(Over the last few months, I’ve broken down a much longer essay draft on this topic. Today, I offer some summary thoughts on these two great contributors to the Christian Social Theology tradition.)
In the Fall 2012 issue of Anglican Theological Review, I made the claim that Anglican social theology seeks to develop answers to the following three questions. None of these questions is strictly limited to a historical period, but each one (largely due to circumstance) is more prevalent in particular times. Thus, they loosely follow an historical trajectory over the post-Reformation period. First, Anglican social theology attempts to articulate a theology of society, exploring the divine plan for large-scale human interactions; this was the question for the foundational thinkers of the Anglican tradition such as Richard Hooker. The second question is that of a theology for society, thinking about the benefits of the Christian religion for the human community. In the mid-19th century, thinkers such as Thomas Arnold were raising these questions with increasing frequency, with a special concern for the benefits to those who were not regular attenders at a particular house of worship. Arnold’s claim was that the church was for the benefit of “all who were within the hearing of the bells”, and not just for the devout. This second question gained momentum through the middle of the 20th century, perhaps reaching its Anglican pinnacle in the thought of William Temple. The third question, taken up in the final decades of the 20th century, is that of a theology in society. Theologians such as Ronald Preston, John Atherton, and (to a lesser extent, Rowan Williams) highlight the place of Christian theology alongside the formative influence of other philosophical and religious systems, as they seek to sustain and improve an increasingly multi-faith, multi-cultural society. This builds on the earlier questions, especially acknowledging a changed situation from the late 16th century of Richard Hooker (where there was some truth to the assumption that all citizens were Christians), to the contemporary state of affairs where many more people identify as Christians than attend services or support the church in other ways.
However, the social gospel as articulated by both Walter Rauschenbusch and William Temple can be seen as offering answers to all three questions. What is the divine intention for society? Both would answer “God’s Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven”. What benefit does the Christian religion bring to society, even for those who are not Christians? The answer would be that those of Christian faith hold human personality and dignity to be sacred, and to offer help and resources to individuals in need, but only as an interim measure. Rather than Archbishop Tutu’s ‘bread to a hungry person’ as the extent of Christian social action, adherents of the social gospel seek institutional and systemic change so that hunger (and all that hunger represents) is eradicated. What is the place of Christian theology in an increasingly plural/secular society? For social gospel thought, it is to seek to co-operate with all people of goodwill in building the Kingdom in which men and women can grow into the full stature of Christ. This is why social gospel thought could not be contained within a single denomination or communion—it needed (and needs) a far wider reach. It could not be limited to those who attended conventional Christian worship, but had to be developed amongst young, privileged, educated men and women, before they took on adult responsibilities in the workplace and home. Temple saw that the church’s influence in society had to be promoted amongst those who could instigate change—bank managers, trade union leaders, politicians. For these reasons, the natural theology approach to scripture and tradition, had a far greater appeal than that of a revealed religion.
The focus on the teachings of the human Jesus are not only intellectually credible, but have an urgency for the here and now that an ethic of divine command, or hope of reward/fear of punishment in an afterlife, lack. This focus gives the social gospel an attractiveness to that growing group of ‘spiritual but not religious’ that has become a major feature of the social landscape of the western world. The social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and William Temple might be the way forward for the church of the 21st century as it strives for the advancement of God’s Kingdom.