Christian Radicalism in the Church of England and the Invention of the British Sixties, by Sam Brewitt-Taylor

by
01 March 2019

Peter Selby considers how much really flowed from the South Bank

TWO years after Honest to God appeared, I was delighted to be chosen to go and fetch John Robinson from Boston airport to give a lecture at the seminary where I was studying. That week’s Church Times had carried the breaking news of a dramatic fall in the number of ordinands; I was shocked. Once we were in the car, I couldn’t wait to ask Robinson what the news meant. “Just part of the process of secularisation,” was his disturbingly bland reply; it hardly alleviated my anxiety about returning to England for my ordination.

More than 50 years later, Sam Brewitt-Taylor has mounted a strong challenge to the view that the “British Sixties” were the outcome of a well-established “process of secularisation”. Rather, he marshals a formidable array of evidence that it was “radical Christians”, especially within the Church of England, whose writings and actions inspired the cultural shift of the Sixties, with dramatic effects on religious and moral attitudes in the Churches and wider society.

Brewitt-Taylor writes as a historian about a period of which readers still alive will have their own powerful memories. Having lived through “the British Sixties”, we are likely to be sure that we remember what they were like, what caused them, how they turned out, and what their significance is for the present. This Oxford Historical Monograph is, therefore, an important work, both for those who were around at the time and are willing to have their cherished memories and interpretations challenged, and equally for others in the Church and the academic world who were not around then and are keen to understand the Sixties’ theological and cultural legacy.

The introduction lays out Brewitt-Taylor’s central challenge, contesting the idea that a tendency towards secularisation had became firmly established after the Second World War. He points out that, even in the late 1950s, Christianity still had a central place in British culture as a source of morality and social attitudes, and that, therefore, what happened in the 1960s cannot be described as simply the continuation of a steady process. Instead, he argues that “the Sixties” represented an “invented revolution”, caused by the coming together at that time of two ingredients.

The first was a pervasive sense of crisis, specifically the crisis of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The crisis of the Second World War had provided the impetus towards the development of an earlier radical theology, associated with such well-known figures as Alec Vidler, Ronald Gregor Smith, William Temple, John Wren-Lewis, and J. H. Oldham, along with the reception in Britain from the late 1940s onwards of some key German theologians, in particular Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; the response to the crisis of the Cold War continued the tradition of a theological response to crisis.

Central Press PhotosCommuters on London Bridge in a photo used for the cover of Spirituality Today, the report of the 1967 Parish and People conference

Second, although the sense of crisis was what prepared the way for “radical theology”, it was individuals such as John Robinson, Nick Stacey, and Douglas Rhymes, and organisations seeking to bring about change, for example the Student Christian Movement and Parish and People, who were the inventors and promoters of what became “the British Sixties”. These “radical theologians”, animated by their sense of crisis, had a strong eschatological focus; so the remaining chapters explore the constituents of their hope of a world transformed: the hope for Christian unity, of the transcending of “religion”, of escaping human authority, and of revolutions of love and social justice, all key elements of the “British Sixties”.

This account is remarkable for the scope of its bibliography, including fascinating gleanings from interviews and articles, as well as papers and letters from private collections. At the same time, the book is impressively readable and accessible, making its case with force and clarity.

How, then, might readers whose view of “the British Sixties” comes from having lived through that time, from imbibing the preaching and the teaching of “radical theology”, or from being involved in various ways in some of the practical initiatives that flowed from it assess Brewitt-Taylor’s argument? Would those of us who are still around agree with the author about that period and its legacy?

Despite the huge collection of primary and secondary sources which forms his evidence, such readers may regret that, inevitably, the tone and content of thousands of unrecorded conversations, group discussions, and pastoral and other initiatives that belonged to the period, and in which they will have taken a personal part, are absent from his narrative.

In thinking of the legacy of the Sixties, they may judge that those unrecorded experiences played a larger part in their lives than the big names, the celebrated books, and the public turmoil that are the focus of his account; they are “legacy”, too, the legacy of lives deeply affected by the exploration of new horizons. And it is a significant gap that, while the work of industrial mission is mentioned, other powerful, more personal, initiatives, such as pastoral care and counselling groups, are not.

Is the author right to attach so much weight to the impact of crisis on the thinking of that time? There had, after all, been other “crisis theologies” before: astonishingly, Karl Barth, whose influence was massive, passes unmentioned, as do Tillich’s earlier response to the European crisis, The Socialist Decision, and V. A. Demant’s prophetic The Religious Prospect. Why did those to whom he attributes “the British Sixties” take such a different direction?

There is also a puzzling lack of evidence for his core assertion (Features, 4 January) that it is the cultural fallout of the hydrogen bomb which is still very much with us today. Certainly, the Cuban missile crisis frightened us all, but little evidence is offered of its part in creating radical theology.

As one involved in some of the initiatives of the time, particularly in the diocese of Southwark, which was in so many ways a crucible of the new thinking, I was surprised to read that what we were involved in was responsible for such a lasting cultural shift. The conflicts, lost reputations and careers, and the often intense anger unleashed by the new thinking hardly encouraged the expectation that such a positive shift would be its legacy.

Still, the book caused me to reassess my recollections, and may cause others to do so. It begins with Charley’s prophecy from Susan Howatch’s novel Scandalous Risks: “In twenty-five years’ time . . . radical theology will have reached a dead end and the Evangelicals will be on the march again to set the Church back on course.”

Yet that is not quite what has happened: far from reaching a dead end, the ideas and questions of that period have generated new ones, and attracted a new generation of theologians to explore them. And, even if Evangelicals, whose predecessors vehemently opposed “radical theology”, are now a dominant grouping, their ideas are surely among those most changed by “the British Sixties”.

Maybe some radical theologians, their readers, and the unrecorded explorers of those years occasionally claimed too much in seeing their ideas as fulfilling St John’s prophecy of a new heaven and a new earth (the quotation that fronts this valuable book); but perhaps it is, after all, true that something shifted in those heady days, and that we see our churches, our faith, and even our nation differently as a result.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is an Honorary Visiting Professor at King’s College, London, and a former Bishop of Worcester.

Christian Radicalism in the Church of England and the Invention of the British Sixties, 1957-1970: The hope of a world transformed
Sam Brewitt-Taylor
OUP £65
(978-0-19-882700-9)
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

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