Sonorous Hebrew poetry and the skirl of highland pipes were cameo moments at the memorial service for Robert Anderson. Although born in Clifton (Queensland), Prof Anderson was intensely proud of his Scots ancestry and of his Edinburgh wife Jean (née Beveridge) whom he married in 1956.
After four years as a cadet midshipman in naval college, Robert qualified as a civil engineer. But he felt an irresistible tug to ordained ministry in the Presbyterian tradition. So began seven years in Edinburgh, where he flourished as a linguist and interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).
Although not a native-born Scot, Robert could be more Scots than many (he enjoyed his Scotch), and it was appropriate that his coffin be escorted from St Aidan’s Church, North Balwyn, to ‘Loch Lomond’ played by a piper.
It was also appropriate that a psalm should be read in Hebrew (and in English) by Rabbi Dr John Levi, a long-time friend and co-worker in building bridges between Jews and Christians. Robert was a co-founder of the Council of Christians and Jews, and consistent critic of his own faith tradition for its antisemitism, contempt for Jews and Judaism, ‘supercessionism’ (Christianity had replaced Judaism), and its complicity in the Holocaust. He taught that Christianity had much of which to be ashamed.
Robert was held in high esteem by Australian Jews and viewed with suspicion by some of his own community. In his memoirs he wrote: “I often felt that I had greater acceptance within certain sections of the Jewish community than within my own church.”
He was often in Asia, making connections with churches and theologians there, and was an early and vocal critic of human rights abuses in South Africa.
Strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, he and wife Jean sheltered a draft resister. As a professor of Scripture Robert invariably showed his students how the Hebrew prophets were addressing them as much as their own people.
It had been his unequivocally ‘leftist’ views, and his desire to teach a grown-up approach to Scripture that almost brought him undone in Queensland.
After a short incumbency as parish minister in Proserpine (QLD) following his return from Edinburgh, Robert spent three years as Professor of Old Testament with Emmanuel College, Brisbane. But he came increasingly under criticism from conservative elements, and was tempted to return to Scotland.
A timely intervention by Davis McCaughey brought him to Melbourne to a similar post and, shortly thereafter, to become Principal of the Presbyterian Theological Hall. When the Uniting Church was formed in 1977, he was a popular choice for first principal of the new UCA Theological Hall.
When he retired in 1993, Robert had received sundry honours: among them, honorary Fellow of the Melbourne College of Divinity, B’nai B’rith Australia Raoul Wallenberg Award for Humanitarian Services, and Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) for humanitarian services.
After a spell at Shoreham, he and Jean moved back to Melbourne. He had begun a battle with Parkinson’s disease and cancer and in 2010 a series of mishaps found him and Jean taking up residence with Lynden Aged Care, Camberwell. He died peacefully on 3 March, aged 85.
He is survived by Jean, son Robert and daughter Moira, grandson Daniel and granddaughter Isabel.
The funeral was conducted by his former student and subsequent minister, Dr Lorraine Parkinson.
Tributes came from his long-time friend and colleague Dr John Bodycomb, from his son and daughter, and from Rabbi John Levi, who concluded his statement with the Hebrew words Zecher tsaddik livrachah, “the memory of a righteous person brings blessing”.
By Rev Dr John Bodycomb