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Posts Tagged "Archbishop William Temple":

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.

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