George Austin examines the effect of the theological and ethical turmoil of the early Sixties and how what began as an almost academic reassessment of doctrine led to an erosion of traditional morality

When Fisher resigned in 1961, the Prime Minister was Harold Macmillan, a deeply committed and faithful high church Anglican. He knew Fisher opposed Ramsey as his successor, so like Eden before him with Ramsey’s appointment to York – and with some unease – he offered Ramsey’s name to the Queen as Archbishop of Canterbury without Fisher’s approval.

While Ramsey’s appointment to Durham had shown the advantageous side of the growing power of the civil servant, those to York and Canterbury suggested that the old system was not without some merit. There were certainly powerful characters within the church who had fought until the very last hour to sabotage his appointment.

But there were to be rough days ahead for the new Primate, and one of these exploded on Sunday, 17 March 1963, with a banner headline in The Observer: ‘Our Image of God Must Go.’ Beneath it was a long article by the Bishop of Woolwich, J.A.T. Robinson, seemingly suggesting that the idea of a personal God in popular Christianity and orthodox faith was outmoded and must be discarded.

That book!

It was a precursor of Robinson’s book, Honest to God, which quickly became a best-seller, not least because of its chapter on what Robinson described as ‘the new morality.’ It was not John Robinson’s first sally into controversy, for he was famous/notorious for giving evidence for the defence in support of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in a court case in which an attempt was made to have it declared to be pornographic.

As a result of the furore, Honest to God became an instant hit, aided by clever newspaper hype; but in a set of lectures, Christian Morals Today, given in December of the same year and published early in 1964, Robinson complained that his argument had been misinterpreted.

The phrase, he suggested, ‘has been bandied about in the wildest manner and has become an indiscriminate target of abuse among churchmen. It is applied to moral positions miles apart, Christian and non-Christian, and has simply come to signify an invitation to sexual licence – ‘the old immorality condoned,’ as Lord Shawcross tartly put it. And I am regarded as the author of it.’

He added that the phrase anyway was not his but the Pope’s, ‘or rather that of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office,’ which in February 1956 had condemned the ‘new morality,’ banning the teaching of ‘situational ethics’ from all its academies and seminaries.

It may well be that Robinson was innocent of all charges. Certainly he was an academic and scholar who sought to reach a conclusion according to the facts as he saw them, rather than deciding on his conclusion and then finding questionable evidence to support it – witness his great work on St John’s Gospel, The Priority of John, which went quite against the customary view of liberal biblical scholars.

The myth about myth

In similar but more deliberate mode, Professor Maurice Wiles’ work in Oxford was in the same tradition. It reached its controversial fulfilment in the totemic work of the next decade The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick but presided over by Wiles. What both would have claimed to have done was to create a new definition of the word ‘myth’; but it was damage limitation and the general public assumed that here were Anglican theologians denying the central doctrines of the Christian faith.

Nonetheless, intended or not, both works – and in particular the chapter on the ‘new morality’ in Honest to God – had an immense influence on the attitude towards ethical and doctrinal matters by many in the Church of England. It somehow made respectable that which in the past had always been there in Anglican thinking, but was considered to be on the margins, held only by those who, out of a generous comprehensiveness, were tolerated in spite of their unorthodoxy.

The Sixties of course saw the emergence of the ‘permissive society,’ putting into practice, consciously or not, the new morality apparently advocated by Robinson. But there was a fatal flaw in his thesis that to act out of love is all that matters, particularly when he identifies it with St Augustine’s phrase, ‘Love God and do what you like.’ He offered the translation of dilige et quod vis fac preferred by a contemporary, Professor Joseph Fletcher: ‘Love and then what you will, do.’ Act out of love and all is OK.

The phrase is in fact fundamental to the true practice of Christian ethics, for if we truly, fully and completely love God, then what we like to do will be only that which pleases him. The same is true as well of that which we do for those we truly love. But Fletcher’s phrase, deliberately or not, takes God out of the equation.

Godless love

We are to love God as he loves us, completely, absolutely and unquestionably. But because we are only human, with all the failings and frailties of human beings, we can never achieve such love in ourselves. So if we are simply talking about human love, that love will always be marred by those frailties, with the result that what we do is also marred, falling short of the standards that God requires.

If that were not true, then there would be no need for the atonement, for redemption, nor indeed for the Cross itself, whereby God points us to salvation from our sins. His gift of grace, by which we are saved through our faith, would be quite superfluous if we needed only to excuse ourselves by claiming we acted out of love.

It may not have been John Robinson’s intention in his presentation of his ‘new morality’ but the cumulative effect in the Church of England, and indeed in the Anglican Communion, has been to downgrade the sense of sin and as a result to marginalize the central truth and purpose of the Gospel.

Over the years that have passed, the theological and ethical seeds that were then sown have produced their harvest, with the consequence that we are now facing the possible disintegration of our church. Forty years on and it is breaking asunder – at the very time that crowds of young Catholics are seen celebrating a conservative Papacy.