Walter Rauschenbusch, William Temple, and the Social Gospel (Part 3)

  • William Temple and Anglican Social Theology

As noted, Rauschenbusch’s social gospel was formed not merely from academic study but from the experience of ministry in deprived environments.  William Temple (1881-1944), spent his early life in a privileged ecclesiastical environment as the son of a bishop who later became Archbishop of Canterbury (and became the first son of an Archbishop of Canterbury to ascend to that position himself in 1942).  However, social inequality, and the affront to the dignity of persons, was a concern of his from early childhood.  There is a popular, if undocumented, story about the young Temple in which, during a family vacation, he was served his favorite roast chicken for lunch, but heard that the hotel staff was eating beef stew (which he apparently did not care for).  “Why?” the young William cried in despair at the unfairness.  Eventually, the concern over injustice expanded to more important issues than lunch menus.  Temple’s ultimate articulation of Christian concern for social issues appears as the 1942 Penguin Special Christianity and Social Order, in which the main question is how to change social systems and institutions so that all of God’s children might reach the potential that is their divine birthright:

Why should some of God’s children have full opportunity to develop their capacities in freely-chosen occupations, while others are confined to a stunted form of existence, enslaved to types of labour which represent no personal choice but the sole opportunity offered?[1]

Yet, Christianity and Social Order is not a stand-alone work.  Rather, it is the distillation of thirty-five years of ordained ministry (and the average of a book-length work for each of those years), in which Temple was pastor, bishop, archbishop, social commentator and reformer, ecumenist, and incarnational theologian.

Unlike Rauschenbusch, William Temple was no academic theologian or church historian, and there is no one work in which the background theology for his social thought is summarized.  Christianity and Social Order is his most widely read book, and some scholars rarely give evidence that they have read his larger, earlier works.  His supposed theological heir, Ronald Preston, indicated that there is no benefit in doing so, claiming that the two major treatises on philosophical theology (Mens Creatrix and Christus Veritas) are incomprehensible.  Yet, without the years of reflection represented by Temple’s earlier writing, Christianity and Social Order appears to be a quaint historical document, rooted to its time and place and hardly worth study in the changed circumstances of the early twenty-first century.  If that is all one reads of William Temple’s work, it is easy to dismiss him as no longer having anything of interest to contribute to the church’s social thought and action. When read as the distillation of that earlier work, it becomes obvious that Christianity and Social Order was a considered response to the contemporary situation, based on decades of theological reflection and personal experience.  It is the underlying theology, rather than the practical response, that is more important in evaluating Temple’s enduring legacy.  One needs to dig deeper with Temple than with Rauschenbusch, because of the more varied nature of Temple’s career and the more occasional character of his writing.  Rauschenbusch was pastor to one congregation prior to undertaking a ministry of seminary teaching at the institution where he trained and his father had taught; Temple was an on-the-ground priest, bishop, archbishop, and ecumenical leader in a variety of settings and on an international scale.  Rauschenbusch wrote a small number of substantial works; Temple wrote two volumes (excluding Nature, Man and God, the Gifford Lectures, which are of a different character), and most of his large writing output was captured in collections of sermons, essays, and speeches.  Because, apart from Christianity and Social Order, Temple left no one single volume on his social thought, it is necessary to survey a much broader field to understand the foundations of his theology.

However different the life circumstances between these two men might be, the similarities are the notable feature in their conclusions about the picture of society indicated by the life and teachings of Jesus.  Rauschenbusch was at the end of his life as the first world war was drawing to a close; Temple was still early in his ministry.  Both, however, felt that the war signaled an end of the Christian optimism about human progress that had dominated the second half of the nineteenth century.  This was an important impetus for Temple’s work on the National Mission of Repentance and Hope, a Church of England initiative for revitalizing society, primarily through reinforcing the Church’s place in that society, in the devastating circumstances of a post-war nation.  By the outbreak of the war in 1914, the primacy of the Church of England, with a ‘resident gentleman in every parish’[2], had seen its best days.  During the war, questions from both clergy and laity had begun to surface about the effectiveness of the gospel with which they had been entrusted, and in which they put their faith.  How could it be relevant to a world that could take up arms on such an unprecedented scale?  In a letter to Henry Scott Holland, Temple said that “if only the world had been Christian, it would not be at war”, and indicated that it was the official “organs” of Christianity (i.e. the institutional church) that had failed in effective preaching of the gospel.[3]  Part of the problem was that the church (especially the established Church of England) was out of touch with the needs of ‘the working man’.[4] Worse, the Church had a tendency to underestimate the intelligence of those who had not been given the opportunities for education.  Temple was infuriated by the insistence that all literature directed at the laboring classes should be written in words of one syllable.  “It was vain to point out that, if the working man was in the habit of saying ‘Shut the door’, it was also not beyond his powers of expression occasionally to say ‘Open the window’.”[5]  Temple’s work on the National Mission was focused on the authority of Christ and a ‘national dedication to the service of the Kingdom’.[6]  And that Kingdom meant a just and equitable distribution of the spiritual and material goods of society.

William Temple clearly saw that poverty was not just a matter of individual needs going unmet, but a barrier to participation in social, political, and religious life as well—and he took every opportunity to speak to groups of people who might help alleviate poverty, not through individual acts of charity,  but by examining and when necessary reforming, social institutions.  One of the most interesting speeches of his career occurred shortly before his death, to a group of banking professionals, with whom he shared what he believed to be a Christian approach to monetary policy.  Temple also worked on a range of social issues, including prison and education reform, and was supportive of labor unions throughout the period of his public ministry.

[1] William Temple, Christianity and Social Order (London:  Shepheard-Walwyn, 1987; originally Penguin,, 1942), p. 37.

[2]F.A. Iremonger, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (London:  Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 204.

[3] Iremonger, p. 205.

[4] Iremonger, p. 209.

[5] Iremonger, p. 209.

[6] Iremonger, p. 212.


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