by David Driscoll
from Signs of the Times No 52 - Jan 2014

John Robinson would have been extremely surprised in the amount of interest there’s been in the 50th anniversary of the publication of Honest to God last year.

I’ve certainly had my fair share of reminiscences of the impact the book made on so many of us at the time. Honest to God caused a lot of controversy, but more importantly, it proved a lifeline for lots of people that it was still possible to have a faith. It is a real tribute to the book that it’s never been out of print!

I was fortunate enough to attend two events commemorating the book. The first of these was a day conference held last September in Bristol and jointly run by MC and St Ambrose Whitehall, a parish church close to St Mary Moorfields where Robinson served his curacy in the mid 1940s. Sadly that church has since closed down. Holding the conference in this inner city area helped us to appreciate the extent to which Robinson’s earlier ministry had shaped his later theological writings. It was also interesting to meet someone who had clearly been influenced by Robinson as a member of the church youth club that he ran. Probably the most significant aspect of the conference was listening to people looking back to 1963 and sharing with us the enormous effect Honest to God had had on their lives.

The second event, ‘Being Honest to God …’ was a weekend conference at Swanwick held in November. By contrast, the emphasis of the weekend was very much a looking forward, even a kind of anamnesis, with the book becoming a present reality propelling us into the future. For this conference MC joined forces with the Progressive Christian Network (PCN) who, incidentally, was celebrating its tenth anniversary. It was actually a sell out, attended by over 150 people with quite a number turned away!

The conference was very ably chaired by Elaine Graham, Grosvenor Research Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester. Some will remember Elaine chairing the MC annual conference in 2006 on human sexuality. She opened proceedings by laying down a challenge to be honest, and also like Robinson, to be radical prepared to dig down to the roots. To use the well-known metaphor of Tillich and of course quoted by Robinson in Honest to God we had to get right down to the ground of our being. Elaine also asked to list the changes that had taken place in the intervening years which Robinson undoubtedly would have taken on board. An obvious one is the never ending IT revolution shaping the many ways we communicate today, ways we couldn’t possibly have been imagined back in 1963. Perhaps the most significant change, however, is our increasingly multicultural society and the presence in our midst of so many faith communities. This phenomenon Robinson would surely have wanted to address and he might well have praised his successor, Michael Ipgrave, the current Bishop of Woolwich, for the considerable contribution Michael has made in the field of inter-faith relations.

The conference was blessed with four very good speakers whose task was to comment on kind of honesty that was required of us. We began with James Crossley, Professor of Bible, Culture and Politics at Sheffield, who spoke on the theme Honesty about Jesus, providing us with an overview of recent biblical scholarship on Jesus asking the question, how much can we possibly know about his earthly life and how much are later add-ons by the church with very little historical evidence. James asked from us honesty about Jesus that we should avoid the temptation of making him in our own image whether individually or collectively.

He was followed by Martyn Percy, Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, and a former editor of Modern Believing. Martin was speaking on Honesty about the Church, going over ground very familiar to MC members. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to hear a theological college principal saying it! A slight criticism could be made that his presentation tended to be more about clergy and church leaders rather than the laity, which, after all, make up at least 99% of the church! Although to be fair, much also relevant to the latter. What was running through mind as Martin spoke were Nolan’s Seven Principles of Public Life, which saw the light of day in 1995: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. What a difference these would make if churches actually put them into practice!

It seemed therefore rather appropriate to have Simon Barrow as our next speaker. Simon is a co-director of Ekklesia, an organisation probably well known to MC many members It is a Christian political thinktank providing ‘briefing, research, commentary and analysis’ through the examination of ‘beliefs, politics, theology, culture and society.’ Importantly, Simon spoke on Honesty about ourselves suggesting six ways how we might achieve our goal.

  • Taking risks and being prepared to be vulnerable.
  • Being sensitive to the way we use language to describe the people we are and the way we think.
  • Being open to other people and therefore open to God, which also includes learning to be self critical and prepared to be changed.
  • Being honest about the world and prepared to confront institutional falsehood whenever and wherever it masquerades as truth.
  • Making a real effort to create and maintain our human relationships which include ways of being mutually accountable.
  • Working at a deeply rooted radicalism that will enable us to face up to the changes in our post Christendom society, and also being ready to subject the church to the judgement of the kingdom.

Our last speaker was Richard Holloway who in his typically moving way demonstrated the very things Simon was talking about earlier, personal honesty about God and looking for a faith totally free from dogma. It was so good to hear him, especially having just read his autobiography, Leaving Alexandria, a book I strongly recommend everybody to read. I particularly liked his suggestion that the church should have a three year moratorium talking about God, just have silence. And if words are needed, turn to poetry!

The worship at the conference was very sensitively and imaginatively led, and assisted by a group of volunteers. This had the positive effect of the worship being very much an integral part of the conference and compelling us to become more honest about God. I was certainly very impressed by the planning of the whole conference, especially the very practical way that MC and PCN successfully worked together. MC members were in the minority which perhaps was a pity. On the other hand the conference was refreshingly, far less Anglican and also less clerical! The conference also demonstrated also showed that we ought to be working together far more, particularly at the local level. PCN has the advantage of having 58 local groups situated all over Britain, which is the area where MC is rather weak.

I personally believe in closer cooperation. Working together nationally and locally will undoubtedly enrich both the life of MC and PCN.

David Driscoll is former Executive Officer for Mission in London's Economy and a Modern Church Council member.