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