William Temple (1881-1944) was a leading thinker, writer, clergyman and social activist.
…who sought to link Christian theological concerns to everyday life, whilst connecting the Church to wider society. His radical, pioneering thinking played a foundational role in the formation of the British Welfare State.
Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-44, William Temple was a leader in the ecumenical movement and in educational, labour and social reform. He lectured in philosophy at Queen’s College, Oxford (1904-10) and was ordained to the priesthood in 1909. He became headmaster of Repton School (1910-14) and rector of St James’s Piccadilly in London (1914-17). Later he became leader of the ‘Life and Liberty movement’ which hugely influenced the shift towards synodical and democratic government in the Church of England. He was successively a Canon of Westminster (1919-12), Bishop of Manchester (1921-29), Archbishop of York (1929-42) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-4).
Perhaps Temple’s most iconic publication is Christianity and Social Order (1942). A single page in this book outlines the contours of the Welfare State with its call for the provision of universal access to healthcare, education, decent housing, proper working conditions, and democratic representation. William Temple’s vision of a post-war society that reflected the innate dignity of each person created in the image of God (imago Dei), was hugely influential on William Beveridge, impacting on the 1942 Beveridge Report which lead to the establishment of the Welfare State in 1945.
One of the most perceptive comments on William Temple’s ability to speak across both political and secular/religious divides came from former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath who wrote the preface to the 1976 edition of Christianity and Social Order. Heath remarked in his biography,
‘My Christian faith … provided foundations for my political beliefs. In this, I was influenced by the teaching of William Temple. Temple’s impact on my generation was immense. He believed that a fairer society could be built only on moral foundations, with all individuals recognising their duty to help others. He was … the first Anglican leader for decades to set out the Church’s teachings in modern terms. He propounded a view of morality which was not preoccupied with sexuality, but which was relevant to the myriad problems besetting the individual in the personal, professional and social spheres …. our own moderate Conservatism, [was]… similarly predicated upon the view that the individual can be truly fulfilled only as part of a social unit.’
Temple’s major publications include works of philosophy, theology and political economy including: Mens Creatrix (1917; “The Creative Mind”); a volume of Gifford Lectures, Nature, Man, and God (1934); a commentary on St John’s Gospel (Readings in St John’s Gospel -1939/40); Christianity and Social Order (1942), and The Church Looks Forward (1944).
William Temple’s work continues to have a profound influence in both theological and political circles, expressing as it does, radical ideas on justice and equality within mainstream discourses.