William Temple

William Temple (1881-1944), archbishop of Canterbury, was an outstanding church and civic leader who by the time he died had achieved world status in the ecumenical movement as one who could speak with insight to statesmen as well as to religious leaders.

Born in 1881 in Exeter, Devon, where his father, Frederick, was bishop, William Temple is unique in having followed in the steps of his father, who became archbishop of Canterbury 16 years after William's birth. He had the traditional education of the English upper classes, at a public (that is, private) school—Rugby—and at an ancient university—Oxford. He was immediately recognized as a man of great gifts and became successively a fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, in 1910; headmaster of another public school—Repton—in 1910; rector of the fashionable St. James, Piccadilly, in the center of London in 1914; a canon of Westminster Abbey (which is a royal "peculiar" and outside the normal structures of the church) in 1919; bishop of Manchester, a heavily populated industrial diocese, in 1921; archbishop of York in 1929; and then archbishop of Canterbury in 1942. These rapid promotions were not due to his privileged background but to the fact that he was widely recognized as a leading figure who could not be overlooked. At his death he was recognized as such all over the world and, had he lived, he would have been the sole president of the World Council of Churches, which was officially launched in 1948.

Nor did he move primarily in privileged circles. From 1905 he was closely associated with the Workers' Educational Association, and he was its first president from 1908 to 1924. He retained a lasting commitment to educational and social causes, and in the 1930s he was active in working for the unemployed during the economic depression of that time. He was a member of the Labour Party for some years, and that before it had ousted the Liberals as the main opposition party to the Conservatives. He mixed easily with all classes, and particularly kept the confidence of those of student age. From 1907 he was associated with the Student Christian Movement, which sent him as an usher to the Edinburgh Conference of 1910, from which the modern ecumenical movement is dated. It was because of these ecumenical contacts that he was the obvious chairperson of the first ecumenical social conference to be held in Britain, COPEC (Conference on Christian Politics, Economics and Citizenship), in Birmingham in 1924. Subsequently he was to play a leading part in both the "Faith and Order" and "Life and Work" sides of the incipient ecumenical movement.

Within the Church of England Temple was prominent in securing an enabling act from Parliament in 1919 which gave the Church a large measure of self-government instead of more direct state control and in chairing from 1925 to 1938 a commission whose report Doctrine in the Church of England showed how modern biblical and doctrinal criticism could legitimately be used to interpret traditional positions. His own position moved from a more liberal Protestant to a more liberal Catholic one.

In philosophy he was nurtured in the last days of Oxford idealism, and his early books—Mens Creatrix (1917) and Christus Veitas (1924)—reflect this. Idealism has difficulty with the concrete, and Temple was concerned to show the necessity and reasonableness for it to allow for a specific Incarnation. Subsequently he wrestled with A. N. White-head's Process philosophy and came very near to what is known as its pantheism; but he never came to terms with Logical Positivism or with Existentialism (going back to Kierkegaard), both of which became very influential philosophical movements before World War II.

His Gifford Lectures Nature, Man and God (1934) show his thought at its best. By this time the great economic depression from 1929 had alerted him in a general way to Marxism, and in these lectures he tried to steal its cloth by using the term "dialectical" and by his most famous sentence: "Christianity is the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions." In his last years, as war again threatened and did break out, he took a more sombre view of irrationality in the world. Yet he never lost hope. He was a natural believer in the Christian faith who never felt serious doubt. His spirituality was reflected in his Readings in St. John's Gospel (1939 and 1944). His wartime Christianity and Social Order (1942) remained into the 1980s a classic of realistic yet hopeful social ethics, the realism being epitomized in the sentence "The art of Government in fact is the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands." He was unusual in being a prophet with a sense of the possible.

His spiritual leadership in wartime avoided entirely the uncritical nationalism and bellicosity which had been the dominant tone of the churches in World War I. All his life he worked at a prodigious pace over a huge range of issues and problems, and he published many books, often based on lectures and sermons. He died in the fullness of his powers in 1944.


Further Reading on William Temple

By far the main source of information is the biography William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury by F. A. Iremonger, even though it was published in 1948, rather soon after his death. It contains a valuable chapter by Professor Dorothy Emmet on Temple's philosophy. Two American books are William Temple: Twentieth Century Christian by Joseph Fletcher (1963) and William Temple, an Archbishop for all Seasons by Charles W. Lowry (1982). The former is more analytical and the latter more personal, but neither is exclusively so.

Additional Biography Sources

Kent, John, William Temple: church, state, and society in Britain, 1880-1950, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Lowry, Charles Wesley, William Temple, an archbishop for all seasons, Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.