Was Honest to God ever likely to convince teenage atheists?

While he was re-reading Honest to God, published 50 years ago, Frank Godfrey noticed that the Methodist Recorder had reprinted in its '50 Years Ago' column, a letter about teenage atheism. It got him thinking..

As I read the archived letter, I was struck by the timing of its first appearance. It was written in January 1963, just two months before Bishop John Robinson published Honest to God. The writer was a teacher from the Midlands:

"I have charge of 54 sixth-formers in a co-educational grammar school. I would have expected only a minority of these young men and women to have had definite Christian convictions and a majority to have had agnostic views although mellowed with some Christian sympathies. Alas this is not so.

"The large majority subscribe to a genuine atheistic conviction, a formidable and pronounced disbelief in God and Christ. Yet these are pupils in a school with a headmaster with open Christian convictions, where there is a liberal sprinkling of regular churchgoers on the staff and where Christian education is taught by a specialist of genuine faith. Views strongly held by most of these sixth-formers include that man made God, not God man, the world was created by accident and that life has no real purpose. Christians are people who have adopted religion only because of a fear of the unknown and a weakness that could not live life on will power, and the church is irrelevant and humbug."

When Honest to God arrived two months later it caused a furore in traditional circles but was widely acknowledged to be a brave attempt to relate Christian thinking to 'modern man' and to the ‘teenage atheism’ referred to in the letter. As Canon Bryan Green commented at the time,

“There are many who are intelligent, sincere and moderately informed people who are hungry for a faith concerning the meaning of life yet who simply cannot stomach the words and phrases we use when we try to express the Gospel. The church still uses the terms of a pre-Copernican, pre-space and pre-psychological age."

Following the publication of his book Robinson received more than a 1000 letters from readers. A great number of these expressed appreciation, liberation and a sense of relief at feeling they could stay in the Church or even return to the Christian faith.

One image of faith provoked by’ Honest to God’ is that of a snake sloughing off its old skin so that it can be liberated into a new phase of its life. (A pity that the Bible has given snakes such a bad press !) Robinson’s thesis is that the church needs to slough off supernatural and superstitious elements of its thought relating to God being ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ and discover God in the’ depth’ of experience. This sloughing off of thought forms of the past has been happening anyway during the last 500 years from the time of Galileo and Copernicus through the liberating process of secularisation through which Robinson describes man as (scientifically) coming of age. The difficult question to determine is “What is the old skin needing to be sloughed off and what is central and essential to the heart and life of our Christian faith?”

One conviction that seems to emerge from among Robinson’s critics in The Honest to God debate, and Honest to God 40 years on is expressed by the Bishop of Llandaff,

“The Church’s practice counts in the end for more estrangement from her than the theological and intellectual difficulties with which this book is concerned.”

Also by Jane Williams,

“There are two reasons for church decline - exclusiveness (Jesus as the only way to God); and Christians who do not live out their faith. It’s not our words or our liturgy needing to be changed, but the way we live."

I wonder how those six-formers in the Midlands would have responded, and for that matter, what they would say now, as they approach 70.

Frank Godfrey is the convenor of a PCN group which meets on the first Saturday afternoon of each month in Gloucester . This blog is based on a letter that Frank Godfrey wrote to the Methodist Recorder in February 2013


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