Honest to God: Forty Years On

Alison McRobb reviews the papers from a forty-year reflection on John Robinson's Honest to God; the papers were edited by Colin Slee and published by SCM press. 2004. 288 pp. £16.99. ISBN 0334029392

Honestly – how many people out there are likely to be excited by this title? As many as managed to sustain interest four decades ago in The Honest to God Debate? Perhaps, but one suspects that a current Alpha Course advert on the back of a bus might have more going for it. It was a worthy motive – to assess Christian theology’s lasting debt to John Robinson – that inspired the ‘retrospective’ conference as a clergy training day in March 2003 in Southwark Cathedral, where, by all accounts, the delivery of worthy papers from worthy labourers in the vineyard was genuinely appreciated by the three-line-whipped audience. The conference papers here in their published form will prove invaluable to PhD students researching the era of that notorious Bishop of Woolwich and his brush with Lady Chatterley (Lady Who?), but what do they hold for the wider church-watching public?

The younger generation of clergy in Southwark on the conference day would certainly have picked up from their elders the sense of excitement and purpose which powered the circles of priests, workers and worker-priests revolving around the revered Mervyn Stockwood. How Robinson made a role for himself as priest, academic, writer and Bishop in that milieu is variously explained by the speakers. Arguably nothing like that energy has been generated in the C of E since, certainly not in the stagnant Decade of Evangelism. In his Foreword, Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston, refers to that ‘vision and inspiration’ reflected in the conference papers, but also to the ‘palpable sense of disappointment’ that the ‘heady hopes’ of the 1960s ‘had not been realised as many would have wished’.

All the speakers do well on retrospective analysis. Because it’s all so long ago (isn’t it?) they needed to set the 60s scene; but the recurring ‘how I felt when I first read Honest to God’ recalls ‘how I felt when I first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. In other words, it’s a bit adolescent. Then it becomes a bit cosy and collegiate. How did people feel, outside the hallowed circles of Southwark and Cambridge? Well, the once-born were wide-eyed and liberated, and the sophisticated wondered what all the fuss was about. The tortured presumably felt even more tortured, and the disgusted, like our friend’s mother, wrote letters to the Bishop personally, saying how disgusted they were. Plus ça change . . .

On one prediction the commentators agree: that his conclusions, far from being too radical, ‘erred in not being radical enough’. Of the contributors Martyn Percy is lucid and readable as always and the late Christopher Ryan’s ‘The Language of Theism’ is thoughtful. Mindful of the conference’s aim, Don Cupitt calls for ‘reform and renewal’. He finds the root of today’s problems with God-talk in the ambiguities which Robinson revealed but ‘hid behind’ because no solution presented itself at that time.

And now? ‘Our task is to move forward in the adventure’, says Colin Slee in his Introduction. Readers of this book may not see the ‘mighty tortoise’ moving adventurously or at all, but Slee himself provides some dynamite: he gets to say his piece on Jeffrey John – and it’s well said.