Article Note: Keith Robbins, “Contextualizing the ‘New Reformation’. John A. T. Robinson and the Church of England in the early Sixties”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2011

Article Note: Keith Robbins, “Contextualizing the ‘New Reformation’. John A. T. Robinson and the Church of England in the early Sixties,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 23 no. 2 (2010): 428-446.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

The latest issue of our parent journal, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, has an interesting article—the only one in English—by Keith Robbins, a distinguished scholar of modern history and a former university president. He throws new light on the celebrated debate launched in Britain in the 1960s with the publication of John Robinson’s book Honest to God. Robinson, who had recently been appointed as a junior bishop in Woolwich, south London, was by training a New Testament scholar. But he took the opportunity to popularize the ideas of three contemporary German theologians, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich. The impact of their radical views was tremendous. Honest to God became the
best-selling theological work of the century.

Robbins’ article outlines the context for the remarkable explosion of interest among church members and highlights the personal and institutional linkages behind the book. According to one commentator, its impact could be compared to the nailing of Luther’s theses to the church door in Wittenberg. The ‘New Reformation’ was hailed as a turning point. It came at a time when many thoughtful people in Britain were attempting to come to terms with the aftermath of the Second World War, the loss of empire, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the awareness of world poverty and the wholly new relationship with Europe. All these issues included a religious dimension, and Robinson’s controversial views reached out to many of those who believed that the new circumstances required new answers. Certainly Robinson desired to see reform, not only in the church’s dogmatic orthodoxies but also in its social witness and its political stance. These ideas were in fact propagated by a Cambridge coterie of younger theologians, many of whom went on to practise their convictions on the local parish level, often in south London. They were attempting to engage with contemporary culture by shedding much of the historical baggage and structures, which the Church of England had built up and maintained for centuries. A new morality which would revolutionize ethics was in fact already happening, but not necessarily in the transcendent sense of Bonhoeffer’s world without religion.

In the end, the hopes for new church structures came to nothing, as the establishment proved capable of institutional survival, even if its popular support has been much reduced. And even the desire for reformulating Christian doctrines in a non-mythological fashion has hardly gained momentum. As Robbins rightly concludes ‘A radical had been unable to deliver the change he wanted’.