Walter Rauschenbusch, William Temple, and the Social Gospel (Part 6)

  • Rehearsing the Social Gospel: The 1979 Prayer Book and William Temple’s Sacramental Vision

Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives… (Morning Prayer, 1979 Book of Common Prayer p. 101)

For the social gospel, prayer and worship are not limited to Sunday mornings or the appointed Daily Offices of Anglican churches.  William Temple claimed that worship “tested” action—our praise of God measures and critiques our everyday life in the “secular” world.  Indeed, Temple’s sacramental theology intends to break the barriers between secular and sacred:  the bread and wine of Holy Communion remind us that all food and drink are sacred; the words we utter remind us that all speech is a gift from God.  Of course, action always falls short of the vision of heaven enacted in worship, especially the Eucharist, but it is still important to keep Temple’s idea in mind as we engage in both corporate prayer and Christian life in the world.

However, both Rauschenbusch and Temple placed emphasis on the importance of corporate worship for the social gospel, as having an educative and motivational function.  This clearly, if unconsciously and unintentionally, illustrated in the shape of Anglican Eucharistic liturgies.  It is instructive that the Lord’s Prayer is recited immediately before the distribution of the Holy Communion.  Rauschenbusch is clear that this is not the prayer of an individual calling out to the Divine.  Rather, he asks, “Is there anything more social in consciousness than the Lord’s Prayer?”[1] Although it is a commonplace to say that the first ‘real’ thing that is asked in the prayer taught by Jesus is for ‘daily bread’, this is not so.  The first request—the most fervent, and from which all others follow—is for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, as in Heaven.  It is not a plea to be saved from this earthly life and to go to heaven when we die.  Rather, it is the hope that earth itself will become as Heaven, a place reflective of the peaceful and just reign of its King, and a lament that it is not currently so.  God’s Kingdom is not separated from daily bread and forgiveness of sins; those things are the characteristics of the Kingdom.  Temptation comes from unfulfilled needs, and thus freedom from temptation and evil are marks of the Kingdom.  We pray that the Kingdom is realized on earth, and that all the benefits which flow from that reign will be ours.

This prayer is immediately followed by the distribution of the Holy Communion, and it can be seen as a representation of the life of the Kingdom.  Social gospel thinking would encourage worshippers to understand it in this way.  There is an orderliness to the distribution, without jostling or grasping, and without resentment that one has been treated better than another.  There is equal respect paid to all.  Everyone who approaches is fed equally, with adequate amounts of exquisitely prepared food and drink.  The last to the table receive as abundantly as the first.  Those who display the greatest wealth—the richly dressed clergy—serve the rest, rather than being served by them.  The setting is one of beauty and peace, enhanced by candles, flowers, music, and precious vessels.  It is an intensely social scene.  Although each individual is valued, Anglican liturgy since the Reformation has insisted that the Holy Communion is normally a corporate event rather than a private one.  Temple sums up the political and economic impact of the Eucharist in the following way:

In the Holy Communion service we take the bread and wine—man’s industrial and commercial life in symbol—and offer it to God; because we have offered it to Him, He gives it back to us as the means of nurturing us, not in our animal nature alone, but as agents of His purpose, limbs of a body responsive to His will; and as we receive it back from him, we share it with one another in true fellowship.  If we think of the service in this way, it is a perfect picture of what secular society ought to be; and a Christian civilization is one where the citizens seek to make their ordered life something of which that service is the symbol.[2]

Sacramentality, although less emphasized by the Baptist Rauschenbusch, is one of the most important, but under-appreciated, keys to Temple’s social thought.  He famously claimed that Christianity is the ‘most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.’[3]  Matter is not evil or illusory, but is given meaning and becomes sacred when it is put to use for a spiritual purpose.[4]  The whole value of the material world is wrapped up in its spiritual significance.

Furthermore, the dominical sacraments are normally public observances, and so the use of matter to convey spiritual grace is a corporate activity with social overtones.  Food and drink are the most basic material necessities of human life and wellbeing, and therefore the spiritual grace conveyed in the Eucharist are not just for those receiving, but for the world.  We cannot care for souls without caring equally and simultaneously for bodies.[5]  The tight association between bread and wine as ‘secular’ food and drink, and as Body and Blood, is a social convention, in much the same way that language is.  Words mean nothing except as agreed by social convention; sacramental materials only signify what a community agrees they represent.  Historically, Christianity has become  a dominant symbol-making and defining community that the offering of the Body and Blood of Christ (given for the world) in symbols of bread and wine cannot entirely shake off its religious meaning even for those outside the church.  No God, no food; no food, no God.  Sacramental worship was thus, for Temple, not only a spur to individual charitable acts, but had a public and political side. The material is necessary to the spiritual in Temple’s scheme—life, mind, and spirit depend (in that order) on the basis of matter.  However, the spiritual must not be allowed to

go its own way unchecked by spirit, so that the vaunted spiritual exaltation has its counterpart in bodily immorality.  In either case the unity of man’s life is broken; the material world, with all man’s economic activity, becomes a happy hunting-ground for uncurbed acquisitiveness, and religion becomes a refined occupation for the leisure of the mystical. It is in the sacramental view of the universe, both of its material and of its spiritual elements, that there is given hope of making human both politics and economics and of making effectual both faith and love.[6]

The public nature of the Eucharist is particularly important for social gospel thinking—no one person is more cared for by God than his or her fellows.  The Kingdom is for the benefit of all, not just the individual.  The social gospel, especially in Rauschenbusch’s articulation, does not give priority to an individual’s mystical union with God, but sees the Eucharistic rite as a form of dress rehearsal for how the Church should operate in the world.  There is a sense, too, that something is going to happen as a result of sacramental worship. A sacrament is “a spiritual utilization of a material object whereby a spiritual result is effected.”[7]The most important spiritual result would be an increase in the desire to advance the Kingdom of God, not just by individual believers acting on a one-by-one charitable basis, but as the whole Church.

It is, after all, the Kingdom for which the Church exists.  Temple is often credited with having said that the church is the only institution that does not exist for its members, but this is the most famous thing he never really said.  What he did say was 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.[8]

And the Church is not prepared to do this:

The Kingdom of God is like other kingdoms at least in this, that if its army is not ready when hostile forces gather against it, it suffers loss.  The Church is the Army of the Kingdom of God, and it is manifestly not ready.[9]

“Army” has become an unpopular way of thinking about the Church.  It has unfortunate overtones, especially in an age that is culturally sensitive to the ills committed in the name of a conquering and colonizing Christianity.  However, as the Kingdom for which the Church exists is different from other temporal kingdoms, the Church as Army is different in kind from other military forces.  It is perhaps no accident that Rauschenbusch wrote A Theology for the Social Gospel during the First World War, and that Temple undertook a leadership role with the National Mission of Repentance and Hope as a response to the war.

[1]Rauschenbusch, Social Principles, p. 22; italics in original.

[2] Temple, Hope of a New World (New York:  Macmillan, 1944) p. 70.

[3] Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 478.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 483.

[6] Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 486.

[7] Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 491.

[8] Temple, Issues of Faith (London:  Macmillan, 1917) , pp. 21-22.

[9] Temple, Fellowship with God (London:  Macmillan, 1920), pp. 215-216.

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