As I haven’t been writing this blog for very long, I can’t yet do “throwback Thursday” from past offerings. But today, I wanted to use a lecture I gave a few years ago at Ripon College Cuddesdon, during my time as a research fellow.
I am very little interested in the ideas of historical figures—unless those ideas have some application for our lives in the church today. I am likely to put down a book by even the most important thinkers in the Christian tradition unless I can see how they can help us to live with wisdom, integrity, compassion, and justice in the situations that faithful people encounter in contemporary life. So, today I don’t want to talk so much about the particular details of William Temple’s theology, as much as give a brief sketch of his life and work, and to say how his thoughtful, intelligent approach to Christian faith and life is applicable to believing people today.
To begin, I’d like to give a brief outline of Temple’s life. He was born in Exeter in October 1881, the son of Bishop Frederick Temple, who was later translated to London and then to Canterbury, making William the first son of an Archbishop of Canterbury to become an Archbishop of Canterbury. He attended Rugby school, and then Oxford, and was ordained deacon in 1908 by Archbishop Randall Davidson and priest the following year. Being the son of a former Archbishop who was close friends with the current one did not guarantee Temple’s ordination; indeed he was initially rejected on the grounds of questionable theological orthodoxy by then-bishop of Oxford, Frances Paget. But even prior to ordination, he was becoming active in the kinds of church and civic affairs that would form important parts of his work for the rest of his life, including the Workers’ Educational Association, and as a lay member of the Oxford Diocesan Conference.
Temple served in various capacities, including Headmaster of Repton, Rector of St James’ Piccadilly (which he left to chair the Life and Liberty Movement), and Canon of Westminster, before being consecrated as Bishop of Manchester in 1921. During the earlier years of his ordained life, Temple laid the groundwork for which he would be most remembered: leadership in the oecumenical movement, and social and economic reform. The key events during this time were his chairmanship of Copec (Interdenominational Conference on Politics, Economics and Citizenship), and the Lausanne Conference on Faith and Order, and the Jerusalem Missionary Conference.
In 1929, Temple was made Archbishop of York, and the 13 years he spent there are considered by many to be his most theologically productive, as well as being the period of his most important work in church unity. The talks from his 1931 Oxford mission are published as Christian Faith and Life, which is an excellent short summary of the main points in Temple’s theology. During the York years, Temple was also a Gifford Lecturer, made an extended visit to the United States, served on the Advisory Council to the BBC, chaired the Edinburgh Conference on Faith and Order, and consecrated St George’s Cathedral in Cairo. So, if not the first ‘flying bishops’, one of the first to be a major international traveller—there is reputed to be a piece by or about him that appeared in a seat-back-pocket magazine for Trans World Airlines, but I’ve been unable to obtain a copy. He was also chair of the 1941 Malvern Conference, which turned into a major platform for the Christendom group (although I am still not convinced that Temple was quite as strong in the movement to re-catholicize the Church of England as his association with the Christendom group would indicate). Extending over his pre-Canterbury career, he served on two major Archbishops’ Commissions: one on relations between the church and the state, and one on Doctrine, which produced the famous 1938 Report.
In 1942, Temple was translated to Canterbury; this was also the year when his most famous book, Christianity and Social Order was published. He maintained his busy speaking schedule and oecumenical leadership during his two and a half years as Archbishop of Canterbury, but at this point original writing ceased, and Temple’s publications from the Canterbury years were mostly collections of speeches and sermons. Nonetheless, by the time of his death in October of 1944, William Temple was recognised as the great oecumenical leader of his time, and averaged approximately one book-length work per year of his thirty-six years of ordained ministry. If he had lived beyond the end of the war, he would have become the first President of the World Council of Churches; as it was, it took about 5 people to do the work that Temple was expected to take on.
Although he was considered to be the pre-eminent churchman of his time, sixty-three years after his death, very few people have done significant study of Temple’s theological legacy. Ronald Preston (d. 2001) was widely considered to be (by himself and others) his theological successor. Because Preston denigrated the usefulness of Temple’s major early works (Mens Creatrix and Christus Veritas), and furthermore referred to no work besides Christianity and Social Order in his own writings, I do not agree with this assessment (and have said so in print). I think Preston was Temple’s successor in terms of ethical and ecumenical concerns, but he was ‘thin’ on the theological warrants Temple would have used. I am not sure who today could be said to be a successor; Temple seems to be more honoured as a great church leader and person of faith (which is no unreasonable estimate) rather than as a Christian intellectual of enduring value. I would like to spend a bit of time to say why I think that trend should be reversed.
II. Where to begin?
People have occasionally asked me where they should start if they want to get into Temple’s work. If you go to most libraries, and they have anything from Temple, they will have Christianity and Social Order, and it’s tempting to start with that because if there is more than one book, that will be the shortest. That’s what I did, because the Marquette library only had that and Nature, Man and God. It was interesting enough, but it was also somewhat limited because CSO is very tied to the immediate context of the tail end of the second world war, hopes for reconstruction and revitalisation, and written at a time when it was still possible to make some assumptions concerning the place and voice of the established church for and from which Temple was speaking.
I’ve suggested to a few people that they might start with the aforementioned Christian Faith and Life, Temple’s 1931 Oxford mission. I think that’s an accessible entry point to his thought, and when I used it in an introductory undergraduate class in Christian theology a few years ago, students found it to be engaging, even almost seven decades after its first appearance. But now I would make a different suggestion. I would start with one of the collections of shorter writings (such as speeches, sermons, or essays). That makes it easier to select a topic that appeals at the moment, or, if you manage to have a number of collections at hand, to get a general view of what he had to say on a subject over his lifetime. It also makes ‘low commitment’ reading possible—in about half an hour’s time, you can generally get a self-contained argument on a particular theme, in a way that just doesn’t happen with a book of several hundred pages (and by the way, I recommend this as a way of getting a quick overview of what any theologian has to say). There are collections entitled Religious Experience, and Essays in Christian Politics, and several others.
III. Thinking the Faith
But today I’d like to start with, and then build upon, a sermon that appears in a collection with the intimidating title Studies in the Spirit and Truth of Christianity, Being University and School Sermons, which was published in 1914. The 1913 sermon I am thinking about has a less lofty title: ‘The Sin of Stupidity’. Other than having a title I can’t help but love, I think this is perhaps one of the gems of Temple’s writing that most deserves to be retrieved for modern thinking Christians. I think this short piece, exploring I Corinthians 14:20, contains things that would not harm our religious discourse today—whether with fellow Anglicans, people of non-Christian religious traditions, or those who do not hold anything that could be called religious belief.
I’ve made copies so that you can read the sermon at your own convenience, and you can make your own decisions about whether this brief piece gives us reason to return to Temple’s writings and reclaim some of his ideas for today. I’d like to point out a few things in the sermon, and then move on to the more general ideas Temple had about intelligent exercise of the faith throughout his lifetime.
The first thing I’d like to point out is that, for Temple, ‘real goodness and deep religion are incompatible with stupidity’—that ‘openness and readiness of mind is necessary to goodness.’ Here, Temple is not saying that only people of above average intelligence can be good, or that all people of high intelligence or education will use that for good purposes. He is, however, saying that even with the best of intentions, a person can speak or act in ways that do more harm than good if s/he refuses to learn pertinent information or skills; I’m sure we can all think of examples how this works out in practice (if not, the movie Vera Drake comes to mind). Temple comes back to this later in the sermon, saying that ‘the really stupid man cannot be altogether a good man, for even in his efforts to do good, he will do harm through ignorance or misunderstanding of the facts.’ Knowing our limits, and where our knowledge and skills need reinforcement, is a key to avoiding doing unintentional harm.
A form of ‘stupidity’ that Temple warned against was the temptation to be unduly prejudiced by the views common to one’s peer group—either to accept and repeat them without thinking, or to take the opposite approach of rejecting and contradicting them out of hand. Again, this requires a level of investigation of the facts behind popular opinion, and a sort of ‘moral courage’ to go against the norms of one’s nearest circle of peers. Temple thought the place where this happened the most was (not surprisingly) in the realm of partisan politics (although it could probably have been said of the various parties in the church as well). He claims that ‘We suffer it is hard to say how much from the combined efforts of the stupid conservative who thinks all change is wrong, and the stupid radical who thinks any change is right. . . . Can we not detach ourselves from the fooleries of any party and just honestly think?’
This is not to say that one should never accept something just because someone has said it before, and because it is generally accepted. When something is widely accepted, sometimes it is actually because it should be—it rings true to the experience of a large number of people over a long time (especially in Christian faith). A wise person will accept authority, but also try to test out what is authoritatively taught through his or her own experience, or as Temple said, ‘Test your faith in the crucible of criticism and by the experiment of life.’
For Temple, Jesus was the primary exemplar of such ‘honesty of mind’: not because he was intellectually superior, but because his mind, was, as Temple said, ‘unprejudiced by convention’ and he ‘always faced the real issue quite plainly.’ When Jesus was asked about tribute to Caesar, his answer was displeasing to both the Pharisees and the Herodians, because it reminded them that they had the privilege (through currency) of trading in every market in the known world—and had to pay for that privilege. It wasn’t so much a clever answer, but an honest one. In Temple’s view, not everyone is called to intellectual brilliance, but everyone is called to mental honesty.
I think the commitment to intelligent belief is one of the most important things we can reclaim from Temple and put into use today. Next, I want to talk about some of the principles that grew out of this thoughtful approach to Christian faith and action. First, are there any comments you’d like to make or questions you’d like to ask before moving on?
IV. Thoughtful Belief in Action: What Can We Use for Today?
A lot of the things Temple became most famous for in later life (such as his ecumenical commitments and his social ethics) have their beginnings in his earlier writings. For example, if you read Christianity and Social Order today, without having read any of his earlier work, you might dismiss the book, and the author, as being a good commentator for his own time and place, but having not much to say to our present concerns. But CSO is not a stand-alone work—it is a short, popularized distillation of thirty years of thinking about what the interaction of church and society meant during the second world war, and what that relationship might look like in the period following the war’s end. The seeds for CSO are scattered throughout the earlier work (especially occasional papers, speeches, and editorials from the York Quarterly, the York magazine that Temple edited during his northern primacy).
It may be a little different for ‘The Sin of Stupidity’. I think that is more a packet of seeds that got scattered throughout Temple’s later work, but which, for whatever reasons, never got harvested and gathered into one place. I’d like to bring together a few of the ideas which continue that commitment to intelligent Christianity throughout Temple’s work, and that I think are worth keeping in mind now.
Occasionally, people from various places email me concerning some quote from Temple that they would like me to identify the exact source, or some other thing that they are sure he said and heard from some preacher somewhere, and they’ve found my name on the Internet as someone who might know. Sometimes, I do know and can help them fairly easily. Sometimes, it’s something someone else thought up but attributed to Temple, and I can’t identify it. Most often, though it’s the famous misquote that people want me to identify—the one where they ask ‘where did Temple say the church is the only organization on earth that doesn’t exist for itself?’ As they say, close but no cigar. The actual closest thing to that effect which I’ve been able to locate is the following:
An army does not exist for the soldiers who compose it; you ask them! An army exists for the sake of the nation to which the soldiers belong. It is not for their sake that there is an army; it is for the sake of the nation and the cause which it has espoused. So the Church exists in the first place, not for those of us who are its members, but for the Kingdom of God. (Issues of Faith, 1917)
The metaphor of ‘army’ to describe the church is not Temple’s most commonly used one, but some ideas here need to be examined. First, obviously, this is not saying that the church is the only institution that exists for others, or exists to support principles or causes—armies do, so do hospitals, maybe even governments do. But an institution such as the church, which does not (now, anyway) operate by force or fiat, does have to think about its relation to those who are not its members, if it wants either to grow in numbers or to fulfill what it has discerned as God’s will. The church exists for something larger than itself, and needs to find the most effective ways of serving the world in which it is situated. The comparison of ‘army’ to ‘church’ is a reminder that no Christian’s faith is for him or herself alone, but in concert with others, to serve the world outside the church, and always working with one of Temple’s overriding concepts—that of power subordinated to love. That, in fact, was his definition of legitimate authority.
To this end, the church needs not only to think about what its message is, but also how best to convey it. What is the good of believing you possess some kind of divine truth, and working like mad to convince others of it, but doing it in a self-defeating way? Temple believed in the inherent attractiveness and beauty of the Christian faith, and felt that both individual believers and the church as a whole needed to not only speak the Gospel graciously, but to embody it beautifully as well. My favourite expression of this is from the 1934 Readings in St. John’s Gospel, writing about John 1:14 (‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’), saying 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.
Temple’s primary metaphor for the church is the Body of Christ—not the body of John the Baptist. It is important for each Christian community to witness to its understanding of the truth, but to do so graciously. Especially when the church encounters cultural differences, it is important to state beliefs in a respectful way, and not behaving as though there is nothing to be learned from non-Christian sources. In a 1914 address, Temple put it this way:
I am sure that if I were called to be a Missionary, I should desire abundant liberty of re-translating the experience in the Catholic tradition into language more intelligible to the children of another civilization, and I should hope to learn from my converts’ way of responding to the revelation of God in Christ so much new truth as might require some change in my own formulation of belief. (‘Theology, the Science of Religion’, in Studies in the Spirit and Truth of Christianity)
Both Christian individuals, and the church as a whole, need to take into account cultural differences, and allow Christian belief to adapt to the context in which it is being translated. This is both a respectful and realistic way of coping with difference, one that expresses appreciation for the spiritual treasures of other traditions. Without doing so, those of different religious viewpoints will not give each other a respectful hearing.
The church also needs to listen to those outside the church—and those within the church need to listen to each other carefully, especially when there is disagreement. For Temple, it is vital to
Insist on our part of the truth in such a way as to avoid all condemnation of other bodies…–at least, all condemnation which we do not pronounce quite equally upon ourselves. (Church and Nation, 1915)
He also called for each group within the church to recognize the ‘novel and unique element contributed by each individual’ (Church and its teaching Today, 1936), and by other groups, because none on their own possesses the truth of Christ in its fullness. Whether from outsiders, or from groups within its membership, the Church must be as ready to hear criticism of its own shortcomings as it is to criticize the contemporary culture.
For Temple, division in the church is lamentable, not just because of the damage done to the church, but because it diminishes the church’s ability to mediate divine love to those outside its membership. Christians do not have to agree on every theological point, but they do have to display a charitable openness to each other in their efforts to live and work together. After all, one of the ways Temple described the church’s task was to be ‘the representation in this earth of the life of heaven.’ However, non-Christians hear this, and ‘look at us and say, “in that case we don’t much want to go to heaven,”’—and are right to do so, and the church has no right to complain, because it has become the author of its own unhappiness.
I think of the current tensions at the highest levels of the Anglican Communion, and the following of Temple’s words cannot help but come to mind: ‘to become bitter in controversy is more heretical than to espouse with sincerity and charity the most devastating theological opinions.’ (Church and its Teaching Today, 1936) Although each party within the church needs to hold on to its own spiritual treasures, everyone needs to recognize that there are no set verbal forms for theological understanding—even creedal statements are subject to modification as new experience colours theological expression. Thinking the faith also requires a certain intellectual humility, which means that no matter how strongly a belief is held, Christians are required to ‘learn the truth which others possess in fuller degrees than ourselves…our temper…must be that of learners…’ (Church Looks Forward, 1944), and that ‘there is no faith held by any very large body of people or by any sincerely reflecting people which has not the truth as its mainspring’. (Church and its Teaching Today, 1936). It is always important to discover what insight an opposing view might contain.
V. Closing Remarks
There is no way in an hour that I can do justice to the breadth of William Temple’s thought. And I always find it hard to keep a presentation on his writings from deteriorating into a disjointed sort of ‘wit and wisdom’ talk—although there is much of both. What I’ve attempted to do is present some key ideas that I think might be helpful to consider in the attempt to live the Christian faith with wisdom, integrity, compassion, and justice—and maybe even generosity toward others—in the contexts we live in now. I’ve provided a brief listing of possible readings if you want to see if Temple’s ideas can speak to you more directly. But one of the things I value most about Anglican theology is that it can provide some resources to think about what the exercise of Christianity looks like in changing circumstances of time and place, and William Temple is one of the best I’ve found for thinking through a faithful approach to coping with religious difference. I think his work encourages us to a Christian faith that is intelligent, graciously attractive, and seeks the good of others above ourselves or a rigidly unified church—and I imagine that if our current ecclesiastical debates were conducted along some of Temple’s principles, they might look and sound very different than they do.