Nine-Tenths of the Work of the Church: What Temple Really Said Part 1 (or, The Most Famous Thing Temple Never Said, Part 2)

Nine-Tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilites and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all. (William Temple,Christianity and Social Order , p. 39)

This small volume, which appeared as a Penguin Special in 1942, was one of the last important works William Temple wrote, and is probably the only thing with which anyone younger than about 65 is familiar.  It was written as leaders of both the Church of England and its civil government were imagining what a post-war Britain might look like, and as a result, it has become commonplace to say that Temple’s work is now hopelessly outdated, tied to its place and time.  But Christianity and Social Order is a distillation of Temple’s thought for his entire life up to that point: thirty-three years of ordained ministry, plus growing up as the son of the Bishop of Exeter (and later London), and was the first Archbishop of Canterbury whose father was also an Archbishop of Canterbury.

It has also become commonplace, on the strength of this opening quote alone, to say that William Temple had no real idea what he meant when he spoke of ‘church’.

I have always believed that last commonplace to be a patent nonsense.  From the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference until his death in 1944, William Temple was a leader in the ecumenical movement of the first half of the twentieth century. Had he survived past the end of the Second World War, he would have become the fist President of the World Council of Churches. It has always struck me as silly to say that a man so dedicated to the life of one church, who also strove for cooperation with a wider Christian world, had no idea what was meant by ‘church’. As I was preparing to write my PhD on Temple’s ecclesiology, a number of scholars said there wasn’t enough there to write about. I respectfully disagreed, and went ahead anyway.

The important thing about what Temple really said, in the 21st century church, is that it means we should be spending a lot less time in that holy huddle of congregational life, and more time out in the world doing our thing. If church is going to have any appeal for Past-Christians (or Christians running into Fowler’s fourth stage of faith), this is critical. We might come to church–not in a way that will have an astounding impact on Sunday attendance figures–but in ways that help us do our work in the world with the support that a ‘lighter’ connection with the Christian community can provide. We will probably determine our own needs for worship and connection–figure out a sort of spiritual metabolism, and how it is best fed, taking on only what is necessary to fuel the nine-tenths of the church’s work we want to do in the world.

We are probably never going to be great congregants. Please don’t ask us to teach Sunday school, chaperone the youth group, or run the ticket table at the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. But welcome us, and know that we are doing our important work for God outside the walls of the church, apart from its structure and supervision.

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