Hubert James Ryburn was born in Gisborne on 19 April 1897, the son of Robert Middleton Ryburn and his wife, Anna Jane Steadman. His great-grandparents, who came to New Zealand in 1826, were James Hamlin, a Church Missionary Society missionary, and his wife, Elizabeth Osborne. The Hamlins’ eldest daughter, Sophia Middleton, married Robert McNair Ryburn, a Presbyterian, and two of their sons and four of their grandsons, including Hubert and his father, became Presbyterian ministers.
Hubert Ryburn was educated at Wanganui Boys’ District High School and then Southland Boys’ High School, where he was dux in 1915. His study at the University of Otago was interrupted by active war service from 1917 to 1919, with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment. An able sportsman, he had represented his high school in rugby and captained the Otago hockey team in 1920. Ryburn graduated MA in mathematics in 1921 and was elected a Rhodes scholar. He graduated BA from the University of Oxford in 1923 (and was to be awarded his MA in 1958). After two years’ studying theology at the Union Theological Seminary, New York, he gained a bachelor of divinity.
After a brief period as a ‘bush parson’ in a remote area of Canada, Ryburn returned to New Zealand. He was ordained on 17 August 1926 and inducted into the Bay of Islands parish, living at Kaikohe. In 1929 he was called to be minister of St Andrew’s parish in Dunedin. His preaching was distinguished by its scholarship and lucidity and attracted many students to his church. The parish had a notable tradition of social work dating from the ministry of Rutherford Waddell, and during the depression years Ryburn worked with the deaconess, Sister Annie Cooke, in alleviating social distress. On 24 March 1931 at Dunedin he married Jocelyn Maud Dunlop, whose father and paternal grandfather were Presbyterian ministers. The couple were to have four children.
Ryburn’s ministry among students expanded nationally through the New Zealand Student Christian Movement (SCM) in the 1930s. In 1937 he was released from his parish for nine weeks to undertake missions in the university colleges. He wrote study books for SCM conferences and was a regular contributor to their publication, the Student. He also wrote in this period for Open Windows and the Outlook. Ryburn displayed a clear liberal grasp of contemporary developments in critical biblical and theological scholarship. Within church circles he challenged what he saw as hypocrisy and woolly thinking on issues such as prohibition and conversion.
In 1941 Ryburn became master of Knox College, Dunedin. The college housed the theological hall of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand and also provided accommodation for university students. Ryburn maintained high ideals for the halls of residence, fostering Christian and scholarly influences in a community context in which the students’ educational, social and moral needs could be met. ‘Rye’, as the students called him, maintained strict discipline, and while he could seem stern and distant to students, he had a keen if dry sense of humour. In his weekly chapel sermons he strove to provide an intellectually credible theology. He encouraged students to develop a sense of vocation and ‘the spirit of service’. Through the establishment of a senior common room in 1959 he cultivated a strong ethos of academic leadership.
After the death of John Dickie in 1942, Ryburn acted as lecturer in systematic theology for 18 months, reflecting the influence of Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr in his teaching. He also served as honorary librarian and convened the Knox College library committee. Ryburn supervised considerable extensions to the college including the erection of the theological hall block, completed in 1955, which included excellent library facilities. Within the Presbyterian church he convened a number of committees but he was not greatly enamoured of church politics.
Ryburn was deeply involved in the administration of the University of Otago. He was a member of the university council from 1946 to 1971, pro-chancellor from 1953 to 1955, chancellor from 1955 to 1970 and a representative on the Senate of the University of New Zealand until its abolition in 1961. He became an important advocate for more halls of residences in universities and was the foundation president of the New Zealand association of heads of colleges and halls. His acute judgement and commitment to the ideals of the university served Otago well during a period of transition and expansion. In 1959 he was made a CMG for his contribution to education and in 1962 the university conferred on him an honorary LLD.
Retiring as master of Knox College in 1963, Ryburn undertook extensive research on his forebear, James Hamlin, and in 1979 published his biography entitled Te Hemara. Ryburn’s wife, Jocelyn, was active in the community. In 1957 she was elected dominion president of the Plunket Society and she was a member of the board of governors of Columba College. She became warden of St Margaret’s College in 1964, and in 1970 she was made an OBE. She died following an accidental fall in 1980. On 11 May 1981, at Dunedin, Hubert Ryburn married Isabella (Ella) Paterson, the retired former matron at both Knox and St Margaret’s colleges. Hubert died in Dunedin on 30 June 1988, survived by Isabella and two sons and two daughters from his first marriage.
The fifth Presbyterian minister to serve as chancellor of the University of Otago, Ryburn believed that ‘the Church need[s] the University to enlarge its vision, to open its windows to the fresh air of truth and to dispel superstition. The University needs the Church to create community life, to instil a sense of social responsibility and to keep it humble’.