Lay Anglicana, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion.
This is the place to share news and views from the pews.

Get involved ...

Considering William Temple: Wendy Dackson

William Temple (1881-1944) was the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury, and his commemoration in the Church of England is 6 November.  Although his time as Primate of All England was short (two and a half years), he was Archbishop of York for 13 years, and as Bishop of Manchester for several years before that.  During his lifetime, he was known as a Christian social reformer, on causes ranging from labor unions to prison reform.  In 1910, his participation in the Edinburgh Conference brought him to prominence as one of the great leaders of the ecumenical movement of the early 20th century.  Had he not died unexpectedly, Temple would have become the first president of the World Council of Churches; as it turned out, it took five people to do what it was expected he would accomplish.

Not enough people read William Temple’s work with any seriousness today, at least in my estimation.  There is a mild retrieval of his most famous work, the 1942 Penguin Special Christianity and Social Order, and some interest in whether or not the idea of ‘middle axioms’ contained in it (although this is a term ascribed by others, and not Temple himself) has any continuing mileage.  My own position, for the last 15 years, has been that Christianity and Social Order cannot stand, or be properly understood, on its own.  Instead, it is a distillation of an enormous amount of theological, social, and ecclesiological output over the course of Temple’s career. As well, Christianity and Social Order was a book that was produced in and for a particular context—that of the Church of England’s role in the life of a post-war Britain.  Reading it alone has led to the unfortunate assessment that William Temple ‘died at the right time’, as he was too tied to his place and time to be of use beyond it.  But Temple produced the equivalent of an average of a book-length work for each of the thirty-five years of his ordained ministry, and to take less than a hundred pocket-sized pages as the whole does an injustice to the Archbishop.  Perhaps more importantly, it deprives the Church of a rich resource for reflection and action.

One of the great gifts that William Temple had was the ability to write about complex ideas in a way that helped to clarify them without over-simplification, or drawing conclusions about problems that did not take into account a range of facts and experiences.  There is also the sense in Temple’s work that no verbal theological formulation, or Church teaching, is ever final—there is always something more to learn, and always the sense that we may have to revise our positions based on new facts and experience.

I am one of a small handful of people alive today who has read a significant portion of Temple’s work (and even in my early fifties, one of the youngest of that group).  I would like to offer a ‘tasting menu’ of some of the principles I see in the Archbishop’s work that could be of use, not only to the Church of England, but to the Anglican Communion more widely, and to individual Christians, as we go forward into the twenty-first century.  This is not a program of action, but a measure for the way that the church conducts itself in public. It describes attitudes and dispositions more than tasks. It does not move directly from Scripture or church tradition to action demanded by the contemporary situation.

There is great flexibility in authentic Christian belief and action. Temple frequently claimed that Christ left no written constitution to his followers, but a fellowship held together by common loyalty to their Lord. This is not a weakness or oversight, but a guarantee of the intellectual freedom that is required to apply Christ’s teachings to a wide variety of circumstances, especially to those situations which the Gospel does not directly address.

From Temple’s vision of what the church is supposed to be, a way of interacting with the wider culture is indicated. I see three qualities that the church should demonstrate in a post-Christian, plural context. These are (a) intellectual excellence, which in turn leads to both a self-critique and an openness to difference; (b) a gracious and attractive quality of Christian life, which deserves the respect of non-Christians in society; and (c) a selflessness on the part of the church which uses its privileged status not for its own good (a currently popular critique of the Constantinian establishment), but to transform social structures so that Christianity really becomes the religion of world redemption which Temple believed it was meant to be. [1]
All of this requires that the Church makes the effort to view itself as those who are not Christians see it.  One of the quotes I remember most clearly from Temple’s work is that the Church claims to be the foretaste of Heaven.  But, if non-Christians were to ‘look at us and say, “In that case we don’t much want to go to heaven”,’ it is at least partly because the church’s public presence is inadequately gracious.  In his lovely Readings in St John’s Gospel (1933-34), he writes that Jesus:

‘not only disclosed the divine reality, but therein also displayed its beauty. Truth is august, often austere, sometimes repellent. But here it is gracious and winning. John the Baptist, who is also in mind here, was full of truth, but there was not much grace about him!’

Commemorating significant Christians of the past—distant and recent—is great liturgical fun.  But in Temple’s case, I think there is something more to do than to call him to memory once a year in what is usually  not a very well-attended service.  I think we would do more justice to his memory if we actually studied the wealth of writings he has left us.  We could develop and disagree with his ideas as we sought to use them to help us in our ongoing life together in the presence of the Divine.  And in all our discussions, disagreements, and disputes, we could do far worse than to remember some of his words that I cherish deeply:

‘To become bitter in controversy is more heretical than to espouse with sincerity and charity the most devastating theological opinions’.

 


[1] This is more fully explored in my article ‘Archbishop William Temple And Public Theology in a Post-Christian Context.’ Journal of Anglican Studies.  December 2006.

The main illustration is a magisterial portrait by Philip de Laszlo, the society portrait painter of the time (1942). The black and white photograph shows the archbishop in more workmanlike, and perhaps more human, mode.

13 comments on this post:

Matthew Caminer said...
avatar

What an interesting piece, Wendy. Thank you. I was given pause for thought by: “John the Baptist, who is also in mind here, was full of truth, but there was not much grace about him!” In the sense that he was wild and woolly, he was certainly not a gracious-sounding cove, but in terms of being full of grace as a pointer to the greater Truth, I am not so sure!

11 December 2012 17:46
Wendy said...
avatar

Matthew, perhaps ‘grace’ comes in many forms–some more obvious than others!

11 December 2012 19:38
Chris Fewings said...
avatar

Thank you Wendy. I did read one of his books when I was a student (of agriculture!), but I can’t remember what it was called. It’s a pity your article is behind a paywall – I need the digested William Temple, I’m afraid.

Wendy said...
avatar

Chris, I’ll see if I can find the draft and send it to you in the next day or so!

But one thing I love about Temple’s writing is the clarity and smoothness. It’s closer to good literature than to ‘academic’ theology. I’ve often said that reading Temple is like drinking really good brandy–it goes down so easily you don’t realize how much of an effect it’s having on you :)

11 December 2012 22:47
11 December 2012 22:41
David Warnes said...
avatar

Thank you, Wendy. Temple does indeed deserve to be more widely read. “Readings in St John’s Gospel” is one of the books shelved so that I refer to it without leaving my desk, and is my first recourse when preaching on John. The reflection on the Christmas Day Gospel from which you quote is a wonderful piece of writing. “…it is said that the word became flesh because “flesh” is that part of human nature commonly associated with frailty and evil; commonly but not necessarily. In Jesus the flesh became the completely responsive vehicle of the spirit. The whole of Him, flesh included, is the Word, the self-utterance of God.”

Chris Fewings said...
avatar

I think that was the one I read…

Wendy said...
avatar

It could easily be, Chris. ‘Readings in St. John’s Gospel’ is also very popular.

If I were going to recommend a single work, though, it would be the set of talks he gave to the Oxford Mission, entitled ‘Christian Faith and Life’. A reasonably short, easy read, and I think it’s an excellent capsule of Temple’s main theological ideas.

12 December 2012 20:44
12 December 2012 13:07
12 December 2012 10:10
Wendy said...
avatar

David, Temple was one of the first theologians I read that didn’t make my head spin. I think he’s fallen out of favor because we’ve gotten some silly notion that unless theology is difficult and even distasteful, it is shallow and not worth reading (at least in the academy, this seems to be true). But I hope that if people started reading Temple again, we might not only take on board the words he said, but the spirit of intelligence, graciousness, and generosity with which the words were said and written. How different our ecclesiastical discussions would look (and even turn out!) if we could do that.

Joyce said...
avatar

I’ve just started reading Christianity and the Social Order. What he says about unemployment could have been referring to what’s going on today.Far from being out of favour,I should think every politician and social commentator of the last thirty years has been cribbing from what he said seventy years ago.

Wendy said...
avatar

Joyce, the problem is that CSO tends to be the *only* thing of Temple’s that people read–and they either (a) take it on board completely and uncritically, and see it as the *whole* of Temple’s work (which is far from the case), or (b) they dismiss it as too stuck to its place and time. I think a wider reading of Temple’s work, which includes a broad variety of what went before CSO, is needed to really utilize his ideas for the church of the next generation.

Joyce said...
avatar

This is the first thing of his that I’ve read. I haven’t come across anything stuck in time and place so far. Thanks for the warning though,Wendy,I’ll look out for it. I find him very readable and will probably seek out more of his works after this one. A point that struck home with me was ++ William Temple’s suggestion that enforced idleness could be made less unbearable by using the time to study or take part in fruitful leisure pursuits. I used to rant to my classes of ten and eleven-year olds about this very subject ! As a teenager I had once read a letter in a newspaper from a sarcastic so-and-so who accused the government of going the right way to ensure the country had the best-educated dole queue of all time. My reaction then was that an unemployed person had as much right to an education as anyone else. More importantly,if one ever had to be out of work then the ability to read and learn would counterbalance the misery somewhat.
I held onto that thought and frequently expressed it some years later. ++William Temple in CSO said he didn’t really think very many out of work would make such use of the time. When I’ve met former pupils they’ve told me they remember my response to their childhood assertions that the purpose of education was ‘to get a good job’was that it was much more. An education enabled people to get the most out of life and enjoy themselves when they weren’t at work – or even if they had no work should another depression such as their grandparents experienced befall the country.One or two have told me they had a time of unemployment and it was the knowledge from their schooldays that the public library and Radios 3 and 4 were still free to them and that nobody could take away their brains that sustained them emotionally. So, this nagging old trout got something through to some of them. Little did any of us know that an Archbishop had said something similar when their parents were children huddled in air-raid shelters or evacuated far from home.

14 December 2012 01:35
13 December 2012 19:34
13 December 2012 18:53
12 December 2012 12:01
Tim Chesterton said...
avatar

I have read ‘Christian Faith and Life’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be on my shelves any more. I hope that means I gave it away to someone else who needed it!!!

13 December 2012 04:15
avatar

Readings in St John has been a major part of my treasure chest for some 40 years. I find some of his reflections to be spine tinglingly inspirational. I woudl recommend it to any aspiring student of the Gospel.

13 December 2012 13:02

Leave a Reply

We rely on donations to keep this website running.