Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 24th February 2013
24 February 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
Fifty years ago next month a book was published that caused a sensation in English Christianity. It sold nearly a third of a million copies in the first few months, and well over a million worldwide within a year. It was called Honest to God, written by the then Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson. In a matins sermon at the beginning of this month I looked at something of what he said in that book about God, and then last week at what he said about Jesus, and both of those addresses are on the Abbey web-site. This week I want to consider what he said about worship, prayer and morality.
Take worship to start with. As you entered the Abbey this morning you must have come under the statues of the twentieth century martyrs outside the Great West Door and one of them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed just before the end of the Second World War on the personal orders of Hitler, posed a question in his letters and papers from prison. ‘What is the place of worship and prayer in an entire absence of religion?’ That is a difficult question if you think that worship and prayer is pre-eminently about religion as some separate sphere of life distinct from the secular, but Bonhoeffer, and Robinson after him, thought that worship was not about escaping from the secular world, but rather about penetrating and understanding it at a deeper level. Yet Robinson thought that in his day worship in church all too often seemed to be an escape from the world into some sort of ‘religious’ sphere and that was what he wished to challenge. The clue, he thought, came from what apparently seemed to be the world of religion, the Eucharist, for at the heart of the Eucharist is the taking of very ordinary things, bread and wine, and seeing in them a deeper meaning as they become the vehicle of the body and blood of Christ. And that in turn stemmed from a sacrifice itself made all too crudely and deeply in the midst of a terribly ordinary event of Roman rule in Palestine, crucifixion. It was not an escape from the world, but a deeper penetration of it, and that, Robinson thought, was what worship should really be about. ‘The purpose of worship’ he wrote, ‘is not to retire from the secular into the department of the religious, let alone to escape from ‘this world’ into ‘the other world’, but to open oneself to the meeting of Christ in the common, to that which has the power to penetrate its superficiality and redeem it from alienation.’ And he went on to say ‘The test of worship is how far it makes us more sensitive to ‘the beyond in our midst’, to the Christ in the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the prisoner. Only if we are more likely to recognise him there after attending an act of worship is that worship Christian rather than a piece of religiosity in Christian dress.’ I suspect many in the church’s leadership today would readily aspire to that vision, although whether the worship of most churches normally achieves it is, perhaps, a more problematical issue.
And Robinson applied a similar analysis to the matter of more personal prayer, and he made a confession that I suspect many of his earliest readers found refreshing. He said he had found a great deal of the conventional writing on prayer simply did not work for him, and that he had found, on conversations with others, even those who were ordained or preparing for ordination, that many of them found the same. The problem, he thought, was that much of that conventional teaching focussed on withdrawing from the world into a private area of personal prayer where the guidance of God might be discovered, yet he found that it was rather through a deep engagement with the issues under examination that more insight was to be found. He wrote ‘I wonder whether Christian prayer is ... to be defined in terms of penetration through the world to God rather than of withdrawal from the world to God...If I am honest, what enlightenment I have had on decisions has almost always come not when I have gone away and stood back from them, but precisely as I have wrestled through all the most practical pros and cons, usually with other people. And this activity, undertaken by a Christian trusting and expecting God is there, would seem to be prayer.’
I have to add, if I might be personal for a moment, that some of the most prayerful moments in my life have been at conferences selecting candidates for ordination, where the selectors have met together, shared their perceptions of the candidates who they have met, and then talked over what the right decision was for each one. That was obviously for all the selectors a process undergirded by prayer, but it was in the conversation that the decision emerged. That is what I think Robinson was talking about, and I believe he was right.
The third area he discussed turned out to be one of the most controversial aspects of Honest to God. A chapter was devoted to what he called ‘The New Morality’, and the book was published at the beginning of the 1960s, which decade saw something of a revolution in attitudes to morality throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Robinson was sometimes accused, or accredited, depending on your point of view, with instigating the whole thing, yet of course the changing attitudes to morality then had far more sources than just one book however widely publicised. Yet some of his more vociferous critics simply described that chapter as ‘the old immorality’. It was an amusing response, but I believe they were profoundly wrong.
His basic stance was to question whether a whole set of moral rules could ever actually deal with the genuine complexities of some moral decisions. Perhaps part of what caused the problem for some of his critics was the example he chose of divorce, where he noted there were two responses to what the Christian Church described as the ‘indissolubility’ of marriage. There were those who said that ideally marriage should not be dissolved, and those who asserted more firmly that it could not be dissolved, any more than the relationship of a brother and sister can be dissolved. That was a real internal church battle over indissolubility at around that time, although eventually the Church of England, while never encouraging divorce, did recognise that some marriages broke down irretrievably, and, later on, the Church of England even allowed clergy to take the re-marriage of divorcees. But at the time of the publication of Honest to God the whole area was a very contentious issue and it certainly fuelled some of the passion in the debate about the book at the time.
Robinson pointed out in the chapter that there was a long history of debates between those who defined morality by a series of rules and those who approached in on the basis of principles, and he noted the example from the Gospels of Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Jesus in fact always tried to get behind rules to the fundamental core principles. All Robinson was trying to do in that chapter was to take that notion, and to suggest that the motivating force in decided what was right for a Christian person was to ask the question ‘what did love demand?’ And by love he did not mean it in the rather sentimental way in which it seems it is understood by some, but in a far more demanding sense where almost certainly love might require sacrifice on the person doing the loving. His was a very sensible judgement that I suspect is now very widely accepted within many churches.
So Honest to God was a profoundly significant book that opened up a critical debate about how we can talk of God, of how we could understand Jesus as what Robinson later called ‘The Human Face of God’, and about practical matters like worship, prayer and morality. It certainly influenced Christian thinking in this country and further afield. John Robinson, for all his personal idiosyncrasies, was a fascinating and remarkable man. With the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication on us in less than four weeks’ time it is worth reading afresh.