This is the sermon Vanessa Herrick preached on Saturday 21st September 2013 at the service to mark the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Honest to God.

St Paul writes:

By the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4.2b)

I was four years old when 'Honest to God' was first published.  And to me there is a certain irony in being invited to preach at this Commemoration Eucharist.  Not only because I was 'too young' really to have experienced its impact; but because I grew up in a conservative evangelical church in London where even to have a cross on the altar was deemed to be 'Rom-ish' and candles were strictly forbidden.  Yet I can vividly remember, some ten years later, eavesdropping on a conversation in the choir vestry about 'that dreadful Bishop of Woolwich and his appalling 'Honest to God'.

But here I am, and grateful for the opportunity to preach on this day when we both celebrate the Apostle Matthew and remember the publication of probably the most widely read theological book of the twentieth century.

St Paul writes:

by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4.2b)

John Robinson writes:

All I can do is to try and be honest – honest to God and about God – and to follow the argument wherever it leads.

Perhaps I am not the only one to hear the resonance between the two?

We are here today to celebrate the work of someone who sought to make truth heard.  Eric James has described John Robinson as "a scholar, a pastor and a prophet".   And it is this latter that I want to focus on for a few minutes this afternoon.

For prophets are uncomfortable people to have around. They usually don't relish the task they have been given. And prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

Painful for the Church (for whom prophecy almost always means a call to repentance and new life).

Yet powerful for society in making Christian truth known in language which 'connects' with those who have long since stopped worrying about what the truth might be….

In his second letter to Corinth, Paul speaks into a cosmopolitan community that's in something of a state of turmoil. Powerful social and religious influences compete for the attention of its citizens and the Jewish faith seems threatened by new and unacceptable practices.  And into that maelstrom of ideas and influences comes St Paul, 'openly stating the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ', and (as one commentator puts it) commending himself "not by spinning a tale about his own importance but simply by telling the truth" (Barrett p.129)

In 'Honest to God', John Robinson spoke into an increasingly cosmopolitan British society and culture – a society and culture also in something of a state of turmoil. For 1963 was the year of the Profumo Affair, the Great Train Robbery and the Beatles' first album.  West Indians were trying – against a tidal wave of racism - to make their way into British life; and the Church of England, under Michael Ramsey, still retained some place in the conscience and consciousness of the English nation.  And yet… and yet….

So it was into these similar, yet very different, worlds that St Paul and John Robinson came; each seeking to make truth heard.  And the truth declared was, fundamentally, the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But what they each tried to do was to proclaim that good news in a way that could be heard afresh; that could break through the tired religious mores of the past and shake people into a way of thinking and believing that acknowledged the chasm between what was and what is.  For St Paul, that chasm consisted in the apparent incompatibility of Law and Grace.  For John Robinson, it was the fact that the Church and what it stood for no longer made sense in a society where what had once been taken for granted was taken for granted no more.  And the 'open statement of the truth' – whether in the words of St Paul or the Bishop of Woolwich - freed those who heard it to speak and to debate, and ultimately to made Christ known.

But prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

The Feast of St Matthew the Apostle reminds us of another prophet:

  • one who responded to the call of God to follow;
  • one who brought with him the 'outsiders' of society;
  • one who pointed to Jesus as the new Moses;
  • and one who, in his Gospel gives us a treasure chest of the old and the new.

Like the true radical that John Robinson was to become, Matthew was deeply connected to the tradition from which he had come and in which he had been nurtured.  Yet he didn't shy away from interpreting and re-interpreting that tradition in the light of what he now encountered in the person of Jesus Christ.  He sought to make truth heard.

I believe that is what John Robinson felt similarly impelled to do when he wrote 'Honest to God'.  Writing to Archbishop Fisher on 2nd April 1963, he said: "At least my book seems to have touched people at a point where truth really matters to them.  And of this I am glad – even if it has inevitably meant some pain.  For it is at this point that God may be able to become real for them again." It was precisely because he believed that the Church was no longer 'connecting' with the vast majority of people in this nation, that he wrote so 'honestly' and openly.  It took audacity.  It took courage. And it took its toll….

For prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

St Paul writes:

By the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4.2b)

Could 'Honest to God' be written today?  Probably not.

For we can no longer take the Christian 'lingua franca' for granted.  'Honest to God' was a book which had an impact because there remained the residue of a Christian awareness which allowed people to be shocked and allowed people to debate.

Today, our prophets need to speak with a different tongue:

  • yet it must still be a tongue which still speaks fundamentally of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ;
  • a tongue which is an 'open statement of the truth' of God's love for humanity and his desire for all to be drawn into that Love – tax collector and sinner alike.
  • a tongue which is still prepared to take the courageous risk of shocking its hearers into listening and debate.

But we must remember that such prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

Today's Church is woefully short of prophets.  And so, I suggest, is the Academy.  For those who come to mind – like Giles Fraser - have spoken out courageously and been forced to 'move on', apparently no longer welcome in institutions which prefer the safety and stability of the status quo.  But I believe we need to be praying for prophets in the Church who are truly radical.

We need to be praying for prophets who will speak painfully to the Church and powerfully to Society about banking, about the arms trade, about the lack of 'real' equality for women in the Church and in business.

We need prophets who will speak painfully and powerfully into our political life so that those with authority and influence genuinely seek the wellbeing of the poor and the oppressed, rather than using politics for their own ends.

We need prophets  who are so 'rooted' in Scripture and 'rooted' in the Church that – like John Robinson – they can yet speak out - painfully and powerfully - that 'open statement of the truth' which will reveal afresh the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

  • in whom 'old' and 'new' treasures come together;
  • in whom all are welcome;
  • and through whom the whole creation will one day be restored and renewed.

St Matthew, St Paul and John Robinson each in their own way sought to make truth heard; through their witness, their writings and their faithful discipleship. For each of them, the task of prophecy was both painful and powerful.

So may the Church in our own day find again its voice and its courage, that – like them - we may commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God, through our 'open statement of the truth'.

Thanks be to God.

See also: