God's Truth twenty-eight years on

After church this morning I settled in the garden and began to read God’s Truth: Essays to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Honest to God, published in 1988 and edited by Eric James.

I wanted to re-read it as research for the book I am beginning to write. So astonished was I but what had been written nearly thirty years ago that I’ve read over half the book. I’m not sure what I expected to find in a book published twenty-five years after Honest to God.  What I didn’t expect to find was analysis and comment about the Church of England in 1988 which replicates pretty much what I would want to write about the church today.

Today, Clive Larsen celebrated for the last time as parish priest with the congregation at St Agnes, North Reddish, joined by the two other congregations in the team. Clive has been forced to retire early, resigning because he is marrying his partner John next weekend, and was threatened with a CDM if he did this prior to his last service. Jeremy Timm also chose to resign last year, so the Church of England has lost two amazing pastors, and marginalised voices within Changing Attitude. Jeremy Pemberton and Andrew Foreshew-Cain have also been disciplined as a result of their marriages.

We are not in exactly the same situation as 1988. We now have women in all three orders of ministry, something anticipated in the book’s essays. But the problems and failures identified by the contributors to God’s Truth remain unaddressed and there is little sign that the Church of England has the will or energy or competence to engage in the kind of radical prophetic movement required twenty-eight years ago, and needing even more urgent attention now.

Here are some extracts from the essay by John Bowden, then Editor and Managing Director of SCM Press - Honesty is not Enough

“At the end of the 1980s the churches are inherently far more conservative than they were in the 1950s and … theological understanding and competence has decreased appallingly.

“The result of my publishing theology in the tradition of Honest to God is a church which seems to get more reactionary every day.

“To all outward appearances a whole generation of 1960s radicals has just disappeared, giving place within the Church of England, at any rate, to an atmosphere dominated by constant infighting between party groups redolent more of the nineteenth century than the twentieth.

“At the same time it has sometimes come to feel more dangerous, at least to some of the sensitive, to be a Christian. Nowhere is speech quite as free as it used to be, and it seems inconceivable that the sort of debate which took off after Honest to God could be carried on nowadays in the same sort of atmosphere.

“It is becoming evident that any substantial degree of questioning in certain areas is going to be costly in all kinds of ways, not least for clergy with a lifetime to spend in the paid employment of the church. For we are in the era not only of cuts in churches and universities but also of the ‘safe’ appointment – and not just (the odd mishap apart) to the bench of bishops.

“For all the claims that the tide has now turned, in a church whose practice and attitudes have become more conservative over twenty years, there are remarkably few substantial and intellectually attractive restatements of Christian belief which counter successfully the now well-established criticisms of it.

“The unexploded bomb of the inter-relationship of world religions (does or does not Christianity claim to be superior to all other religions by virtue of the ‘revelation’ in Jesus) is still ticking away insistently.

“The conclusions of those who think most deeply about the nature of Christianity and other religions and believe in God diverge so widely from what the institutional churches are looking for that no place can be found for them in those churches.

“If you cannot feel at home in the church there is only one place to go – into the wilderness. There is no alternative. This tension is avoided in a way which recent events show not to have changed since the time of Honest to God.

“These things may be admitted, but in hardback rather than paperback, by a professor but not by a bishop, in private but not in public.

“There is need for vision not only inside the churches but outside them. Vision and a concern actually to make some differences where there is a crying need for change. Honesty is quite manifestly not enough; more people are going to have to do some fighting.”