Skip to content

The New Reformation? by John A. T. Robinson

October 14, 2016

tnr51 years ago, I read this as a teenager. I reread it in preparation for a conference with the same title. (And it is 499 years since Luther’s Reformation.)

He asks what should the Church should look like to meet people’s needs today?

He feels the parish system has got to go: “The territorial parish with its residential minister is now so restrictive of the Church’s mission as to be the most questionable rather than the least questioned form of its presence.”

People don’t relate to parishes so much as networks e.g. at their workplace, hobby etc. Shifting away from the parish-congregation structure would be at the heart of the ‘new reformation’ and its most visible sign.

Now “Mission-Shaped Church”, is saying the same sort of thing and the Church in Wales has already taken steps in this direction.

He wanted “worker priests” and was later to be instrumental in setting up the Non-Stipendiary Ministry and Ordained Local Ministry schemes in Southwark Diocese.

There are also a couple of extra essays, one of which is by Ruth, John Robinson’s wife  on how to bring up children in the Christian faith, with descriptions of family meals on a Saturday evening in the Robinson household, including grace, breaking of bread, bible study (preparing Sunday’s gospel) and discussion.

When she muses on teaching their children to pray: “have I then left them only with a prayer-shaped blank and no language to fill it out? I seem myself in recent years to have kicked away so many of the ladders by which I have thankfully climbed, but have I in doing so left the children no route to follow?”

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

He was prophetic, for example in seeing secularisation as a positive force to remove the isms of the world (including secularism) and he would recognise such a process going on now in China. Unfortunately, he was not so prophetic regarding the Church – his own and in general. He wanted a clergy that was retrained to fit in with laity, rather than what seemed like the other way around. He wanted Christianity to be accessible to a general public: the problem was the language.

I am surprised that much of what he said I take for granted now and hadn’t realised where I got my ideas from. For example, the gospel is not good news for many today, belonging before believing, Christology from below.

His childen were remarkably liberal in their notion of ‘God’ and ‘prayer.’

The institutional church seems to have taken no notice of his ideas.

I followed up most of the books referred to in the footnotes.


“A Reformation presupposes that the Church can be reformed and a positive answer given to the question, ‘can these bones live?’ here is much from within the organized Church, and more from those observing outside to raise the question: ‘Can it possibly be the carrier of the new life for the new age?’ Is the Church not an archaic and well protected institution for the preservation of something irrelevant? It is so dug in, it will not disappear overnight, but will it be the channel of the Spirit?’ …..It does not surprise us that modern people whether as industrial worker or intellectual is deeply estranged from the Church”

The real trouble is not in fact that the Church is too rich but that it has become heavily institutionalized, with a crushing investment in maintenance. It has the characteristics of the dinosaur and the battleship. It is saddled with a plant and a pro­gramme beyond its means, so that it is absorbed in problems of supply and preoccupied with survival. The inertia of the machine is such that the financial allocations, the legalities, the channels of organization, the attitudes of mind, are all set in the direction of continuing and enhancing the status quo. If one wants to pursue a course which cuts across these channels, then most of one’s energies are exhausted before one ever reaches the enemy lines.

And such is what Bonhoeffer envisaged in the last chapter of the book he planned but never lived to write : The Church is her true self only when she exists for humanity. As a fresh start she should give away all her endowments to the poor and needy. The clergy should live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling. She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them. She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.

Normally it would simply meet where people are—in the the factory, the office or the school.

On festival occasions such as Christmas, Easter and NA the community centre, a school, or church school would be booked for special gatherings of all Christians in the community.

This should not prove difficult to arrange years in advance. Baptisms would be held once or twice a year. Confirmation, like Ordination, would take place in the cathedral of the diocese. The cathedral might serve the role of providing the ‘temple element’ within the Christian tradition, and would provide visible links with the past heritage of the Church (that should not prove difficult!), as well as with the Church across the world.

All the plant that might be needed locally is a well-equipped parish office with a good shop window—and, of course, houses for community-leaders, ordained and lay. There is not a straight either-or between this and our traditional set-up, and there can be no question in most places of starting again from scratch. But I cite this as an indication of the direction in which all our thinking may have to move, even in the responsible administration of our present plant.

I suspect I am not alone in finding in this story, as in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats and in the final appearance of Jesus to his disciples by the lake-side in John 21, passages of peculiarly compelling power for our generation. For they all tell of one who comes unknown and uninvited into the human situation, disclosing himself as the gracious neighbour before he can be recognized as Master and Lord. And with these passages I would link the story of the Foot-washing in John 13, where, even to those who call him Lord and Master, he can make known the meaning of that lordship only by becoming the servant of all. Together they speak of a way into the truth as it is in Jesus which I believe has distinctive signifi­cance for our age.’ It is indeed central to the Christian revela­tion for any age. For the very meaning of the Incarnation is that the divine enters through the stable door of ordinary human history and everyday experience. It was only in man and as man that men could come to see the Son of God.

Doctrine is the definition of the experience; the revelation discloses itself as the depth and meaning of the relationship. To ask men to believe in the doctrine or to accept the revelation before they see it for themselves as the definition of their experience and the depth of their relationship, is to ask what to this generation, with its schooling in an empirical approach to everything, seems increasingly hollow.

Tillich seems to me to sum up the situation with great insight and sympathy when he writes : A church is a community of those who affirm that Jesus is the Christ. The very name ‘Christian’ implies this. For the individual, this means a decision—not as to whether he, personally, can accept the assertion that Jesus is the Christ, but the decision as to whether he wishes to belong or not to a community which asserts that Jesus is the Christ.

What then is the function of the manifest Church in the new Reformation? I suggest that it is not there primarily as the organized centre into which to draw men—as if the enlarging of this circle were the object of the whole exercise. It is indeed the dedicated nucleus of those who actively acknowledge Jesus as Lord and have committed themselves to membership and mission within the visible sacramental fellowship of the Spirit. Yet its normal form of existence, when it is distinctively being itself, is not to be gathered together in one place, but to be embedded as seeds of light within the dark world. And, within this world, by no means its only job is to make more Christians, that is, more members of the manifest Church. Yet this is regularly assumed to be the goal to which the whole of the Church’s mission is geared. It is taken for granted, both inside and outside the Church, that the eventual, if not the immediate, aim of all it does is to elicit that commitment.

In fact, right through to the Book of Revelation, it continues to visualize the covenant people as a minority instrument of the Kingdom. Of the Church alone, it has been said, its ‘minority status is not a scandal.

It is indeed an alien importation, introduced from the difference between the plebs and the ordo, the commons and the senate, in the administra­tive machinery of the Roman empire. It was entrenched in the Church at the time of its establishment under Constantine, when it became necessary to define the rights and benefits of clergy transferred to it from the heathen priesthood. I believe the whole thing could disappear without loss, together with the medieval concept of indelibility,’ the mystique, the status, the theology and the legalities by which it has been buttressed and surrounded in our various traditions. The whole differen­tiation implied in the terms ‘sacred ministry’ and ‘holy orders’ is one that is now destructive rather than constructive of the Body of Christ.

I have discovered at least one virtue in what I believe to be the unhappy German title of Honest to God, Gott ist Anders (God is Different). A friend of mine found that he was able to take as many copies as he liked to East Germany—they thought it was atheistic propaganda!

Each time I go to London Airport I am met by a large notice, greeting me with the assurance: ‘BOAC takes good care of you.’ What are we to make of this declaration of secular providence? If it fails, whom are we to blame—BOAC or God? When first I flew, I used to indulge in additional ‘cover’ for those tense thirty seconds of take-off as one waits to see whether the plane will make it and leave the ground. Did my prayer in the gap—when somehow a little supernatural ‘lift’ would always be welcome—do credit to my trust in God? I think not. I suspect that this is where a Christian ought to be a practical atheist—and trust the pilot.

This distinction between the activity of prayer, which I would define as a trusting openness or a readiness to communicate, and ‘saying prayers’ is borne out by the rather devastating encounter I had with B. aged twelve. She was more articulate, but she spared no punches. ‘Prayer’, she said—’well, it is sort of thinking, when you don’t know what to do and you think about it and it sort of comes to you.’ And later: ‘God isn’t really a person but it helps to imagine he is and you can talk to him.’ It is as if he is your mind.’ I asked how this was different from just thinking She said it wasn’t really, and if she ‘lived in darkest Africa’ and hadn’t heard of God she would do it just the same way ‘only I wouldn’t know I was talking to God’. I asked her if praying was always to do with having to decide what to do—did she ever pray when she was feeling very glad or happy about something? The answer was instantaneous: ‘Oh no; you’re too glad and happy to think about it’. Do we, in fact, tend to think of thanksgiving more on the level of the thank-you letter than the spontaneous joy of receiving? Then I asked her why it helped more to talk to God than to some other person. ‘Well, it’s best of all if I can talk to you, of course, but you aren’t always there. Anyhow, sometimes it’s something you can’t talk to anyone else about because it would sound silly.’ Where, I thought, does this get us? Does it mean that praying to God by yourself is a substi­tue for human relationships when they fail you or you daren’t commit yourself to there.

On the subject of saying prayers, either as a family or in church, she was uncompromising. ‘Other people’s words are no use. When you are praying’, she said scathingly, ‘you are thinking. You don’t have to think it all in words.’ She insisted that she didn’t understand a word of what went on in church and added: ‘I don’t even understand the Lord’s Prayer.’ But how can you at twelve, if you don’t think of God as a person in a place called heaven? At this point, I suggested rather desperately that perhaps if I tried to explain the words a bit more . . .? ‘Well, of course, it might help, but it would be so boring!’

Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: