If he had taken the route of the traditional younger son, Robin Griffith-Jones, the Master of the Temple at the Temple Church, would by now be a Silk, no doubt having first gone to Eton and Trinity Hall. His father, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who had been part of the prosecution team at Nuremburg, spent 30 years at the Old Bailey, and at the culmination of his career was Common Serjeant. He is still remembered today for his comment to the jury in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial about the sort of book a man leaves lying about the house; nearly half a century later it has—in a traditional English way—become a frequently dusted off family anecdote. Neither Griffith-Jones son in fact went to the Bar. At least Robin’s umbrella still has the brass name-band around its handle that it had 60 years ago when it was his father’s: “Griffith-Jones, Temple”.
Brought up in London, Robin went to school at Westminster and then read Honour Mods, Maths and Philosophy at New College, Oxford. Having now been trained for no profession but possessing like his father (a fine and oft-exhibited artist) a love of pictures, he began work in the English drawings and water colours department of Christie’s. More serious concerns beckoned. From 1984 to 1986 he worked with Mother Theresa’s Sisters in Calcutta and, back in England, with the long-term homeless at St Martins in the Fields.
After studying at Westcott House and taking his theology degree at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he was ordained a deacon in 1989 and priest in 1990. His first post was as a curate on Cantril Farm, an outer Liverpool housing estate. He speaks warmly of the kindness and generosity of his Scouser parishioners. But he freely admits that he must have been “something of a fish out of water”. In 1992 he moved on to become Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford, where he taught theology and began to develop his work as a serious New Testament scholar working in the main from the earliest Greek texts.
A royal connection
In 1999 he applied to be Master of the Temple Church, what he describes as “the best job in the Church of England”. He recalls being interviewed by the Church Committee of the two Inns – essentially the Parochial Church Council – which appeared to consist almost exclusively of very senior lawyers all wearing the same type of slightly old fashioned suit as himself. (His own was of course another inherited item, this time from his uncle Judge Sam Morton of Knightsbridge Crown Court.) They recommended his appointment to Downing Street who passed it on to the Palace. As the Temple Church “has the status of a Royal Peculiar” the formal appointment is made by the monarch and the Dean of the Chapels Royal, currently Richard Chartres the Bishop of London, who represents the Queen in lieu of a Diocesan Bishop. Thanks to this royal “connection” the Master and choir have, since the coronation of George VI in 1937, been allowed to wear cassocks in royal scarlet.
As Master, Robin is responsible for one of the great ecclesiastical buildings. He is also given the privilege of living in one of the most extraordinary houses in the City of London. Re-built after the blitz to accommodate a family of a size one associates with a Trollopean parsonage, the top floors have now been given over to the offices of the Church itself and of the Temple Music Foundation, which organises the many concerts which in turn help to support the Choir. Since 1840 the Church has been home to a great musical tradition and to one of the truly great choirs, as fine as those at St Paul’s and at both Westminster Abbey and Cathedral. He has a very loyal and very distinguished congregation. One of his innovations has been to start a Sunday school for the children of Temple tenants (both residential and professional) and for the siblings of the choristers, with barristers as the Sunday school teachers. In addition to services, there are weddings and christenings nearly every week and a memorial service perhaps most months. On the really big occasions – Remembrance Sunday and the Christmas Carol Services – the church is packed.
The Temple Church is one of the few in London to use the 1662 Prayer Book and the 1950 Hymns Ancient and Modern for their main service, Sunday Matins. Robin describes it as a choral service of “cathedral 1920s style”. Robin’s services must be very similar to those my father conducted in Oxfordshire villages over 60 years ago. He certainly counts both Tyndale and Cranmer amongst his heroes. However on the great issues currently dividing his Church – women bishops, gay priests – he rejects revolution but he clearly accepts the possibility of evolution. He believes in the vital importance of respecting the sincerely held and seriously expressed views of others. He prefers quiet civilised conversations to noisy forensic debates. And he is probably all the more influential for that. The Church continues to be a venue for debate, including a series on the role of Sharia law in England; there was nothing too quiet or civilised in the furore that followed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture launching the series, but the discussions have carried on since, with great success.
The west end of the Temple Church is one of only four “round churches” surviving in England. It recreates the sanctity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was consecrated by Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1185, and the Chancel was added between 1235 and 1240. Terribly damaged in an incendiary raid in May 1941 it was most beautifully restored after the war, and rededicated in 1958. Last year the two Temples celebrated the quartercentenary of the King James Letters Patent (re-presented by the Queen at a service at the Church) which stipulated that the Inns “shall serve for the accommodation and education of those studying and following the profession of the law, abiding in the Inns, for all time to come”. In return for these undertakings, and for maintaining the Church and its Master, the Inns were granted the Temple in perpetuity. They are required to provide the Master with a “mansion” and a stipend of 26 Marks (£17-6-8d) a year. It has – so far – regularly been uplifted for inflation.
Robin’s first “term of office” ends in 2009 but one hopes that he will continue to serve. The Choir goes from strength to strength. The 2008 Festival was focused very largely on the Church, and this year it is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn. Improvements to the fabric of the Church include the 2008 Charter window, and new lighting throughout the building.
Fortunately Robin has also pursued his research and distinguished writing. His publications include The Four Witnesses (2000), The Gospel According to Saint Paul (2004), and Mary Magdalene: The Woman whom Jesus loved (2008). He is currently co-writing and co-editing, with the Courtauld Institute, a volume of lectures on the Temple Church from the 12th to the 20th Century. He also wrote The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple (2006) in response to all the tourists who had read Dan Brown’s book and wanted to see where it had “really happened”.
Both the Inner and the Middle Temples have elected Robin an honorary Bencher. Although he did not choose to become a barrister, he has come as close as anyone to being part of the Bar. Even for a theologian that could be a bit of heaven.
Martin Bowley QC