Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

17 May 2022

Victoria Turner, PhD Candidate, World Christianity, University of Edinburgh


This conference was jointly organized by the William Temple Foundation and the new Centre for Anglican History and Theology at the University of Kent, hosted in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral. The conference sought to both historically contextualize and reflect on Temple’s most famous publication, Christianity and The Social Order and also question its and Temple’s relevance for our world today.

The first paper was delivered by Professor Kenneth Fincham from the University of Kent. Professor Fincham compared William Temple to William Laud who was Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and executed in 1645 with the falling of Charles I. The biggest similarity of both Archbishops was their conviction that the church should absolutely be involved in political affairs. Whereas this legacy has been avidly remembered for Temple, it has fallen away from the memory of Laud, receiving only a brief mention in his entry to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.[1]  

I appreciated this paper, but questioned its applicability in this conference, especially at the start of the day. Fincham took for granted that the audience were already Temple “experts” and the concentration was on Laud. I was hungry and eager to begin learning about Temple at our 10am start, so although this scheduling made sense chronologically, conceptually, it was strange to begin a conference that celebrated Temple by not focusing on Temple, especially for a non-conformist already feeling a little out of place in a very Anglican setting.

The second paper was more what I imagined would be presented at the conference. My interest in Temple comes from his social justice work, especially its roots which was formed when he was studying in Oxford and volunteered with the University settlements and also his ecumenical work. Being a student of mission at the University of Edinburgh, the impact of the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910 where Temple was a young steward is continuously reflected on. Part of my PhD is exploring George MacLeod who started the Iona Community in Scotland in 1938, and MacLeod was inspired by the Toc H movement, founded by Tubby Clayton during World War 1, which also finds its roots in the University Settlement movement. I enjoyed Simon Lee’s careful recounting of how the mission of Tonybee Hall changed as the ‘leaders’ understood their working-class context better and how this incarnational theology and emphasis on listening to the poor continued in Temple as archbishop.

Elaine Graham blessed us with a superb paper that questioned how Temple would react to today’s questions surrounding gender and sexuality. Firstly Graham outlined the huge social shifts that have occurred since 1942 and warned of the dangers of too easily applying Temple’s ideas to our context. Yet by highlighting his incarnational theology, middle axioms idea and insistence on listening to the marginalized (for the elites to make the decision on their behalf) she explained how she believed Temple would be affirming of creating spaces for discourse, encouraging the theology of common grace and perhaps even following Susanna Cornwall’s idea of going back to virtue ethics and asking generally, what is it about a marriage that as Christians we value. Jeremy Carrette stayed in our context of today in the next paper but applied Temple to our climate crisis. Temple was clear in his stance that land was not a mere resource and should be used for personal profit, only for the common good. Carrette successfully argued Temple in 1942 pushed us to regain our reverence for the earth.

The third panel of the day was entitled ‘Church, Society and Race’ and for me were the least academically stimulating. Robin Gill had an interesting concept in posing Temple and Desmond Tutu as both ‘speaking truth to power’ in their own time but I felt the omission of an acknowledgement of their incredibly different lived experiences clouded the paper and made me question the applicability of the comparison. Whereas Tutu had to ‘speak truth to power’ to fight for his humanity to be recognized, Temple chose to spend time with those less fortunate than himself and learn how to alleviate their position (not without paternalistic undertones) without ever having the threat of losing his privilege. The truth cost Tutu a lot more, across a much larger distance. Sanjee Perera’s paper was given as more of a sermon, where her passion for her job in racial justice for the Church of England came across but it felt like Temple quotes were slotted in here and there rather than structuring her talk on how Temple relates to her work. The question that interrogated Temple’s  relationship with Beveridge, who was a member of the Eugenics Society I thought was important, especially as it pushed another conference member to talk about Temple’s work with the Jewish Community during the war and eventually setting up today’s Council for Christians and Jews.

Chris Baker explored how to build back society in our post-pandemic times and wondered how Temple’s elitist leanings and trust of institutions clash with our culture, especially among the young today. Finally, Stephen Spencer gave an excellent talk that explored the collaborative effort that made Temple’s ‘Christianity and the Social Order’, including it being peer-reviewed by Keynes, Tawney and other academics. He also argued that this book represents just one moment in an important wider context of consultative methodology that engaged theology, industrialization, economics and politics.

The conference speakers and topics were varied but the audience was not. It was overwhelmingly white and male despite the William Temple Foundation being overtly progressive and contextual and a number of the conference papers explicitly being contextualized for today. The audience were  generally church historians or theologians interested in Temple, and although receptive to applying him for today, generally wanting to explore his theology and legacy. The attempt to merge a historical conference with a public theology conference, inviting both Temple experts and not, created in my opinion a confused atmosphere but still a hospitable and lovely one, especially felt in the visit to the archive. I quickly felt able to ask questions and by around lunch brave enough to talk to participants in break out spaces.


[1] A. Milton, ‘Laud, William (1573-1645),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), accessed 25/03/2022 via https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-16112.

This is the first of two reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

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