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Fallout from books and bombs: 1960s’ Anglican radicalism

04 January 2019

Sam Brewitt-Taylor reinterprets the 1960s’ Anglican radicalism against the backdrop of the Cold War

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The Hydrogen Bomb test on Bikini Atoll, 1954

The Hydrogen Bomb test on Bikini Atoll, 1954

IN MARCH 1963, the SCM Press published John Robinson’s Honest to God, a slim theological paperback that sent shock-waves around the Church of England.

Robinson had become the Bishop of Woolwich in 1959, and he had already achieved national fame by appearing as a defence witness in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of 1960. On the eve of Honest to God’s publication, he outlined his arguments in a widely read Observer article, “Our Image of God Must Go”.

The cover of the journal Prism, May 1963

There was now occurring, he argued, a radical revolution in human life. “Modern man” was becoming irreversibly “secular”, and this meant that the Churches needed to embrace “glad acceptance of secularisation as a God-given fact”, abandoning the conventional, theist understanding of God, and shifting their efforts to focus on social activism rather than Sunday services.

These arguments prompted instant controversy. Supportive letters were written to Robinson, and angry letters were written to the Church Times. By December 1963, Honest to God had sold 350,000 copies. Its sales eventually reached more than a million, not including its translations into 17 languages (Features, 26 April 2013).

But Honest to God was part of a much wider radical ferment within the Church of England. The Student Christian Movement was swiftly radicalised, the so-called “New Morality” was hotly debated, and “South Bank religion” made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. According to one estimate, the radical journal Prism was read by a quarter of the Anglican clergy in 1965.

This English explosion of radical theology paralleled developments across global Christianity, especially at the World Council of Churches, the World Student Christian Federation, and Vatican II. Yet these events are relatively well-known: from a historian’s perspective, the central question is how they should be interpreted.


FROM the 1960s to the 1990s, the dominant Western paradigm for understanding recent history, including radical theology and the 1960s, was the idea of “modernisation”. “Modernisation” was usually held to have started at some point around 1750, at the dawn of industrialisation, when science and technology had begun to create a radical new “modern world” — a post-traditional world of cities, machines, affluence, and mass advertising.

In this view, this process of “modernisation” gave modern history its own distinctive logic: as societies “modernised”, their citizens would naturally become more democratic, more individualist, and more secular. “Religion”, in this view, was a “traditional” trait, but not a “modern” trait, and so the modern British Churches faced a painful choice between liberalisation and marginalisation. In the late 20th century, this “modernisation” perspective was widely taken for granted, and this meant that Robinson was routinely interpreted as a “moderniser”, determinedly wrestling to come to grips with the real sociological issues of his day.

But recent research suggests that “modernisation” is not a real process, but an ideological world-view, which entered Britain’s unexamined common sense only during the cultural revolution of the long 1960s. From the late 18th century to the mid-1950s, British discussion had actually assumed a quite different model of history, which conceptualised highly developed societies as “civilisations”.

On this view, there was no radical break from “the traditional” to “the modern”; rather, the cultural roots of 20th-century “Western Civilisation” went back 2000 years, to the Greco-Roman inheritance and Christianity. For this reason, it was widely assumed that the key to success for all societies was the same: “civilisation” flourished if people learned mutual co-operation and mutual self-sacrifice; but if people lapsed into selfishness, their “civilisation” would surely collapse into “barbarism”, as “Roman civilisation” had done 1500 years earlier.

Social progress, on this view, was not primarily a matter of economics, science, and technology; it was a cultural matter, involving politeness, self-discipline, and respect for the rule of law.

Throughout the inter-war period and into the early 1950s, the dominance of this “civilisation” perspective ensured that most British commentators considered “religion” to be a necessary foundation for all “civilised” societies, because a collective “religion” unites people, and encourages mutual self-sacrifice. For this reason, Christianity was considered a fundamental component of “Western civilisation”, which, British commentators frequently assumed, was simply the best system in the world.

Most crucially, this “civilisation” framework held that humanity was intrinsically hungry for meaning, and it therefore argued that all societies, if they had not collapsed into chaos, were necessarily held together by some sort of collective spirituality. Throughout the Second World War and the early Cold War, for example, British newspapers routinely conceptualised Nazism and Communism as rival religions to Christianity, complete with their own mythologies, rituals, and cults of leadership.

British commentators knew that British Christianity was declining, but this “civilisation” framework prevented their interpreting this development as irreversible “secularisation”. Rather, their fear was that the decline of British Christianity would cause the British to embrace some horrible totalitarian cult, to replace their lost sources of meaning and social unity, as had apparently happened in Russia and Germany.


THE event that prompted the eclipse of this “civilisation” paradigm can actually be pinpointed quite precisely: it was the news of the United States’ successful test of the world’s first full-scale hydrogen bomb, which hit the headlines in the UK in March 1954.

Camera PressJohn Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich 1959-1983

Throughout the Second World War, British rhetoric had framed the fight against Nazi Germany as moral warfare, which required the British to display exceptional courage to defeat Nazi “paganism” and defend “Christian civilisation”. Even in the early Cold War, British rhetoric implied that “Christian civilisation”, with appropriate moral determination, could survive atomic warfare against the atheistic Soviet Union.

But the coming of full-scale hydrogen bombs, possessed of an explosive power a thousand times greater than the device dropped on Hiroshima, shook this paradigm to its core. British discussion was suddenly pushed into a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, the survival of “Christian civilisation” and Western liberty seemed to require continued moral crusades against unfree political systems, such as the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it was abundantly clear that, in the thermonuclear age, too much moral crusading would wipe out “civilisation” completely.

In the face of this dilemma, mainstream British discussion did something very interesting: it evaded the question entirely. From 1954, British commentators began to declare that science and technology were creating a new world, a “modern” world, that offered hitherto unimaginable levels of material prosperity. Even in the 1990s and early 2000s, the dominance of this “modernisation” paradigm ensured that historians were still narrating Britain’s 1960s as an episode of optimism and prosperity rather than as a desperate reaction to world crisis.

By the mid-1960s, the idea of the radical new “modern world” had entered unexamined British common sense, such that historians began to backdate its origins to earlier and earlier periods in history. An early school of thought dated the beginning of “the modern world” to about 1940; others placed it around 1900; and still others, in what became the dominant view, placed the decisive break at around 1750 or 1800.

In this way, the whole period 1800-1960 was reinterpreted as one long “modernising” and “secularising” run-up to the 1960s rather than, as it really was, a completely different culture, which operated within its own distinctive world-view.


IT WAS in the late 1950s and early 1960s, just as this “modernisation” world-view was gaining ground, that Robinson and the Christian radicals made a decisive intervention. The conventional Christian view, widely accepted in Britain until the mid-1950s, was that humanity was intrinsically hungry for meaning, and so the decline of “religion” would necessarily lead to the rise of quasi-“religious” alternatives.

In the mid-1950s, early British “modernisation” commentators had actually left questions of “religion” and human nature on one side, and focused on questions of science, economics, and technology. But Robinson and many of the Christian radicals went much further: through “the modern world”, they argued, God was actually reshaping human nature. In the future, humans would not need “religion”: instead, they would dedicate themselves to building heaven on earth, and God Himself was guaranteeing that they would eventually succeed.

With this eschatological quest for earthly perfection in mind, and drawing on their knowledge of ecclesiastical Latin, they christened this new humanity “secular”, and spoke of the increase of this new humanity as “secularisation”. By the mid-1960s, these ideas, minus their theological underpinnings, had entered British conventional wisdom. In stark contrast to Britain’s previous “civilisation” perspective, it was now considered simple common sense to say that “the modern world” was causing the permanent decline of “religion”, such that Britain, having experienced many decades of “secularisation”, was now a largely “secular society”.

There are three reasons for thinking that this radical Christian intervention was formative. First, the major early works on “secularisation” — which included E. R. Wickham’s Church and People (1957), Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), and the American Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) — were largely written by clergymen.

Second, in an avowedly Christian society, which was fighting the Cold War against a “secular” enemy, only clergymen would have had the cultural prestige necessary to transform the dominant paradigm.

The final reason is that, even today, we are still discussing these subjects using the distinctively Christian terminology of “religion”, “the secular”, and “secularisation”, and we are still using these terms in closely related senses to those pioneered by radical Christian thinkers in the late 1950s.

This story still matters today, for two reasons. The first is that, since British discussion swiftly adopted the “secularisation” metanarrative in the early 1960s, British culture widely enacted this metanarrative over the decades that followed. The newly dominant belief that “religion” was destined for marginalisation in “the modern world” was an important cause of the moral revolution of Britain’s 1960s, and a significant factor in the accelerated shrinkage of the British Churches. Having declined gently since the early 20th century, the British Churches suffered catastrophic losses from the late 1960s onwards, leading to their much reduced influence in British society today.

The second reason is that Britain’s acceptance of the “secularisation” metanarrative did not actually solve the problem of moral warfare: it merely relocated the focus of moral struggle from the religious to the political. In a secular culture, sacred rage is not channelled against one’s religious opponents, but against one’s political opponents, and so domestic politics becomes increasingly contentious.

The moral conflict between Thatcherites and anti-Thatcherites in 1980s Britain has not been entirely healed, and it is possible that future historians will make similar remarks about the anger surrounding Brexit. British society is now deeply divided, and a central reason for this is that secular politics is now increasingly fraught with the collective moral fervour formerly dedicated to Christianity. For both these reasons, the cultural fallout of the hydrogen bomb is still very much with us today.


Dr Sam Brewitt-Taylor is Darby Fellow in Modern History at Lincoln College, Oxford. Christian Radicalism in the Church of England and the Invention of the British Sixties, 1957-1970 is published by Oxford University Press at £65 (Church Times Bookshop £58.50).

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