singing. In December 1947 the SCM sent me to India to take part in the first post-independence conference of the Indian SCM, at Tambaram, where I first met Lesslie Newbigin.

In September 1948 I entered New College, Edinburgh, to study theology under John Baillie and New Testament under William Manson and James Stewart. Among my fellow students was James Blackie, later professor of practical theology, who was my closest friend; James Barr, Old Testament specialist and at that time still in the evangelical camp; and James Torrance. There was definitely a division between SCM and EU types, but we were all friends. In my final year, at the Assembly's College, Belfast, I was taught by J. L. M. Haire, who later became a good friend. 1 benefited from both the topic-related presentation of John Baillie and the traditional ordo salutis model of the Reformers (Jimmie Haire).


In 1951 I was invited by the SCM to serve for two years as secretary for theological colleges. My job was to travel round the seventy-nine SCM-affiliated colleges in the British Isles, encouraging students to fulfill Christ's twofold prayer to the Father: that "they all may be one," in order that "the world may believe that you have sent me." On my travels I experienced different forms of worship in various communities--like the Anglican Kelham (Society of the Sacred Mission), where I could share in so much and yet be excluded from sharing Communion. That hurt.

In September 1951 I helped organize my first Anglican-Orthodox-Presbyterian student conference, at Bievres, near Paris. The Orthodox students were from Russian emigre families who had fled the USSR after the 1917 revolution. I experienced the depth of the Russian liturgical tradition, and I was given an icon of the head of Christ, which I still treasure. The following year we accompanied George Macleod, leader of the Iona Community, on a very wet pilgrimage across the Isle of Mull to the island of Iona.

In those postwar days many students felt called to mission in industry. Some joined the Sheffield Industrial Mission, led by Ted Wickham; and it was not just Scottish students who entered the Iona Community. In 1953 an overflowing carload of us broke the Roman Catholic barrier by visiting the Abbe Michonneau's city parish in Paris, and then a group of priest-workers and students near Lyon. We stood around the still-fresh grave of the Abbe Couturier, where--against the rules!--we said the Lord's Prayer together.

The SCM practiced equality of women and men. Some of my colleagues, notably Mary Lusk (Levison), Nansie Anderson (Blackie), and Margaret Falconer (Webster), became well-known advocates of women's ordination and of their right to hold the highest office in their churches.

In 1952 at the WCC's Faith and Order Conference in Lund, Sweden, I helped to run a linked conference for theological students. We heard Oliver Tomkins say, "Churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately."


In 1953 I went to Basel to sit at the feet of Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann for the winter semester. It was a bracing experience, helped by friendship with other students, including David Torrance, Dietrich Braun, Shirley Guthrie, John Deschner, and Paul Van Buren. The most stimulating events were the informal evening Sozietat meetings, after which some of us would adjourn with Barth to a hostelry, where he was happy to continue the discussion. Knowing that I was shortly to leave for India, he said, "You must find out whether or not all these big books I've written have any meaning in India." It was a challenge that, over the years, I have tried to meet.


Meantime, I had become engaged to my SCM colleague Frances Paton from Australia. She was a granddaughter of the Scottish missionary pioneer John G. Paton of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). We were married in Belfast just after Easter 1954 and soon afterward sailed for India via Melbourne, where I was introduced to the Paton family and the Pacific missionary tradition.

In India we lived in the city of Surat, the 1608 cradle of the British Empire. For the next five years I was a "district missionary," conducting church services in Gujarati and English and supervising a large high school for boys. My fellow workers were evangelists and "Biblewomen." We sang bhajans, preached in the villages, and, when we could, engaged in "the great conversation."

This was evangelism on a model 150 years old. But there was also a more sophisticated relationship with the local academic community, who invited me to write a paper, for publication, on the missionary contribution to scholarship in Gujarat. My scholarly predecessors had laid a good foundation for interfaith dialogue.

Our daughters, Elizabeth and Clare, were bom in the Borsad mission hospital and were brought up without the then customary help of an ayah. Frances started a club for the girls of the crowded Christian community around us and also helped to manage the Mission Press bookstore. But her most challenging commitment came with the development of the Spiritual Life Centre at Bharuch, fifty miles further north, on the banks of the Narmada River. With the practical help of our friends the Blickenstaffs and Masons from the Church of the Brethren, we began to convert a closed hospital building into a lively conference and retreat center for all the churches in Gujarat. Bharuch was a beloved place for stimulating talk, quiet meditation on the river bank, and--especially after the center was entrusted to the management of Abigailben and Devadutt Christian--for music. Abigailben had the gift of helping us all to sing with the joy of the Lord.

In 1959 I began a Ph.D. dissertation at Edinburgh University entitled "The Place of Dogmatic Theology in the Indian Church," supervised by Tom Torrance and John McIntyre. It was eventually published, heavily abridged, as An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology; (1969, enlarged ed., 1975).

In 1961 I was appointed to the Serampore-affiliated Gujarat United School of Theology (GUST) in Ahmedabad. Our principal was R. B. Desai of the Methodist Church. It was encouraging to work alongside my friends Joseph Chrispal and Paul Chauhan, both of whom later became Church of North India (CNI) bishops of Gujarat. The language medium was Gujarati.

Friendly Hindu students sometimes rang our doorbell, asking to know more about the Christian faith. To respond to their questions I wrote What Is Christianity? (1970), later translated into idiomatic modern Gujarati by the well-known Hindu writer Ramanlal Soni. I was pleased to be invited to write a series of Gujarati articles for the Jesuit monthly Doot (The Messenger) entitled Come, Let's Read the Bible (1969). Vatican II was bringing together in shared Bible exegesis Irish Presbyterians and Spanish Jesuits, an unlikely but fruitful combination!

Frances worked for the United Church of Northern India (Presbyterian and Congregational) by editing its monthly magazine United Church Review. And in 1966 she became secretary of the Gujarat Tract Society (Christian Literature Board), in which most of the churches in Gujarat still co-operate. Meantime, seven different Christian traditions in North India were moving toward union, but not without theological problems, both in India and in the so-called mother churches in the West. In June 19601 had defended the Plan of Union in a heated debate in the Irish Presbyterian Church's Assembly, where the plan's wording on ministry and sacraments seemed to some to be tending toward Rome. The Assembly decided to support the nascent Church of North India, and it has continued that support ever since. Frances and I both had the joy of being present at the inauguration of the CNI in Nagpur in 1970--the widest-ranging union of churches ever seen. It was unity for mission.

Like so many missionaries, we had to face long periods of separation from our two daughters. We took them at a very early age to St. Hilda's School in the Nilgiri mountains, a school that, unusually for that era, welcomed both Indian and foreign students and staff.

During these years I got to know a number of distinguished writers of Indian Christian theology, including Bishop A. J. Appasamy, Professor Dhanjibhai Fakirbhai, and Shri Manilal Parekh. In 1963-64 I was part of a Hindu-Christian dialogue at the Bharuch center, organized by my surgeon colleague William Rutherford, who had contacts with several well-known Hindu writers and thinkers, including the famous Gandhian leader Ravishankar Maharaj. This tall and gentle figure happened to come to the center's daily morning prayers (not on the official program), led by the local pastor's wife, Mariamben. As we walked back to the conference, he said to me, "I've never experienced prayer like that before; that sister was talking to God the way she would talk to a friend."

Faith-union with Christ: Khristadvaita

At the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, 1 delivered a series of lectures in Belfast later published as India and the Latin Captivity of the Church: The Cultural Context of the Gospel (1974), in which I challenged the cultural captivity of Western churches to Latin models of language, theology, and governance. In 1977 came Khristadvaita: A Theology for India (Christian Literature Society), my longest and perhaps least satisfactory book. It was an attempt--inspired by Dhanjibhai, who first popularized the term Khristadvaita--to express my belief that it was possible to write a reasonably brief yet comprehensive textbook of theology in the form of a bhasya, or commentary, on a classic Christian text, the epistle to the Romans. Had not Karl Barth done something similar? But there was trouble ahead. For some years Dalit theology, the theology of the oppressed, had been in the ascendant; I was accused, politely but firmly, of allying myself with the vocabulary of the oppressors, using the Brahmanical language of high-caste Hinduism, when I should have recognized that more than 80 percent of Indian Christians come from outside the caste system altogether. It was a point of view with which I was in sympathy, and I did eventually return to the subject in my book Beyond Captivity.

In 1981 came A Church History of Gujarat. My father had written several books on the story of the Irish Presbyterian work in Gujarat, including many valuable brief portraits of Indian leaders of the church, both women and men. My attempt, however, was to provide an ecumenical history, covering all the Christian traditions in Gujarat.


Meantime, our twenty years in India had come to an end, and by April 1974 my family and I were all together under one Melbourne roof, with a blessed opportunity for uninterrupted family life. I entered a period of parish ministry in Melbourne: six years (1974-80) in one parish (Toorak) and seven (1987-94) in another (Wesley), with a seven-year interlude in Ireland between them. These thirteen Melbourne years were certainly years of mission; but since they could be paralleled by many ministers, I pass over them briefly. When we arrived, Toorak was a congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, but in 1977 the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational Churches of Australia united as the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), and Toorak was part of the union.

One of the chief architects of the UCA's Basis of Union was Davis McCaughey, a fellow-Ulsterman who became the church's founding president. In my student days he had drafted the British SCM's remarkable Declarory Statement (1951), with its fourfold emphasis on prayer, Bible study, evangelism, and ecumenism. Newbigin and McCaughey (whose wives were cousins), plus Donald Kennedy (CNI, and a lifelong friend of both the others), all exerted significant personal influence on my own pilgrimage in mission.

As chairperson of two of the UCA's national commissions, on doctrine and on Christian unity, I shared in two forward steps in ecumenism. The first (1979) was an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church on baptism, including mutual recognition of each other's baptism. The second, with the Lutheran Church of Australia, came in two stages: first, the Doxological Affirmation (1997), which enabled us to worship together even though the Lutherans could not offer us pulpit or altar fellowship; second, the Declaration of Mutual Recognition (2000), which enabled shared Eucharistic ministry in outlying areas.

At the local level also there were agreements: first in the Toorak area (1980), and later for "Melbourne City Churches in Action." This fellowship of city-center churches exercised considerable political clout concerning the infringement of civil rights by an ultraconservative state government. I helped in drafting a document entitled "Towards a Biblical and Theological Basis for Political Witness," which drew the wrath of the state premier; we experienced modest satisfaction, however, when the government was defeated in the next election (October 1992)!

I was involved--though less than I should have been--in two other major challenges to the church: the arrival of the "boat people" from Vietnam in 1976 and, above all, the relationship with the Aboriginal community. I am glad to say that my son-in-law Alistair Macrae (national president of the UCA, 2009-12) has been involved here in a way that I admire and envy.


In India I had once been reproached by the question Why don't you, an Irish missionary, go and stop your fellow Christians in Ireland from killing each other? One day in 1979 I received a letter from my friend Tom Lyle suggesting that I should apply for the post of director of the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) in Dublin. I applied and was appointed. So I found myself, an Ulster Protestant, sitting at a desk in the headquarters of the Irish Jesuits. I asked to be received once more as a minister of the Presbyterian Church, and my request was granted.

Michael Hurley was the far-seeing Jesuit priest who had founded the ISE in 1970, primarily as a response to Vatican IPs appeal for closer relations between the churches. Since 1968 the relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland had been politicized to the point of violence in "the Troubles," which would continue for the next thirty years and cause the deaths of more than 3,000 people. Soon after my arrival came the H-block hunger strike at the Maze prison (1981), in which Bobby Sands and other Republican prisoners died. That was the political background of my seven years at the school.

Already by 1980 many reconciliation organizations had brought together people from both sides, including the Corrymeela Community in the North, founded by my cousin Ray Davey, and the Glencree Reconciliation Centre in the South. Michael Hurley envisaged the school as fulfdling a different function: bringing together clergy, teachers, and theological students from all the churches in an accredited academic community for serious study of each other's biblical, theological, liturgical, and ecclesiological traditions, combined with serious commitment to Christian unity for mission.

Our full-time teaching staff was minimal--Alan Falconer in theology, Bill McSweeney in peace studies, and myself in interfaith. But we had a distinguished group of honorary teachers, loyal but radical members of their respective churches, like Enda McDonagh on ethics and justice, Gabriel Daly on ecclesiology, Jimmie Haire on Reformed theology, and Austin Flannery on Vatican II. And there were friendly--and unexpected!--links with the wider world of politics through the commitment to ecumenical theology of prime minister Garrett Fitzgerald and two successive British ambassadors, Alan Goodison and Nicholas Fenn, supported by the diplomatic skills of Una O'Higgins O'Malley, with her deep experience of political and personal forgiveness. It was an unforgettable privilege for staff and students alike to share in the pioneering atmosphere of that extended academic community. At the more domestic level, fieldwork for the students included a period of residence in Belfast in an environment--private home or monastic community--different from their own.

The Northern Ireland program, headed first by Brian Lennon and then by Declan Dean and conducted in both Belfast and Derry, led to a certificate in ecumenics. Many of the participants were schoolteachers, who gave time in the evening or on weekends. Gradually a group developed of mature people committed to reconciliation, and happy to share in the life of each other's community. Another effective venture was the Belfast-based "Faith and Politics" group, pioneered by Brian Lennon and sponsored by the ISE, Corrymeela, and Glencre. Its first publication was the booklet Breaking down the Enmity (1985), which was followed by many others. 1 was also part of a Northern Ireland group of senior church leaders that produced a document, with echoes of Barmen (1934) and Kairos (1985), entitled "A Declaration of Faith and Commitment by Christians in Northern Ireland," whose language was later echoed in the intergovernmental Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1998.

Mission does not always work out in the way we expect. We had hoped that the "middle ground"--where Catholics and Protestants could meet together in growing understanding--would keep expanding until the whole of society was transformed. That did not happen; for many years "ecumenists" (a term of abuse) were rubbished by both sides. But all the time the vocabulary and practice of reconciliation, forgiveness, and hope were becoming more familiar. Finally, in 2014, that language became the unexpected but welcome language of both Ian Paisley (Unionist) and Martin McGuinnes (Republican). For in the end something good did happen, which would not have happened without the patient ecumenical witness of many Christians, Catholic and Protestant, over many years.

In 1987 Frances and 1 returned to our children and grandchildren in Australia. I was succeeded by John D'Arcy May, a leading figure in interfaith studies. Christian unity had not yet arrived, and neither had peace in Ireland. But we were on the way.

Valley of the shadow

Back in Australia I wrote a book for the WCC entitled Ireland: Christianity Discredited or Pilgrim's Progress? (1988) and then received a call to be parish minister at Wesley Church, Melbourne. I retired at the end of 1994. Three years later Frances was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and we knew that our time together would be very short. But it was a wonderful time, surrounded as we were by the love of children and grandchildren, family, friends, and colleagues. Frances died on April 24, 1998, and was buried at Bellbrae, not far from the family's beloved holiday hut at Anglesea, on the shore of the Tasman Sea.

I was now living alone, but my daughters were not far away. In January 1999 I was back in India, at the invitation of the Senate of Serampore, who kindly gave me an honorary doctorate and persuaded me to write three papers on Indian Christian theology, which was a late reentry into that field. 1 also visited Gujarat, where the church was in shock following a serious persecution of Adivasi Christians in the Dangs district.


In November 1999 I visited Scotland. This trip resulted in my engagement to Anne Booth-Clibborn (nee Forrester) and our marriage in March 2000. She had gone to Kenya as a Church of Scotland social worker in the closing years of the Mau Mau emergency, and there she had met and married Stanley Booth-Clibborn, working for the Christian Council of Kenya. He was a great-grandson of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. They returned to Britain with their four children in 1967, and Stanley eventually became bishop of Manchester. They retired to Edinburgh, where he died in 1996. Anne had been a magistrate in Manchester, had chaired the Africa committee of Christian Aid, and had represented Christian Aid and the British Council of Churches at the dramatic final stage of the 1988 Delmas treason trial in South Africa.

We decided that we would spend half the year in Australia and half in Scotland, and for nine years that was our regular schedule. But eventually we settled in Edinburgh, a decision partly dictated by the sudden deterioration of my eyesight in 2008. I was welcomed as a member of the community at Anne's church, St. John's (Scottish Episcopal), where I have on occasion preached the Word and presided at Communion. But recognizing the regrettable absence of a united church of Britain and Ireland, I also became a member of St. Giles' High Kirk (Church of Scotland).

Anne's brother Duncan Forrester introduced me to the late David Kerr, head of what is now the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, where I first met its founder, Andrew Walls. I was awarded a study fellowship (Edinburgh University) and began work on the eschatology of interfaith relations. This project was temporarily interrupted by research on the SCM, which resulted in a book The Witness of the Student Christian Movement: Church ahead of the Church (2007).

At the 2004 meeting of the Yale-Edinburgh Group on the History of the Missionary Movement and World Christianity, I met Paul Stuehrenberg of the Yale Divinity School Library. This led to a project to preserve a church archive in Gujarat, sponsored by the Latourette Initiative for the Documentation of World Christianity, and also by the Irish Presbyterian Church. The project was completed in 2011.

In November 20111 was asked by the late Siga Arles of the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Bangalore to put together a collection of my articles on India. This was published as Beyond Captivity: Explorations in Indian Christian History and Theology (2014). The first article dates from 1959, and the latest, entitled "In the End, Which God?," from 2012. The latter is a critique of the term "eschatology," which is still often interpreted in terms of "the last things" (ta eschata), understood simply as God's sudden termination of human history. The New Testament Greek word for "the end" is telos, which implies the accomplishment of a process, rather than its sudden ending. Another New Testament word, teleiosis--the accomplishment of God's purpose--is, to my mind, a better term than eschatology. It points toward Jesus' word in John 12:32, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Jesus does not lift up himself. People like us lifted him up on the cross. And people like us are called to lift him up in mission, using the language and the vocabulary that speak to people's hearts and minds within their own culture, so that the whole of humanity may be drawn to him in the accomplishment of God's purpose for the world.

Prayer and pilgrimage

Khristadvaita--faith-union with Christ--depends on prayer, and my most recent project has helped me in my praying. My teacher John Baillie's classic book A Diary of Private Prayer was published in 1936. His son Ian, shortly before his death in 2008, had approved a sample draft of a contemporary-language version by Susanna Wright, a young London theologian, wife, and mother. Ian's widow, Sheila Baillie, invited me to act as consultant for the project; it has been an absorbing challenge in faithful translation. This updated and revised edition of the Diary was published in October 2014 (Scribner).

In 1942 John Baillie wrote a book entitled Invitation to Pilgrimage. I read it as a student and, so far as I was able, accepted the invitation. The pilgrimage continues ...

Author biography

Robin (Robert) H. S. Boyd, a citizen of the U.K. and of Australia, was ordained in the Irish Presbyterian Church and served in the Church of North India (teaching theology in Ahmedabad, Gujarat; 1954-74) and the Uniting Church in Australia (pastoral ministry). He was director of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Dublin (1980-87), and now lives in Scotland. He has written mainly on Indian Christian theology.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

DOI: 10.1177/2396939315625981

Corresponding author:

Robin Boyd, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. Email: robin&
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Author:Boyd, Robin
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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