I wrote to J.F. Roxburgh, my Headmaster at Stowe, that I planned to study at the London School of Economics. His answer stunned me. "My Dear Robert, On the basis of your School Certificate results in 1940 I arranged a place for you at Trinity College, Cambridge. Please write to your tutor, Professor Sandbach." All I got from him was a very brief note with no forms to fill. "I wondered if you had survived the war, and I will be delighted to have you begin in October." In those days each tutor was allowed to pick his own stable of students based on how well he thought they would do in the finals, and in the rowing and other sports clubs. That suited me fine.
After carousing at Aitcheson College, and five years in the army, I doubted I could have passed any entrance examination. Which proves that it is not what you know, but who you know that counts.
After a brief visit to my family in Brussels, I joined my parents and two sisters at Cape Cod Nook, Pembroke, Bermuda. By then my father had retired, and the time had come for my parents to complete the divorce that my mother had settled on seven years before. I acted as a go-between in their surprisingly friendly negotiations. Till the final stages my father had still hoped to find a way for him and Anne to grow old together, but that was not to be.
In between family duties I found time to rent a sailing boat. I wrote to my grandmother in Belgium that I had an American girlfriend who was "tres gaie et vivace." One afternoon I took Kitty across to an isolated beach.
After a swim we had settled down to enjoy the evening with a picnic and a bottle of wine when a crab came up out of the water and bit my toe. It was just getting dark, and instantly the place changed from idyllic to ominous.
We packed up in a great hurry, jumped into the boat, and sailed back across the harbour to the boat dock in Hamilton.
Early in October 1947 I arrived in Cambridge. The first year you had to live out in "digs." My room was at 59 Jesus Lane, but the university required us to eat meals in our college dining hall. After meeting my tutor, I immediately joined the Cambridge University Cruising Club. I used to bicycle out Sunday mornings to race the club dinghies on the river at St. Ives. At the first meeting of the club the most serious item on the agenda was that next year the women students at Girton and Newham would become full members of the University. By our constitution they would then have the right to join our sailing club. Should we change our constitution to make sure the women did not ruin our sport ?
About my third day a student came to invite me to "The Freshers' Squash." I said I was an atheist, and did not believe in that kind of thing. "You have come to Cambridge to study the truth, and you should at least find out what other people believe." I said I was too busy. He looked me in the eye and said "I reckon you are too scared to come to a Christian meeting." That was perhaps true, and I promised I would be there.
On October the seventh fifty or sixty students gathered to hear Professor Norman Anderson, a well known law professor of Islamic Law. He later became head of the School of Advanced Legal Studies in London, but I was not impressed by his argument. During my five years in the army I had demolished the faith of a dozen fellow officers who had used those kinds of argument to defend what they had learned in Sunday School. After the talk, we were served coffee in little cups, and I talked to a group of Christian students including a mathematician named Ivan Lowe. I remember despising their empty-headed attempt at converting me.
But then I left in a hurry, and back in my room on Jesus Lane I suddenly found myself praying. All I can remember was "If you can do anything with me, please get on with it." And since then never a day has passed without me talking equally simply and bluntly to God. For the past fifty-one years I have never doubted for a moment the reality of what happened to me.
I am grateful for the suddenness, decisiveness, and certainty of that conversion. I later discovered that Paul the Apostle had a similarly dramatic change on the road to Damascus. From that it was easy to assume that every true Christian must have such an experience. But my future partner, Mollie Tarrant, was at that time in her final year of nursing at King's College Hospital in London. She had been raised in a loving Christian family in the warm fellowship of Cheam Baptist Church. There had never been a time when she didn't enjoy the light of God's loving presence.
Obviously it is not the time of one's turning but the continuing direction that counts.
Next morning I went into a bookshop and asked for a Bible. The clerk asked "What kind of a Bible do you want?" I had never owned one, and didn't even know about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He steered me to a red coloured Authorized (King James)Version. I think I read it through at least a dozen times, and had it rebound in India before it finally disintegrated.
A couple of days later I was sitting opposite an engineering student named Peter Caswell. I offered him a beer which he declined. "You were at the Freshers' Squash, weren't you? Tell me what happened." So I told him. As we talked I discovered he was the heavy weight boxer for the University. So when he told me to come every week to read the Bible in his rooms in Great Court, I went. He gave me books to read, answered my questions, and told me exactly what to do in this new very unfamiliar kind of life.
The first thing was to attend the Trinity College Bible study taught by Basil Atkinson, the University Librarian. Twenty students came with their Bibles and drank in every word. I discovered this was the Trinity College branch of the CICCU (Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union, which was connected with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship).
Then Peter told me I must come to the prayer meeting. That seemed awesome.
I assumed I would need to write out a prayer, but as I looked round I could see the others prayed freely, often at great length and with great fervour. I also learned to do this, and I have continued meeting with others to pray ever since.
In our Christian Union half of us had come to faith since coming to the University. We tended to assume a certain sequence in Paul's' description of what occurs. "To open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me" (Acts 26:18). The theory was that by our witnessing a person's eyes were opened. There had to be conviction of sin and genuine repentance. This was followed by a decision to accept forgiveness through the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross. When this happened you were born again, and sanctification came from fellowship with other believers.
It took me several years to grasp the fact that God is not governed by our theory. Most Christians I met had begun by enjoying the love of others in a church fellowship. It took time before they were sure that God would keep forgiving them. The shift to living by the power of the Holy Spirit took much longer. And only then did they begin to see the full light of the love of God. This sequence is the opposite of what I had been taught. I now explain that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit each work together with each person in unexpected ways.
Several weeks after my conversion one of the members of the group told me that Christians were meant to go to church on Sunday. I couldn't find this written in the Bible, but I decided to begin attending the evening services for students at Holy Trinity Church. Every week we had a different preacher who gave a major Bible exposition on Saturday and preached an evangelistic message on Sunday evening. Then I was told I couldn't just be a Christian. I had to be an Anglican, or a Baptist, a Methodist or Presbyterian, or a member of the Plymouth Brethren. That began a long search for the right denomination.
I went over to Belgium for the Christmas vacation, and told my rather shocked family what had happened to me. Gustave D'Hondt, who had married my cousin Claire, arranged for me to meet Chanoine (Canon) Leclerq, a Roman Catholic professor at Louvain University. He took the wind out of my sails by saying he had been converted from atheism at Brussels University in the same way as I had.
But when I got back to Cambridge I could tell my friends in the CICCU group were not enthusiastic about me moving in a Roman Catholic direction. And after some more reading I decided that I could not cope with the vow of absolute obedience that the priests were required to take. Many of the speakers I heard were either Anglicans or from the Plymouth Brethren. I think it was the parable of the Wheat and the Tares that convinced me I would have to put up with an imperfect mixed church denomination as an Anglican. By then I had given up the cruising club on Sunday mornings because it clashed with my duty to attend a morning service.
Two years later I was convinced that the proper mode of baptism was as an adult believer and by immersion among the Baptists. But just before I took this step, Bishop Marcus Loane of Sydney Diocese in Australia gave a masterly exposition of the analogy of Old Testament practice of infant circumcision as it related to Anglican baptism.
During the month long Easter vacation I was asked to help on a Norfolk
Broads Cruise. Eventually I became "Admiral of the Otters" and for several
years enjoyed teaching boys to sail, and introducing them to Christian
faith at prayers in the evening.
In the CICCU it was understood that certain kinds of behaviour were worldly, and should be given up if one wanted to be a dedicated Christian. Smoking and alcohol, the cinema, plays, and even novels were on the danger list.
The ideal was to be celibate like John Stott, but in any case it was better to avoid girl friends who might distract one from the narrow way. I succeeded in never dating a single girl for six years from my conversion till I took Mollie out and proposed to her the same day.
Giving up smoking was more difficult. In the Army I had been used to buying a tin of fifty Players cigarettes a day. I did quite well at university with my friends who didn't smoke. But on holiday in Belgium my grandmother had Turkish, Egyptian, Gaulois, and other kinds of cigarettes by every chair in her vast house, and I didn't manage to resist the craving. I was also expected to give up beer in hall, wine at restaurants, and alcohol at parties. There was a bad lapse at the wedding of my cousin Susanne in Brussels, and another wedding when champagne was served, but I eventually became a strict teetotaller for the next twenty five years
Those of us who had served during the war could complete our degree in two years. I did economics. It was the year after John Maynard Keynes died, and my favourite lecturer by far was Joan Robinson. She taught the trade cycle, and I am still fascinated by the way the economy of every country expands and contracts. In addition to lectures which were optional, the main requirement was to meet one on one with one's tutor. Each week the tutor would set the topic for a major essay, which was designed to get the student ready for the examinations at the end of each year. These were set by external examiners, who could ask any questions from the syllabus for the course.
The second year my supervisor was Professor Maurice Dobb, the leading Communist intellectual in Britain at that time. He was a rigorous teacher, but he never tried to influence me in a Marxist direction But that year I lived in a ground floor room in New Court. The room across from mine was occupied by two engineering students. They were dedicated Communists, and used to go off preaching in factories and coal mines every week-end. I tried to convert them and they worked equally vigorously on me. They invited me to meet some of their friends, and I discovered I was to be indoctrinated in a communist cell. The room was full of smoke, and we drank coffee. Opposite me was a formidable man who acted as chief interrogator. Next to him was a thin severe looking intellectual woman who also questioned me and pointed out the weakness of my arguments. I soon wondered if they were going to break my faith. But I settled down to praying for wisdom under my breath, and quite enjoyed the ruthless discussion. Just before midnight they said "We can see you are a Christian, and we are Marxists." I hurried back to the Trinity main gate and got in just before I would have had to pay a heavy fine for being late.
I immediately suspected this was a very unhelpful theoretical model. I upset my tutor, John Burnaby, by writing an essay to show that Latin Mediaeval documents could be divided in exactly the same way. Did this prove that they were written two thousand years before the Bible? He warned me that if I wrote this for my final examination I would certainly fail. I admit I served up the nonsense the professor had taught and got by with a second class result.
Meanwhile I worked through the twenty contradictions the professor had listed. As I studied the accounts carefully most of the difficulties turned out to be trivial. One objection seemed to be unanswerable. "In the story of Joseph we have a combination of two traditions. In one he was sold into Egypt by Ishmaelites, in the other by Midianites (Genesis 37:25, 28, 36). Gentlemen, was Joseph sold into Egypt by Ishmaelites or was he sold into Egypt by Midianites? He obviously can't have been sold to both. These are contradictory oral traditions carelessly merged into one story."
Several months later in my devotional reading I noticed in the story of Gideon that he fought against an army of invading Midianites (Judges 6:1-8:22). But after the battle was over he asked for the earrings of the Ishmaelites who had been killed (Judges 8:24). Obviously the tribe of Midian had become identified by marriage, or by tribal alliance, with the wider grouping of the children of Ishmael who wore golden earrings. This would be comparable to Irish, Scottish, and Italian immigrants also being known as Canadians and wearing parkas in the winter. In an article on the genealogical origins of the Arabs (arabs and the bible) I point out that Jews are descended from Isaac, but Arabs from many different tribes view themselves as Bene Ishmael.
Ever since that reconciliation of what seemed to be such a blatant contradiction, I have assumed that it was God, as the ultimate Historian, who brought the Bible into being. A good history is effective in putting over a point of view, and it is also self-consistent. The Bible is certainly effective in putting over God's point of view. I also assume that the Bible is self-consistent. Which means that I view apparent contradictions as challenges to work at. And I am constantly surprised at how God has used dozens of writers, who did not know that their writing would become Scripture, to achieve such a masterpiece.
During that final year at Cambridge, as I prepared myself for overseas service, I became more and more frustrated by my lack of progress as a Christian. I didn't pray enough, or love enough, or witness effectively. I read that Philip the Evangelist was told to go down the road to Gaza, the Spirit then told him to talk to an Ethiopian riding in his chariot, and this resulted in his immediate baptism. So I decided I would look to the Holy Spirit for guidance in every big and small decision I needed to make. "Should I go to a lecture, or go and talk to someone on the street? Would it be better to miss a meal and pray? What should I wear for this occasion?" Not surprisingly I was soon reduced to total confusion.
After two or three miserable weeks I finally turned to God, and said "it can't be this complicated." The answer seemed to come immediately. "How does a loving father guide his child? Does he tell him what tie to wear, what game to play, who to talk to?" Since that day I have lived as freely as a little child making hundreds of little decisions every day without concern. From time to time with a big decision to make I have spent time talking it over with my Heavenly Father. Freed from those concerns, I can also recognize when the Holy Spirit is urging me to pray for someone, or write, make a phone call, or change direction. I am sure I get it wrong sometimes, and there have been disasters when God has stepped in to get me back on track. But at least I have enjoyed the challenge of living life to the full and without worry.
About the same time someone gave me a little booklet by David Tryon titled The Vine and the Branches. How does a branch become fruitful? Trying to produce fruit is counterproductive. All it has to do is remain connected with the tree, and let the sap do its work. Admittedly from time to time the farmer does some painful pruning. That gave me a very simple Trinitarian model to avoid anxiety about effectiveness as a Christian. I keep in touch with the Son of God. Instead of trying to improve myself, I look to the Holy Spirit to work in me and produce his fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, as in Galatians 5:22). My wife Mollie knows I could do with a lot more patience and gentleness, but I hold on to the fact that fruit is the Holy Spirit's problem not mine.
In October 1950 I went to study at Tyndale Hall in Bristol. The College was endowed by Lady Dame Violet Wills, who had inherited her money from the Wills Tobacco Company. She would visit every year, and remind us that "When I give my money to train men for the ministry I went them to know they are called to feed the sheep, not entertain the goats." I agreed with that agenda. The Principal, the Rev'd. Dodgson Sykes, had been head of the Irish Church Missions. It was an organization that measured success by how many Roman Catholics left their popish errors and became Protestants. As students we irreverently talked about going to the Vatican (the toilet). But Prin Sykes also had a sense of humour. The three houses we lived in used to raid each other from time to time as a relaxation from hard study. Our house was on three floors with a wide staircase up to the top floor where I had my room. An attack was under way, and we were pouring buckets of water down on those trying to come up. Hearing the noise the Principal came in and said "I am glad to see the men cleaning the floors."
But we also learned some other useful skills. Every week we had an examination on a book of the Bible. We began with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and then went on to Genesis and so on through to Revelation. The examination was very simple. "Which chapters do the following fifteen verses come from?" The only way to pass was by analyzing and memorizing the contents of every chapter. I am grateful I can still locate hundreds of verses, and find them immediately.
There was a bathroom on our floor, and it had a gas ring for making tea. The rule was that if you wanted to study you remained in your room and no one disturbed you. But if you wanted to discuss theology you sat around with the fellow in the bath, and argued fiercely till midnight. Over two years we discussed and clarified just about every point of Christian doctrine.
One of the students was David Pytches, who later became a Bishop in South America and then became a leading charismatic convention speaker. He decided to go to a silent monastery to get the quiet he needed to study for examinations. He told us he came into the common room and found a monk with his ear close the radio. He sat up embarrassed and explained "It is so terribly quiet around here. The only way I keep sane is by listening to Mrs. Dale's diary."
The second year the Vice-Principal was Geoffrey Bromiley. He was a brilliant teacher, and went on to Fuller Theological Seminary where he has translated most of the works of Karl Barth from German into English. Across the road to the north of the college was a huge park named The Downs. In the summer it would be packed with people walking around, and couples unashamedly making love in the bushes. We used to set up a platform, and Dr. Bromiley offered to answer questions. Very soon a huge crowd would gather around and listened very attentively for an hour. When hecklers tried to make a fool of him, he answered them seriously, "There are five points to that question : The first point is that . . . "
We were meant to do the same when we were assigned to go and take open air meetings in various parts of the city. But it wasn't as easy as it looked. One day two of us were walking back tired and very discouraged, and we decided to drop in to listen to the preacher in a small Salvation Army hall. When he gave the appeal he singled us out as obvious unbelievers. "I am sure there are two young men here who are ready to come forward to accept the Lord."
A happier occasion was in the dull old Anglican church we sometimes attended just down the road. As the preacher was droning on, his face suddenly lit up, and he began preaching with great enthusiasm. We were astonished and wondered what could have happened. The next Sunday in his sermon he said "I have been a minister for forty years. Last Sunday as I was preaching I suddenly understood what I was preaching about."
We also had to go and take services in hospitals or teach Bible classes. The boys of Bristol were said to be the most badly behaved in the country. When one student arrived for his first class with a group of twenty ruffians, he said "Let us close our eyes for prayer." When he had finished his prayer and opened his eyes, all the boys had disappeared. When he told us the sad story we said didn't you know that the Bible says "Watch and Pray."