William Strowan Amherst Robertson (1894-1957) was one of the pioneers of the Franciscan movement in the Anglican Church. He was “darling Strowan” to his mother, but everyone else knew him as “Algy”, a nickname of early and obscure origin. It fitted him admirably: small, refined, expensively dapper, he could have come from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse. A darting, mercurial figure, always the centre of a humming circle of friends, young and old, he found willing accomplices in his plots and parties.
In later life, chronically ill, his dumpy little figure, exaggerated by layers of clothing in which were stuffed books and bottles of medicine, he might have been merely comic – until you met his eyes. Deeply penetrating and sympathetic, they seemed to demand the friendship that was bound to follow. Friendship was the factor that fashioned his life, and it spoke to others of a deeper love of God. As a boy at Westminster, and undergraduate at Cambridge, a missionary in India and, most significantly in the creation of a religious order, unconditional love after the example of Jesus, seemed to motivate his life.
Algy had an irresistible urge to organise everything and everybody, yet he understood the frailty of human nature. He was always gentle. With a kindly laugh and twinkling eyes, he kept everything in perspective. He was always in a hurry, always late. It is said that, when he died, he left a string of broken engagements and unbroken love. He never gave up on anything or anyone.
To his mother’s evangelical enthusiasm Algy added his own version of Anglo-Catholicism. He delighted in the great evangelical hymns, but also in devotion to the Sacred Heart or the Cure D’Ars. Inspired by the great socialist Anglo-catholic apologists, he was always tortured by a guilty sense of his own privileged, upper middle class origin. The Student Christian Movement gave him a deep concern for Christian unity. The Oxford Group led him in the way of openness and the Quakers taught him to be silent – or almost! In India he learned respect for Eastern faiths and, when Ghandi was shot, he declared a day of mourning at the Friary.
Algy was one of the most effective preachers of his day. On one occasion in Cambridge, he preached for forty minutes to a packed city congregation, hanging on every word, his delicate little hands emphasising with sharp gestures. No word was wasted, every point was made with clarity and challenge.
Central in Algy’s later life was his role was spiritual director. With loving understanding and infinite compassion, knowing his own share of weakness, with innate courtesy and endless patience. Wherever he went it seemed as though the whole world wanted his counsel. On his visits to Pusey House, as time was never concern, the collection of waiting people in libraries and offices would grow longer, even wondering if they had been forgotten.
Toward the end of his life Algy would be counselling and hearing confessions while he lay on his bed. His brothers remember him in his tiny room, books covering shelves, the floor and his bed covered with blankets and his old cloak. There might be several brothers squeezed in while he talked to one, dictated a letter to another, was being read to by a third. Another would be answering the phone. Others would be waiting in the passage or on the stairs outside, waiting their turn to see him, to be treated as though each one was the only person present. This might seem a sentimental picture of the little man, so we must place it beside his accurate, exact and almost ruthless insight. He could see through falsehood, fiction and fantasy with frightening penetration.
In the surrender of his personality, unconsciously, unreservedly and without design, Algy could be used by God to a rare degree. God used his wit, his wisdom, his experiences – good and bad; used his eccentricities, his illness, his reckless abandonment to human love; used his charm, his delight in poetry, music, art, literature – beauty of all kinds; used his prayer and his pain. Algy spent himself too soon, but, in doing so, brought many sons and daughters to glory.
Edited version of a sermon in Pusey House Chapel, Oxford in 1978