Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 48 - Jan 2013
This year marks the 50th anniversary of John Robinson's book Honest to God. Our sister academic journal Modern Believing will be devoting the whole of its April issue to that small stick of dynamite which was tossed into English Christianity in 1963. There is no need therefore for this newsletter to focus on it in great depth.
Yet many of the articles below are relevant to the themes that Robinson threw into the theological mix. And after the women bishops vote - in part a procedural absurdity unrepresentative of the majority conviction, yet reflecting the reality of divisions within our Church which offer a genuine sense of threat to the liberal heritage - we may do well to spend a little time meditating on Robinson's role in getting us to where we are today.
Because so many current members of Modern Church were formed, theologically and spiritually, in the middle years of the twentieth century, it might be useful to remind ourselves of the climate in those days. The past is another country, they say, and possibly alien to some of those who now enquire into faith. But those were days when the prevailing climate managed to be at once basically orthodox yet, on a range of key issues, quite liberal. 'Thou shalt love the Lord, thy Dodd, and thy Niebuhr as thyself" was the mantra learned by many theological students. Biblical scholars such as C H Dodd maintained a constructively critical investigation into Scripture - hardly radical, yet leaving absolutely no place for fundamentalism, which in this country at least was a minority sport. Philosophical theologians and ethicists such as Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr likewise pursued a critical dialogue between the challenges of post-Barthian orthodoxy and the hard realities of a world riven by institutionalised conflict (supremely the Cold War) and injustice (from the 30s depression to the civil rights movement) yet also full of new cultural creativity. I suspect that Reinhold would not have agreed with Tim Belben's unease (below) about concepts such as justice and equality; for him, these concepts were precisely the principal way of embodying Gospel love and mercy in a "fallen" world, though the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard would represent the "impossible possibility" of a world based on different values to which the Christian must give heed. Alongside these dominant Protestant thinkers, the Catholic tradition (Roman and Anglican) looked for the communal renewal of the Church in the real world, not least through the Liturgical Movement and its Anglican manifestation Parish and People, paving the way for the Second Vatican Council - again both relatively orthodox and relatively liberal.
Robinson's famous headline 'Our image of God must go' came like a flash into this environment - yet it stood in the same tradition. He was not, of course, the first Anglican bishop to challenge prevailing orthodoxy, though perhaps the first one to do so in an age of true mass communication. But how radical was he really? His Biblical scholarship was conservatively critical in the best traditions of Dodd. His commitment to liturgical change of a thoroughly orthodox kind, and to the Parish and People movement, is equally well documented. Such works of his as The Body link those Biblical and liturgical themes - though it is intriguing to see how much less radical that was than the famous lecture on The Body's Grace given some 30 years later by one Rowan Williams. By the standards of some Modern Church members, Robinson may quite possibly seem as conservative as Dodd and the Niebuhrs.
Where he was innovative was not, perhaps, in his basic theology so much as in the way he communicated it. He drew on influences which were sometimes uneasy bedfellows - such as the intriguing trinity of Bonhoeffer, Bultmann and Tillich - to justify assertions which would make the person in (or out of) the pew sit up and think. The idea that our images of God are always more or less false, and the case for a turn from the transcendent to the immanent - these are hardly new in theological thinking. But when presented by a bishop, in a popular and highly understandable paperback, and moreover alongside attitudes to morality (especially sexual morality) which really were startling to some in the Church, such ideas made an impact - at least for a while.
They did not convert England, of course. They may have raised false hopes of a new dawn. They may even have contributed to the conservative backlash in the Church, the damaging fruits of which we have recently seen in General Synod (more on that in Jonathan's Clatworthy's article below, and on our website). Yet we should certainly not write off Honest to God. As Stephen Parsons shows below, the place which the liberal tradition has now reached - to which Robinson has contributed - is not a place of shame or despair. We need in every generation the kind of witness, the struggle to communicate, which we saw in 1963. The best way of honouring this anniversary is to see how we can contribute to such a witness today, as Modern Church is seeking to do, not least through its publications. Unusually, alongside an exceptional crop of other reviews of books large and small, this edition includes a second review of Jonathan Clatworthy's book first reviewed in October. Our publications are as important as that. And so is much of the other work on which we are engaged. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we carry on what they began.
Unfortunately, that costs money. As Bonhoeffer said, grace may be free but it is not cheap. And the main internal news from Modern Church is that subscriptions could soon have to go up very significantly. Standing Committee has been looking at a number of ways of improving value for money, including possibly putting Modern Believing in with a commercial publisher again. But it is clear that there are no quick fixes. Our expenditure simply is exceeding our income now on a regular basis. This has been subsidised from institutional subscriptions to Modern Believing, and if we go in with a commercial publisher we will lose those - though we might get far more influence in academia, which would be fully in line with our objectives. However, we would be in trouble even if that subsidy were to continue.