What does ‘Honest to God’ tell us about Britain’s “secular revolution”?

Oct 19, 2019 by

by Sam Brewitt-Taylor, OUP:

On 17 March 1963, John Robinson, the Anglican bishop of Woolwich, wrote an article for the Observer entitled “Our Image of God Must Go.” He was writing to advertise his new book, Honest to God, which made a deeply controversial argument: that modern Christians would eventually find it necessary to reject classical theism. God Himself, Robinson argued, was causing a radical revolution in human life, in which human nature was being altered, so that “modern men” [sic] were no longer “religious” but “secular”. In the face of this divine process of “secularization”, the Christian churches had no option but to abandon “religion”, and to embrace a radical new “religionless Christianity”, which would question almost all the tenets of conventional theology, and focus instead on building a glorious new secular social order. These ideas were part of the 1960s global explosion in radical Christianity, which deeply shaped the World Council of Churches, the World Student Christian Federation, and Vatican II.

In Britain, the reaction was intense and immediate: the Church Times wrote angry editorials, the Sunday Telegraph’s reviewer regretted that Robinson could not be defrocked, and the archbishop of Canterbury censured him on television. Nonetheless, Honest to God went on to sell over a million copies, not including its translations into seventeen languages. It was, in the undisputed judgement of its publisher, the fastest-selling new work of serious theology of all time.

But what should historians make of all this? Was Robinson right or wrong, misguided or prophetic? What, if anything, does Honest to God tell us about Britain’s “secular revolution”? The answer depends on what wider view we take of Britain’s Sixties.

According to the orthodox interpretation, which reached its height in the 1990s and early 2000s, Britain’s Sixties was massive and popular: it witnessed a large-scale revolution in attitudes and behaviour. On this view, whatever one thinks of Robinson’s theology, his sociology was essentially correct: it was the case that long-term social processes were causing large numbers of postwar Britons to reject religion and become secular. Robinson was correctly observing contemporary trends, and thinking imaginatively about how to react to them.

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