William Temple and Church Unity

In the early twentieth century, there was probably no more ubiquitous character in the Christian unity movement than Archbishop William Temple (1881 -1944). His indefatigable efforts have led to his name and the ecumenical movement being indelibly associated. Surprisingly, considering his stature, there is relatively little scholarly analysis of his effort to apply his theology in the practice of church unity. My research focused on this lacuna. It demonstrated that the portrayal of Temple in this area has been largely caricature, either positive or negative, that failed to account for Temple’s context and the multifaceted approaches he took in the various situations he faced. The study showed that Temple was motivated by deep convictions but that, paradoxically, those convictions were sometimes detrimental to his ultimate goal. In fact, he dealt with a number of circumstances more pragmatically than has been recognised.

Temple was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury. Following education at Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, he accepted a fellowship at Queen’s (age 22), then became headmaster of Repton (age 28), Bishop of Manchester (age 39), Archbishop of York (age 47) and Archbishop of Canterbury (age 60). Temple epitomised the ecclesiastical establishment, yet he championed numerous atypical causes for someone in his position. He is most commonly remembered for his social ethics and advocacy of the Labour Movement. Indeed, he was the first to use the term welfare state . No less significant was his thinking about church unity. He was the chief architect of the World Council of Churches and was instrumental in enshrining his concepts of Anglicanism into official declarations.

Foundational to Temple’s thinking and work in the area of church unity was his philosophy and theology. Temple was indebted to post-Hegelian idealism which shaped his theology of church unity. He concluded that the differing theologies and practices found amongst Christians were complementary. Thus, unity would be achieved by a greater appreciation, and mutual cherishing, of differences. I defined this as a complementarian understanding of church unity. The way Temple attempted to apply this theology was considered—within the Church of England as well as in the wider ecumenical movement. The research method involved drawing upon Temple’s relevant published work as well as the various events and organisations in which he was involved. Unpublished papers—personal correspondence and meeting minutes—also informed the analysis. The reception of these efforts, as recorded in the ecclesiastical and secular press, was evaluated.

This work advanced the understanding of Temple’s thinking about church unity and the way he attempted to apply that thinking to his day. It was clear that the greater part of his thinking and work in this area was indelibly tied to his context. The study demonstrated seven vital aspects of Temple’s work for church unity. First, he was motivated by philosophy and theology to a complementarian understanding of church unity. Second, he believed that complementarian ecclesiology represented authentic Anglicanism, a claim that is rejected in my thesis. Nevertheless, believing Anglicanism was the best expression of his ecclesiology, he claimed it was paradigmatic for the unified church. Third, Temple experienced a tension between his Anglican and his ecumenical loyalties. Ironically, these dual loyalties often proved to be counterproductive for Temple’s goals. Fourth, when difficulties arose, Temple prioritised Anglican unity over reunion and other theological convictions. Fifth, acts of unity could ultimately be divisive. Sixth, Temple was frequently inconsistent in his theory of church unity and his application of that theory. Seventh, he also had certain prejudices that impacted on his efforts for unity. These prejudices became evident in the study of Temple’s personal correspondence.

The importance of this study for our context is primarily in its ability to describe many of the trends that have led to the contemporary situation within global Anglicanism and the ecumenical movement. It provides an outline and critique of many of the assumptions that have become ideologically embedded in these institutions. Moreover, it warns of the danger associated with an unbiblical concept of church unity, while commending and upholding the scriptural alternative.

Ed Loane

Ed joined the Moore College faculty in July 2014 having completed his PhD (at the University of Cambridge) on the doctrine of the church in the writing of William Temple, a 20th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Ed lectures in Theology and Church History.

*This blog post was originally published as an article in the October issue of Moore Connection, the College’s Alumni newsletter publication.

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