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Robin Gibbons, Ecumenical Canon

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Thursday, October 11, 2018

Behind the scenes header image


Robin Gibbons, Honorary Ecumenical CanonEmily: Your job title is one of the strangest I’ve come across- what does it actually mean?

Robin: ‘Canons’ in this setting are the Cathedral Clergy, and there are a number of Honorary Canons who are invited to be part of the wider life of the Cathedral.

In my case I am an Eastern Rite Catholic Priest and my association with this place is twofold: I helped in the Diocese as an ecumenical partner in the Benefice of Steeple Aston, North Aston and Tackley for 20 years, and I have been involved with various Cathedral initiatives, particularly the After Eight services and as one of the Day Chaplains, who spend time with visitors in the Cathedral.

I am also the first Catholic Priest to be installed in the Cathedral since, I suppose, the Reformation period. And I like to think of myself as a kind of link with the past.

Emily: Do you think there is a kind of missional aspect to your work here?

Robin: Oh yes I do, and I feel that it is influenced by the fact that the Cathedral is a complex building and has such a complex identity: not only is it a place of regular worship but it’s also a College Chapel, the Cathedral for a Diocese, and on top of that a ‘pilgrimage space’. And it’s on the tourist trail as well.

But also there is a call to remind people of a deeper root: that the older things, which united us as Christians across the Church universal, are still there. And to testify to the fact that in journeying together, we have to learn from each other. This place has real potential for that.

Statue of St Frideswide in the Latin ChapelEmily: Would you tell us a little about your vocational journey, how that has led you here?

Robin: I was conscious early on as a boy that I wanted to be a priest but drifted away from the idea as I grew up. By the time I was sitting my O-Levels I had decided to become a barrister. But all that changed when a mentor of mine said to me ‘Why don’t you look at the Benedictines - they’d suit you.’ I think the words he actually used were ‘They’re mad’!

So I visited some monasteries and ended up at a monastery in Farnborough. I was professed [a kind of initiation ceremony involving vows] in 1973 and later trained for the priesthood, into which I was ordained in 1979. My career as a priest has been varied: I have been a parish priest, an academic priest - teaching at Heythrop College and working with the University here - and a worker priest - which meant supporting my own mission because the communities I was dealing with didn’t have the resources to.

Emily: And you’re now very much part of the team here at Christ Church. What is it, for you, that makes this place so special?

Robin: There are places where there seems to be a thinning of the veil between our life and the kingdom of heaven. The Latin Chapel of the Cathedral is a place where that veil seems to me very thin.

There is clearly something very important about this site. This place has been a site of pilgrimage and connection and fighting and reconciliation. To my mind holy places are places where everything is raw, where people are exposed to themselves – the bad as well as the good in themselves.

St Frideswide depicted in 14th century stained glassEmily: I know you’re very interested in our Patron Saint, Frideswide. What is it about her that you find so compelling?

Robin: Well the first thing to say is that I am a great believer in her. People say that she didn’t exist; they make a literal examination of the facts and dismiss the two ‘lives’ written about her. But my response to that is that you have to look at the medieval mind, the genre of hagiography [the biography of a saint] and to realise that what is happening in that genre is that they take the basic building blocks of her life which were there, and weave round it a narrative to illustrate her power and her miracles, her humility, her devotion to Christ. The literal reading isn’t as important as trying to understand what the writers of her story were saying about her.

There are questions as well over whether or not her relics are here beneath the Cathedral. I think it’s probable that she did get buried here- the layers of the story are so rich and the tale keeps appearing in so many places. But also I really believe that there is something about that site and that place that seems to suggest a presence.

Sometimes I feel people don’t know quite what to do with Frideswide – there is a slight embarrassment, an uncomfortable level of uncertainty – I like that uncertainty. As the Dean said in his interview, the church isn’t here to cover over the difficult things but to challenge them. You can’t get rid of her, you can’t silence her: she’s a reminder that in the face of difficulty or uncertainty we have to keep talking. The only way forward is to journey together.

Emily: We’re fast approaching ‘Frideswidetide’ which takes place in October, and which is a celebration of her life and her story. What would you say to people to convince them to come along to the Cathedral at this time of year?

The Shrine of St Frideswide, used in our Frideswidetide servicesRobin: I would want to remind people of what she represents. She is Oxford’s Patron Saint, the Patron Saint of town, gown, and diocese, if you like. She comes from a period long before the major divisions of Christianity, and she transcends the current arguments about women priests or bishops: she’s not about the clergy, she’s about people. She’s about community. If you’re someone seeking, upset, sick: this saint was someone who touched base with those kinds of people on the margins, and through her they had a voice.

Emily: Why is it important for us to have a Patron Saint, do you think?

Robin: We all like heroes and heroines. I think in this day and age more than ever we need people who can lift us a little out of where we are, simply because there are too many people who put themselves up on the pedestals. But here is someone who didn’t put herself on a pedestal.

If you look at her life, what comes out for me is her intense love of Christ, to do what she did in that period, to take the stance that she did: she could have been simply a name on a page as a married wife of one of the kings, but she didn’t take the easy life. And because of that choice she continues to haunt memory and place.

Emily: Thinking about our choices and callings, one final question: what one thing would you most like people to know about your place in the Cathedral?

Robin: I’d like them to know there is someone here who is consciously trying to be a priest on the margins: bridging gaps, and inhabiting what you might call the ‘grey areas’. And that’s a good thing to be. Because I can straddle, and inhabit, places of tension or confusion.

I feel my role is a reminder that the Church calls us sometimes to step out of our comfort zones. It’s not always easy, but it can be good to be uncomfortable.