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Lessons for an election year from the Bishop of Unity

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Photo Credit to Frankie Roberto on Flikr – photo sourced from Open Plaques –

William Temple (1881–1944) demonstrated a profound commitment to the idea that Christians should work together, earning him the title of “Bishop of Unity”. During his ministry, Temple clearly got some things right, but what were they?

5 things Temple got right:

1. Leadership in the Church of England: Temple served in several high-profile positions within the Church of England, including Bishop of Manchester, Archbishop of York, and Archbishop of Canterbury. In these roles, he consistently advocated for greater unity within the Anglican Communion and broader Christian fellowship.

2. Ecumenical Engagement: Temple was deeply involved in ecumenical activities, working to bridge gaps between different Christian denominations. He played a crucial role in the early stages of the modern ecumenical movement, including his involvement in the Life and Work Movement and the Faith and Order Movement, which later contributed to the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

3. Social and Ethical Concerns: Temple believed that Christian unity was essential for addressing social and ethical issues. He was a strong proponent of social justice and saw the church’s unified voice as a powerful force for good in society. His book “Christianity and Social Order” (1942) outlined his vision for this.

4. Theological Contributions: Temple’s theology emphasised the importance of unity among citizens. He believed that the divided state of the church was a scandal that impeded its mission in the world. His theological work often stressed the need for common ground and cooperation.

5. World War II Context: During World War II, Temple’s calls for unity took on added significance. He argued that global crisis was a compelling reason for Christians to come together and present a united front in the face of widespread suffering.

A definition of unity? 

Temple envisioned a universal church that transcended denominational boundaries. His theological perspective emphasised the catholicity (universality) of the church, arguing that the church’s witness to the world would be more credible and effective if it were united. Being united involves more than just cooperation and cordial relationships. It requires a profound engagement with the spiritual, theological, and practical dimensions of faith.  The word “bishop” is rooted in the Greek, “ἐπίσκοπος” (episkopos), which means “overseer”, “guardian” or in our modern parlance, “leader”. We have different positionalities from which we can all be ‘guardians’ of unity.  So where to begin? Psalm 133 points to unity as pleasant, precious and permanent.

[1] Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! [2] It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! [3] It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forever more. (Psalm 133:1-3 ESV)

The dew metaphor is significant for agricultural and theological purposes. Dew is condensation that appears on exposed objects in the morning or evening. As the exposed surface cools by radiating its heat, atmospheric moisture condenses at a rate greater than that at which it can evaporate, resulting in the formation of water droplets. If we take these characteristics as part of our understanding of unity, it can help us to focus our thinking in terms of how to apply unity to our context. 

On July 4th it is election day in the UK. That makes it a season of choice, and offers us an opportunity to put unity thinking into action and create change through our choices. But who to choose? William Temple’s principles and ideas most definitely have relevance here:

1. Advocacy for the poor

Temple believed the church had a moral duty to stand up for the rights and dignity of the poor and working classes. In an election year, his voice could encourage political candidates and parties to put forward policies aimed at reducing poverty, inequality and providing a social safety net.

2. Promoting social justice

Temple saw Christianity as mandating a commitment to social justice issues like workers’ rights, humane living conditions, and equal opportunities. His theological perspectives could inspire faith communities and citizens to evaluate parties and candidates based on their stances regarding justice, human rights and the equitable treatment of all people.

3. Moral vision for society 

As a leading religious thinker, Temple articulated a moral vision of what an ethical society should look like based on Christian values of human dignity, compassion and the common good. This could remind people to consider the moral and ethical frameworks informing each party’s platform.

4. Holding diverse traditions together

Temple worked to maintain unity amongst the different traditions within the Christian faith. In a polarised political climate, his example could encourage us to seek unity and civility in discourse with others, and bringing together disparate groups for the greater national interest.

Temple was a theological and political influencer, not from left or right, but from the centre (see Spencer, 2022). This is seen in the fact that he was not explicitly partisan. This is a great motivator for today’s voters to carefully weigh the different dimensions of party policies during this election season. What Temple’s legacy shows is that unity starts within us. Unity is not just rhetoric; it needs to be lived out through individual qualities. The Apostle Paul describes some of these qualities to the Galatians: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control. These qualities are seen as evidence of a life transformed, reflecting the character and actions of Jesus Christ, and are key to living out unity as leaders where we are.

We can all be leaders of unity. We should expect our political leaders to promote unity, too. If they do, the atmosphere will change, we will see tangible transformation in people and communities, and they will begin to form into something pleasant, precious and permanent.  So when making your choice this election season, choose unity.

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