Former moderator of the Church of Scotland

Former moderator of the Church of Scotland

Born: May 11, 1921 Died: October 18, 2014

Robin Barbour, who has died aged 93, was elected moderator of the church of Scotland in 1979, at the time the youngest holder of the post in living memory. He also lectured in divinity at the University of Edinburgh for many years.

He was born into a Scottish landowning family and the church. His father, George Freeland Barbour of Bonskeid, in Perthshire, was one of the most prominent laymen of his generation in Scotland, a noted philosopher, theologian and biographer, as well as the friend of many of the most significant figures in the Scottish church of the first half of the 20th century.

Robin, as he was always known, was educated at Cargilfield School in Edinburgh and Rugby. His studies at Oxford University were interrupted by distinguished war service from 1940-45 with The Scottish Horse. He was awarded the Military Cross and later wrote the history of the part played by the Scottish Horse in World War II. He continued to serve in the Territorial Army for ten years after the war ended.

Barbour studied for the ministry at the University of St Andrews, and undertook postgraduate work at Yale and in 1953 began work with overseas students in Edinburgh, first as the secretary of the Edinburgh Council for Overseas Students and, a year later as the University of Edinburgh's chaplain to them.

He was to remain at Edinburgh University for nearly 20 years. He was appointed a lecturer and then senior lecturer in the divinity faculty, specialising in the New Testament under James S Stewart.

Stewart was more of a popular preacher than a critical scholar, and Barbour's much more sceptical attitude, influenced by the German scholar Ernst Kasemann, was a healthy antidote to James Stewart's lecture room sermonising. "We exist in an uncomfortable twilight about Jesus, not really knowing how much of it to believe," Dr Barbour wrote.

Just as his time in Edinburgh was coming to an end, Dr Barbour's scholarship was recognised when he became secretary of the prestigious Studiorum Novum Testamenti Societas in 1970. The following year he was appointed Professor of New Testament Exegesis in the University of Aberdeen.

During the 1970s the Church of Scotland, whose constitution and composition did not make change easy to adopt, struggled to find new structures which, it was believed, would help halt the decline in membership then beginning to accelerate.

Professor Barbour chaired a special committee into the mission and membership of the church, known from its size as the Committee of Forty, or, by its critics, Ali Barbour and the Forty Thieves. He was not only the committee's convener, he was its driving force. It sat from 1974 to 1978. Its main structural proposal was the establishment of an executive Assembly Council with such far-reaching powers that its membership was to be popularly elected on the floor of the Assembly rather than through a nominating committee, and although this, along with other reforms was passed by the General Assembly of 1978 with great enthusiasm, those who managed the affairs of the Assembly and the church slowly dismantled most of the committee's work.

It had, however, made Robin Barbour an important leader with a commitment to reform. The year after the Committee of Forty's final report, at the age of 58, Dr Barbour was elected the youngest Moderator of the General Assembly in living memory.

Although he remained a much-respected figure in the church, Robin Barbour did not have the stomach for the sort of ecclesiastical in-fighting which would have been needed to defeat the opponents of change. He made a number of significant speeches over the years, but it was clear that he had lost some of the enthusiasm which he brought to the movement for reform.

He continued teaching in Aberdeen (as part-time professor after 1982) until his retirement in 1986.

Since 1976 Robin Barbour had been a Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland, and in 1981 he became Dean of the Chapel Royal, a post he held for the next ten years. He was warmly regarded by the Queen who valued his advice and drew on his wide experience of the church. On his resignation he was appointed KCVO. He was also Prelate of the Priory of Scotland, Order of St John.

Despite a busy academic and ec­clesiastical career, Robin Barbour continued the family interest in the management of forestry on the family land, and when economy measures threatened his local Tenandry Parish Church he became interim moderator, and along with a number of retired ministers in the area kept the church open and alive for over 25 years.

Robin Barbour described Jesus as "enigmatic" and there was something enigmatic about Barbour himself: landowner who was respected by the church's left, conservative courtier with a reputation for radicalism, moderator who disliked ecclesiastical pretension, holder of the Military Cross who was suspicious of military solutions. He is survived by his wife Margaret and his three sons, George, David and Andrew and his daughter Alison.