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Where Politics, Theology and Philosophy Meet

3 Sep 2015

Christ in All Things: William Temple and his writings
Stephen Spencer (Editor)
Canterbury Press, 2015, 248 pp., pbk, £30.00

It was my pleasure over the summer to read Stephen Spencer’s excellent reader of the collected works of Archbishop William Temple Christ in All Things. Temple’s output was prodigious, covering philosophical and theological works, political treatises, bible commentaries and essays, alongside a wealth of letters to key establishment figures, over a 30 year period from the 1910s to the 1940s. These, in particular, show him at the centre of shaping British politics and society in one of its most crucial phases: from economic recession and global war to within sight of the sunny uplands of post-war prosperity and human advancement.

Spencer does a great job holding together the chronological development of Temple’s thought and public persona alongside the key themes and principles which underpinned his work. He captures well both the social and intellectual history of the period which Temple both imbibed, but also imperiously shaped. It is therefore, a great volume for those many of Temple’s admirers who know Christianity and Social Order like the back of their hand, but are perhaps put off by the breadth and range of Temple’s earlier writing. However, as Spencer’s deft commentary to each section shows, the full majesty of that deceptively simple book cannot be fully appreciated until one has a sense of the theological and philosophical depths from which it was mined and honed.

Central to Temple’s politics and spirituality are certain key interlocking themes. Of prime importance to him was the unity between faith and knowledge (including science). At their best, he believed, they both revealed what he called the divine will and purpose behind creation and the sustaining of its purpose. However, this is no return to the theist, ‘God-as-watchmaker’ theology of the 18th and 19th century. Key to his understanding of the divine was the overall primacy of love and the desire for God to enter into relationship with an ‘Other’ (i.e. creation and humankind).

There is, therefore, a dialectical and evolutionary thrust between creator and created, as creation is both cherished but ultimately given the freedom to create historical and artistic outcomes from the materiality of the world and the creativity of the human mind. Within Temple’s theology, the ‘Word’ of God’s will and purpose, the Logos, becomes incarnated in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. At this point the church is born in order to become the vehicle and instrument of divine love and forgiveness, as well as prophetic judgment on the corrupt and death-dealing propensities of the human heart. These are the themes of major works as Mens Creatrix, Christus Veritas, Nature Man and God as well as his Readings in St Johns Gospel. Revelation, for Temple, is the coincidence of a divine event and its appreciation by the human spirit. Meanwhile the goal of history is the Commonwealth of Value (otherwise known as the Kingdom of God) in which we attempt, through the application of both progressive and prophetic action and word, to create the social structures that convey the dignity and intrinsic value of every human and non-human life created in the image of God (imago Dei)

How this feeds into Temple’s political vision for a just social order is now clear. The mandate for a progressive and fair political economy where the state provides the necessary building blocks for human flourishing, emerges directly from this idea of God’s Kingdom as the Commonwealth of Value. As Spencer points out, it was Temple who coined the phrase ‘Welfare State’. This concept he contrasted with what he called the ‘Power State’, an example of which was the Prussian State before the First World War which ‘exercised Power over its own community and against other communities’. The Welfare State, by contrast, enabled the welfare of its citizens by working as the ‘organ of community … maintaining its solidarity by law designed to safeguard the interests of the community’. This it does by providing the social building blocks we have already alluded to, including universal access to decent health care, housing, education, rights at work etc. But having established these building blocks, the role of the state was simply to support and enable the flourishing of what Temple called ‘intermediate groupings’, like families, trade unions, faith groups, and community and voluntary associations. Social thinker Maurice Glasman has recently updated this list to include supporter-owned football clubs and community credit unions. These intermediate groupings facilitate face to face contact and thus communicate to each and every person that they are valued, as well as offering opportunities to exercise responsibility. To cast Temple as an unapologetic cheerleader for the Dependency State, as some of his detractors seek to do, is simply untrue.

Rather, the political watch words for Temple were freedom, social fellowship (what we might more fashionably today call solidarity) and service. He said that what Christian, but also other philosophical principles tell us, is that a deeper political and cultural life is created when we understand the precious gift of freedom to be freedom for rather than freedom from. True freedom, Temple claimed, was to live one’s life for the flourishing not only of your own wellbeing, but others as well. We are most fulfilled when we recognise the call to service; to exercise our right to what Temple called ‘responsible political citizenship’ – however we conceive of that task and by whatever means. Meanwhile, fellowship emerges when we choose to serve others and get involved in their welfare and flourishing which allows us to participate in the divine gift of personality, i.e. discovering who we really are in the midst of challenging and loving relationships, rather than apart from them.

These concepts, so irresolutely old-fashioned, nevertheless deeply resonate within the context of today’s uncertain and fearful world, where social isolation and political mistrust are in danger of breeding a deep cynicism and stasis. We hear Temple’s call for a more ethically-driven and values-rich public sphere echoed by many voices across Europe and the U.S., determined to call time on the destructive social impacts of 40 years of neo-liberalism and reconnect economics and politics to a sense of vision and solidarity. The William Temple Foundation continues to research and mine this rich seam of postsecular politics.

Thank you Stephen for this rich resource which gives us the conceptual tools by which to do this, and which deserves to be read well beyond the confines of church historians and theologians.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.

You might also like to read:


William Temple and the 2015 Election 
by Chris Baker

The Modern Welfare State: Temple’s Challenge for the Church
by Simon Duffy

It’s Not Easy being British
by Greg Smith

How the Rich Make More Money and the Church’s Obligation to Respond
by Eve Poole

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1 Comment

Adrian Wait

03/09/2015 12:42

Thank you for your review. I shall have to wait for the paperback, or the price to come down with age… Such books positively reinforce the ‘Communion of the Saints’. I have William Temples commentary on John’s gospel, and perhaps Christmas may bring: “Christ in All Things: William Temple and his writings”
Stephen Spencer (Editor) – Once again thanks Chris for the excellent review, and the ‘heads-up’.

Yours in Christ

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