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The best policy — for a theological shake-up

26 April 2013

Honest to God, by John Robinson, then Bishop of Woolwich, made waves when it was published in 1963. Its call to abandon traditional images of God met with both enthusiasm and animosity. Fifty years on, Mark Vernon asks how the book has changed the theological landscape

Undercover: the book that caused a stir

Undercover: the book that caused a stir

THEOLOGIANS from across the spectrum of English Anglicanism show striking agreement about the significance of John Robinson's surprise bestseller. I have spoken to men and women, Evangelical and Catholic, some more biblically inclined, and others more philosophical.

Broadly, they concur that in a sense Robinson was right then, and now: English Christianity must recapture the contemporary imagination. It is not simply that the Established Church is too often judged to be out of touch on headline social issues, though it is. More damagingly, the God with whom that Church appears to commune is just not that interesting.

This is not to say that the book was a great work of theology. Its main tenets are easily critiqued. Rather, its value was performative. It seemed to say: "Do theology for yourselves. You will discover a Deity worth living by."

Many found Honest To God a thrilling, liberating read. On occasion, it inspired a career. "It was the first theology book that I read, at the age of 12," Sarah Coakley says. She is now Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. "I'm sure I didn't understand it. But it made me want to read theology."

Robinson became her supervisor as an undergraduate. "He was a brilliant educator, in the sense of forming people," she says. "He kept asking us students: 'Why is this important?' 'What matters now?'" Professor Coakley also notes that this concern extended far beyond the walls of Academe: "He answered every letter he received after the book was published. He was for a thinking Church."

THAT said, the type of theology that Robinson himself advocated does not seem to have inspired people. The reason was nailed by N. T. Wright, in an essay on the book published at the time of its 40th anniversary. Dr Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, believes that Robinson was in thrall to a deistic view of God that stems from the Enlightenment.

"God became an absentee landlord who allowed the tenants pretty much free rein to explore and run the house," he wrote. "As we know, the absentee landlord quickly became an absentee."

The author of the forthcoming Reinventing Liberal Christianity, Theo Hobson, says: "Robinson was motivated by anxiety at the prospect of a mass exodus from the Church of England. He wanted to keep sceptics within the fold, to tell them that their attraction to the moral- ity of Jesus mattered more than their difficulties with traditional belief."

The strategy did not work. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams pointed out in an essay, also to mark the book's 40th anniversary, it unwittingly confirmed that Robinson's type of Christianity hardly differed from the practice, experience, and even beliefs of any sensitive liberal. Perhaps this is the reason why church attendance has declined in the half-century since.

The numbers of ordinands dropped dramatically, from 636 in 1963 to 273 in 1976, Adrian Hastings writes in A History of English Christianity.

And yet the book sold; so it seems reasonable to conclude that people did not stop feeling the draw of exciting theology. Rather, many stopped feeling that the Church was a place in which to pursue their religious intuitions and needs. If that is our predicament, then what can be done? Here, the theologians differ.

PROFESSOR COAKLEY suggests that releasing people to develop what they think about God, theology, and ethics, was, and still is, deeply subversive. "The clergy froze. Bishops were disdainful," she says. "And we are still struggling with a yawning gap between the hierarchy and the people.

"Robinson had a deep sense that the right way forward would emerge from the base. It is an instinct that has got a bit lost. It needs refocusing, because it is where the spiritual vitality of the future will be found."

The possibility that churchgoing has become decoupled from the sources of spiritual inspiration is supported by research. Professor Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion and Professor at Lancaster University, points out that the truly massive religious bestsellers - the ones that keep selling, and shift units in the tens of millions - are books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis; The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho; and Steps to Christ, by Ellen G. White (one of the founders of Seventh-day Adventism). They offer images, stories, and rituals that go beyond the merely cerebral.

Honest to God was right in so far as it told its readers that they could explore theologically, too. You need not be a don or a cleric. "It caught the wave of a popular kind of spirituality that empowers the individual, and has grown massively over the last 50 years," Professor Woodhead says. "The movement is fragmented, but can be characterised as ritually experimental and personal, in the sense of wondering how to live life more fully. More people do now believe in God as a spirit or life force than in what Robinson called a personal God 'out there'."

But what the Church of Eng- land, in particular, has found it hard to do is to integrate new symbols and ritual practices that ground this understanding. "As a consequence, many who follow this new spiritual pathway have left the church in order to do so," Professor Woodhead says.

TO PUT it another way, a gap has opened up between popular spirituality and Christian practice. Making links between the two, so that people do not assume that one excludes the other, is precisely the challenge, John Milbank, Professor of Religion, Politics, and Ethics at Nottingham University, says.

It has been done before, when the Celtic missionaries built churches on pagan sites, or when the medieval church nurtured abundant ecosystems of saints and spiritual beings. "The Church has failed to attend to popular yearnings," Professor Milbank says. "It has followed a secularising agenda that turns Christianity into a trite moral system, simultaneously making the practice of faith seem dreary and boring."

The tragedy is that people today clearly sense that the material world has been drained of the spiritual. You see it in the popularity of pilgrimages, New Age festivals, and the appreciation of nature.

"It is striking that a kind of remythologisation has been going on while church attendance has been declining," Professor Milbank says. "Instead of Christian minimalism, which doubts everything from angels to the creeds, I'd argue for a Christian maximalism that proposes nothing less than cosmic transformation." This might connect with people's sense of the miraculousness of existence, he says. "Rather than offering a thinned-down moralism, it sug-gests a way back to the full richness of what the Christian tradition offers."

A FREELANCE writer and lecturer in biblical studies, Dr Paula Gooder, suggests something similar in the realm of reading religious texts. She argues that the agenda that shaped Honest to God - worrying about the historicity of miracles and accounts of the resurrection - is still around.

"Contemporary conversations between atheists and believing scientists take us back to that world," she says. "It's important. But many today would say that that is just not where they are. What grips these people is what biblical texts can mean to us, and how, in that way, we can believe."

Consequently, when she teaches, Dr Gooder keeps the insights of critical scholarship in mind, but does not let them set the agenda. Instead, they are put in the service of an engagement between the texts and the questing that invigorates people's sense of being alive. "My guess is that people are often drawn to faith out of an experience of the love of God. So what you can objectively prove, or give evidence for, is not ultimately that convincing," she says.

Currently there is a serious critique of the individual spiritual quest, the practices of the New Age, and the tendency to judge theology by whether it speaks to someone's personal life. In a word, narcissism.

Therefore, it is argued, people do not come to church because they feel awkward about community and belonging. They prefer peak experiences to discipline and commitment. They can even be accused of being "functionally atheistic", because the gods they pursue look strikingly like polished versions of them, in the sky.

THERE are spiritual risks in getting rid of traditional images of God. In their place, we may erect idols. The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward is the Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral and author of a new book, Why Rousseau was Wrong: Christianity and the secular soul. "I don't quite trust myself to the task," she says, having at one time been influenced by critiques of old conceptions of the divine. She now feels that such questioning misses a crucial point.

"I realise now that I need the traditions of the Church to gain a sense of place, discipline, and of something bigger than the concerns I can comprehend. That is partly about revitalising liturgies so that people can relate to them again. But it is also about situating myself within them, and allowing them to question me."

Paradoxically, the spiritual questing of the individual demands letting go of the very individualism that today so commonly drives it. "And where can you find a corporate ground of being, if not in church?" Dr Ward asks.

A similar point was made by Lord Williams in his anniversary essay. He noted that Robinson emphasised the importance of living for others in Christian ethics. For him, this was the meaning of the life of Jesus. But, whereas Robinson commended such a way of life be- cause of the intensity of the love it reveals, Lord Williams is more blunt: focusing on others, not on ourselves, is the only way to overcome narcissism. Only then can the self be released from its desire to be told that it is good. That is why, he says, Christianity stands for a radical transformation of what it means to be human.

Something similar goes for the Church, too, the Vicar of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, Canon Sam Wells, suggests. In an article for the journal Modern Believing, he recalled Jesus's observation that the poor would always be with his disciples, and interprets that to mean that the disciples would always be with the poor, if they were to follow Jesus.

Ethical radicalism, therefore, "means spending time with the people with whom Jesus spent his time", he wrote. He explained to me that the poor were a gift to the Church, because they might teach those Christians who were used to being relatively self-sufficient, and independent, what it meant to be vulnerable and dependent.

Such an awareness, Canon Wells, says, might transform the Church, because, in truth, it characterises our relationship with God. So the poor might teach the Church more useful things than big business can, with its organisational skills; or political managers, with their ability to control opposing factions.

That must be the case. And yet I have sympathy for the popular questing. It feels as if that is where religious vitality is to be found. The concern for social justice often comes across as driven by an odd mix of guilt and relief that Christianity can still speak with bite and relevance. Then again, perhaps the truth is that the spiritual and the ethical need each other.

In his address to the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops last year, Lord Williams emphasised that the Church looked as "anxious, busy, competitive, and controlling" as any other human institution - that is, as narcissistic - when Christians failed "to scrutinise and to relativise the cravings and fantasies that arise in me".

He also explained, however, how this attention to our shadow side was best inspired by the kind of self-forgetting that the spiritual quest promised. At its best, its contemplative urges - its sense of the miraculous, the unsettling, the wholly other - could in time draw the gaze away from the self and towards the divine. Only then did Christianity's uncompromising ethical demands stop feeling overbearing. Instead, they became the joyful fruits of deep spiritual roots.

Perhaps, in time, Christian belief and practice might once again no longer seem irrelevant, if not opposed, to popular religious yearnings and instincts. Instead, it might transform and liberate the spiritual imagination with which Honest to God so dramatically resonated.

Mark Vernon's latest book is Love: All that matters (Hodder Education). He joins a panel of guests to discuss the significance of Robinson's book at an event to mark its anniversary, "Honest to God at 50", at 7 p.m on 29 April 2013 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London: admission free.

Honest to God by John Robinson is published by SCM Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £9.99); 978-0-334-04733-9).

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