A View from The Bridge
40 years on Bishop Hugh reflects on Bishop John Robinson's book
Honest To God
To God caused a furore when it was published forty years ago, but this should
be seen in its historical perspective.
past the British people has been deeply conservative by nature, and this holds
good for religion and theology. While radical thinkers abroad abounded, Britain
tended to be old-fashioned about its religion. Attempts to bring Christian
thinking up to date, and to make it credible in terms of contemporary thought,
have usually produced scandal.
Essays and Reviews in 1869 made a moderate protest against orthodox rigidity
(which one contributor called a 'system of terrorism'), a violent reaction set
in; and the same shock waves recurred at all later attempts at restatement. For
example an Anglican bishop was excommunicated for casting doubt on some of the
Old Testament, and a Professor of Theology was sacked because he found eternal
punishment incompatible with the love of God. It is within this context that
Honest to God must be understood.
in Germany and in the United States theologians (like Niebuhr and Tillich)
continued to try to restate Christian truths, the Church of England in the
1960s was rather as it had been before the Oxford Movement, smug and
self-satisfied, buoyed by the boom in religion after the Second World
us in Cambridge had reacted mildly against this by the production of Soundings,
but John Robinson, who had left Cambridge for Southwark, and who tended to
favour extreme solutions, reacted far more vigorously when faced with the
realities of inner city unbelief; and the result was the Honest to God
doing he released a log jam of radical thinking, which has often produced the
kind of radicalism which leads to atheism, like Cupitt's Sea of Faith and this
in turn, with the rise of hard line Evangelicals, has brought a tragic polarity
into Anglican religion.
John Robinson was not a radical in that sense. He understood the word
literally, as 'going back to roots'. A devout and committed Christian, with a
deservedly fine reputation for pastoral care, he decided to show the proofs of
his book to his friends. We knew it would create a stir, but we thought it
worthwhile. I think this was right, for he helped many more than he shocked,
and his concern for truth and integrity is manifest.
nowadays, looking back, the book seems rather tame, because life has moved
Post-modernism seems to result in everyone feeling free to produce their own
version of the faith, however bizarre. By contrast, Honest to God was a brave
book by a responsible mainline churchman, bringing fresh air into stale
result of this book, John Robinson's career in the Church was blocked by the
Establishment, though he never complained. While Frederick Temple despite
contributing to Essays and Reviews ended up at Lambeth Palace, Robinson
returned to Cambridge where he produced valuable books of scholarship, although
with changing fashions few are nowadays cited.
had been able to progress in the Church, he might have brought great blessings
to us all. In fact his blackballing is one of the better arguments for
+ Hugh Montefiore