Yesterday I sat and re-read Honest to God while I had one eye on the Queen’s Jubilee Service in St Paul’s Cathedral (and an ear for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon). There was the Church of England doing what it does so well, providing a context of great dignity, solemnity and beauty in which the Queen’s Jubilee could be affirmed and celebrated. It wasn’t what Bishop John Robinson had in mind when he published Honest to God (HtG) in 1963.
He saw himself as describing, to quote the book jacket: “A revolution questioning the entire ‘religious frame’ in which Christianity has hitherto been offered. It will be seen to have erred in not being radical enough.”
I’ve been thinking I should re-read HtG for some months. I thought it might provide some clues as to why I still maintain such a strong commitment to Christianity when I am a gay priest campaigning for change, truth and justice in the Church of England, and feeling constantly frustrated. I was inspired in my faith by the people I read and met in the 1960s in the Diocese of Southwark. Their take on the faith continues to fuel my spirituality and campaigning zeal.
The publication of HtG sparked a furore. It was a radical moment for the Church, because a Bishop dared to write truthfully about faith. David Jenkins provoked outrage as bishop of Durham for doing the same thing somewhat later. Now, most bishops seem to be scared of talking truthfully about what they believe, with a very few honourable exceptions.
What John Robinson wrote wasn’t really all that radical, in truth. He was building on the work of Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Alec Vidler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Buber, Julian Huxley, George MacLeod and others. The theological ideas HtG placed in the public domain were the product of over two centuries of development.
In Letter and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer asked whether the previous 1,900 years of Christian preaching and theology had been based on a ‘religious premise’ of humankind which may no longer exist because it was an historical and temporary form of self-expression. We may be reaching a stage, he wrote, of being radically without religion when a linchpin had been removed from the whole structure of Christianity to date.
Robinson wrote: “What looks like being required of us, reluctant as we may be for the effort involved, is a radically new mould, or meta-morphosis, of Christian belief and practice.” It will, he thought, leave the fundamental truth of the Gospel unaffected. “But it means that we have to be prepared for everything to go into the melting – even our most cherished religious categories and moral absolutes. And the first thing we must be prepared to let go of is our image of God himself.”
The Christian gospel is in perpetual conflict with the images of God set up in our minds, even of Christians, as we seek in each generation to encompass his meaning. These images focus the unknowable, enclose the inexhaustible, so that we have something on which to fix our imagination and prayers. But as soon as they become a substitute for God then we have a new idolatry.
I think this is the situation into which Christianity has evolved in the past 50 years, in reaction to the anxiety of having what people thought were secure images of God removed – we now live with pluriform idolatries. We live in an age of Christian (and general) idolatry, idolatry which comes in many guises:
- Nostalgic addiction to the past and the safety of what we grew up with – the Latin Mass, 1662 Book of Common Prayer, ‘the plain meaning of scripture’, the clear teaching of our Lord’.
- Success-oriented Christianity and the prosperity gospel which originated in the USA and is now a widespread infection across Africa and in places like South Korea.
- Power-oriented Christianity, related to the above, where Jesus is Lord and King and God is the all-powerful ruler who can transform lives by miracle or magic.
- Historicism and the need, in the UK especially, to preserve the past and maintain historic buildings, a task which consumes time, money and energy.
- Fundamentalism, Biblical orthodoxy and conservative evangelicalism which habitually enmesh adults in a state of adolescent dependence. This idolatry is a source of intense hostility to the full inclusion of LGB&T people in the Church.
- A competitive market between churches, prevalent across the USA and Africa.
- Superstition, related to the competitive market and the prosperity gospel – our church will heal you more successfully and bring you more wealth more quickly than church X or Y.
John Robinson was among many Christian teachers and leaders who inspired me with a vision of being a Christian in my youth. They articulated a Christianity which could be deeply true and truthful, passionate, creative and alive to the infinite presence of God in creation. It sems to have been consigned to a niche market for a small minority in the Church now.
In the 1960s, the phrases which reverberated were:
- The Ground of our Being
- A depth at the centre of life
- The infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being (Tillich)
- The beyond in the midst
- A deeper immersion in existence
- Ultimate, unconditional human life (Bultmann)
These resonant phrases grew from the traumatic experiences of those who lived through the first and second world wars and the inter-war years. We have moved into a world which is far more comfortable for many and to which those living in poverty aspire. These are the conditions of life which fuel today’s major patterns of Christianity.
There is no ‘market’ for the more profound images and ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich. I suspect those Christians and seekers after truth who reject market idolatries are left with existential questions about the character of God and a search for images and metaphors which are elusive.
The dominant forms of Christian life and witness, globally, continue to prey on people’s guilt, superstitions and unhealthy obsessions, sexuality being among them. They still project hopes and fears onto an externalised God who is other, out there. Constructs of God as ruler and king, partisan and judgmental, prevail.
This is the context in which Changing Attitude and many other LGBTI organisations campaign for a healthy, adult recognition of the varieties of sexuality and gender identities which are a natural part of the created order. It’s challenging!