The Church of England – still nowhere near honest to God

Reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity and reaching the C20th, I’ve been driven today to search for my copy of Honest to God, third impression, March 1963 – it was a best seller, reprinted twice in a month! What has happened to the inspirational wisdom of Bishop John Robinson? He wasn’t saying anything new that hadn’t been evolving in the minds of Christians for over two centuries, as Diarmaid demonstrates. But the breakthrough into public consciousness which is what Honest to God achieved has been subsumed by the reactionary culture wars in which the Church has become enmeshed – subsumed and lost.

Rather than trek to the village pub in Worton where today’s Jubilee celebrations are taking place, I’ve sat down to re-read Honest to God. The three pages of the preface have been enough to make me wonder how to reactivate in the Church of England the insights and radical questions which were so affirming of my own faith in 1963. Honest to God could be published today, and in 2012 Christian culture, could have the same devastating effect – except the majority have given up on a Christianity having been held to ransom by conservatives obsessed with narrow sexual mores and an addiction to historical theologies that were way past their sell-by date 50 years ago.

Here are substantial excerpts from the Preface to Honest to God:

“I suspect that we stand on the brink of a period in which it is going to become increasingly difficult to know what the true defence of Christian truth requires.

“I believe we are being called, over the years ahead, to far more than a restating of traditional orthodoxy in modern terms. Indeed, if our defence of the Faith is limited to this, we shall find that in all likelihood that we have lost out to all but a tiny religious remnant. A much more radical recasting, I would judge, is demanded, in the process of which the most fundamental categories of our theology – of God, of the supernatural, and of religion itself – must go into the melting.

“I am convinced there is a growing gulf between the traditional orthodox supernaturalism in which our Faith has been framed and the categories which the ‘lay’ world (for want of a better term) finds meaningful today.

“The line to which I am referring runs right through the middle of myself, although as time goes on I find there is less and less of me left, as it were, to the right of it. Thus, not infrequently, as I watch or listen to a broadcast discussion between a Christian and a humanist, I catch myself realising that most of my sympathies are on the humanist’s side. That is not in the least because my faith or commitment is in doubt, but because I share instinctively with him his (sic) inability to accept the scheme of thought and mould of religion within which alone that Faith is being offered to him. I feel he is right to rebel against it, and I am increasingly uncomfortable that ‘orthodoxy’ should be identified with it.

“My only concern here is to plead for the recognition that those who believe their share in the total apologetic task of the Church to be a radical questioning of the established ‘religious frame’ should be accepted as no less genuine and, in the long run equally necessary, defenders of the Faith.

“But I am not sanguine. I am inclined to think that the gulf must grow wider before it is bridged and that there will be an increasing alienation, both within the ranks of the Church an outside it, between those whose basic recipe is the mixture as before (however revitalised) and those who feel compelled above all to be honest wherever it may lead them.

“I am not in the least accusing of dishonesty those who find the traditional framework of metaphysics and morals entirely acceptable (I do so with a large part of myself). What dismays me is the vehemence – and at the bottom the insecurity – of those who feel that the Faith can only be defended by branding as enemies within the camp those who do not.

“I believe that there are all too uncomfortable analogies to the ecclesiastical scene of a hundred years ago, when (as we now recognise) the guardians of traditional orthodoxy all but rendered impossible the true defence of the Gospel.  When we consider the distance we have all moved since then, we can see that almost everything said from within the Church at the time has since proved too conservative. What I have tried to say, in a tentative and exploratory way, may seem to be radical, and doubtless to many heretical. The one thing of which I am fairly sure is that, in retrospect, it will be seen to have erred in not being nearly radical enough.”

Amen and amen to all that John Robinson wrote in his Preface, written when he was Bishop of Woolwich. I was transformed when I read Honest to God in 1963, with the recognition that someone else, a bishop no less, was writing about my own experience of God.

Half a century later, I feel more estranged from the Church, not because of my sexuality (the Church has a major attitude problem with LGBTI sexuality, but it’s the Church’s problem, not mine). My problem is with the way God is conceptualised by Christians. Do others, liberal, radical, orthodox, conservative, traditional, agnostic, really conceptualise God in ways that John Robinson exposed as being impossibly dated 50 years ago?


  1. AndrewKeep says

    Bishop Tom Wright wrote a fairly tight and convincing critique of Honest To God in the Journal of Anglican Studies, 2005. (google to read). However, Robinson surely had gone straight to the point as realistic, imaginative, open-hearted, courageous and inspirational. The current climate strikes as fearful, narrow and mean by contrast. Which leaves us with the bottom line:. Ubi caritas?

  2. Colin Coward says

    Andrew, Tom Wright would write a tight and convincing critique! He’s an orthodox theologian from an intelligent evangelical background and a bishop. As a bishop he’s infected with the commitment to preserve the unity, teaching tradition and much misunderstood ‘historic orthodoxy’ of the Church. This is something I am coming up against in every conversation I have with bishops – how difficult it is for them in their role to go against expectations, whether they are real or imagined, of what the role of bishop requires. This is one of the constraints that keeps the Church stuck in a position that would have seemed unimagineable to me in 1963.

    I’ve decided I need to re-read Honest to God today – I hadn’t read it since I bought my ‘3rd impression’ in March 1963. There is so much that is indeed realistic, imaginative, open-hearted, courageous and inspirational. Where is love indeed…. I’m going to finish the blog and then blog some more.

  3. Erika Baker says

    “The line to which I am referring runs right through the middle of myself, although as time goes on I find there is less and less of me left, as it were, to the right of it.”

    This is one of the key problems.
    We have to start teaching faith by telling children bible stories as literal truth. And so most people’s faith journey starts with the literal, the traditional.
    And change requires individual personal journeys where people’s conceptions slowly shift and widen. It’s a slow process and it re-starts in the heart of most people who embark on faith for the first time.

    The question would be how to get to a more “liberal” faith without those stepping stone of conservative certainty. Can it actually be taught? It is possible for the church to be different?

    Oh, it will change eventually as far as women and lgbt people are concerned. But I reckon it will include those into its fold just like it included anti slavery sentiments and the equality of all races – without losing anything of its inherent conservatism.

  4. Colin Coward says

    Erika, by chance this morning I reached p987 of Diarmaid MMacCulloch’s History of Christianity. He reports that in 1900, 55 per cent of British children attended Sunday School; 24 per cent in 1960; 9 per cent in 1980 and 4 per cent in 2000. Far fewer children are being taught Bible stories now, whether as literal truth or myth. One of the foundational sources of Biblical fundamentalism has almost disappeared.

    There are those who mourn the decline of Sunday Schools and the loss for children of a basic introduction to the Bible and Christianity. The advantage of the decline in Sunday School attendance is that fewer people have internalised the Bible as literal truth. The disadvantage, many have no introduction to Christianity as a faith which can liberate and inspire.

    The inherent conservatism of an institution won’t go away either, but I fervently believe it’s possible for the Church to be different and that’s another lesson drawn from Diarmaid’s book.

    I think it is perfectly possible to get to a more ‘liberal’ faith without conservative stepping stones. Children are naturally open and spiritual, before conservative Christians get to them. The problem is that Christians are very uncertain about what in their core they really experience of God, and may therefore teach children more superficial fundamentals but are ill at ease communicating a passion for being Christlike and following a path of inspirational relationship with the holy.

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