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All Things Necessary

All Things Necessary

Readings for the feast of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, November 6, 2020:

Psalm 119: 97-104

Ephesians 3:7-12

John 1:1-14

Although William Temple’s time in history was literally a lifetime ago, I continue to find him to be a major source for my own faith and spirituality in our own very different–but perhaps just as troubling times.

Although he literally grew up in ecclesiastical palaces (his father was Bishop of Exeter and later became Archbishop of Canterbury), William had an uncanny heart for the plight of the ordinary citizenry in the England of the Gilded Age.  Thanks to the influence of one of his professors, who encouraged his students to spend their summers in the London slums, Willam saw a lot in his student days that he could not unsee.  Nor could he unsee the structural barriers of classism and imperialism in English society that kept the poor unable to move upward.  As a result, his own theology was heavily influenced by the idea of economic and personal justice being a Gospel value.

He also struggled with orthodox theology as a young man.  When he applied to the diaconate in 1906, his first attempt was met with rejection, because he could not sufficiently articulate convincing beliefs in the Virgin Birth and the bodily Resurrection.  When he was accepted for  Holy Orders on his second attempt in 1908, it might not have been so much a change in his beliefs but that his interviewer, Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson, felt his belief was evolving in a more orthodox direction, that he would eventually get there.  (As it turned out, ABC Davidson’s hunch was correct.)

William Temple saw no barriers when it came to good works.  Whether a good work was explicitly Christian, or not, was of no consequence to him.  Any good work furthered the interest of Christ.  Yet at the same time he carried a deep humility regarding works.  One of my favorite quotes, “The only thing of our very own which we contribute to our salvation is the sin which makes it necessary.”

His own times of leadership in the Church of England, first as Bishop of Manchester, later Archbishop of York, and finally as Archbishop of Canterbury, were filled with times of darkness: two world wars, a Depression, and several major labor disputes.  One of the things he observed early on was that the influence of the Church of England in ordinary daily life was fast becoming obsolete, as the church’s policies were more concentrated on drinking, gambling, and sex, than they were social injustices.  Although he was certainly no slouch at scholarship and theology, it became apparent that William Temple’s true gift to the church was the temperament to be a good moderator of disputes.  His tireless work in helping mediate the 1926 general strike was particularly noteworthy.

William Temple’s own spirituality was grounded in not only the practical, but a touch of the whimsical.  When once asked in an interview whether he believed the Bible was true, his reply was, “I believe the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation…as well as a good bit that isn’t.”  His father was one of the earliest clerics to embrace the idea of evolution being part of God’s plan in creation, and he continued in his father’s footsteps in that embrace the scientific and the divine.

No doubt, though, the last two years of his life were some of his finest moments, using his position as the Archbishop of Canterbury to provide regular radio messages via BBC radio to give the English people hope, even as they weathered bombings and shortages of essential items. He did all this despite the fact he was never a robust man. He suffered from gout from age 2, he was blind in one eye by the time he was 40, and he had heart problems, most likely exacerbated by his gout attacks.  He never spoke “above” the ordinary person in his messages, instead leaving them with easily grasped faith concepts such as, “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”

As we hunker down for some more of the pandemic, and we await election results, I have to wonder–what might this be like for us, if we had a William Temple today?

Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO. 

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Rod Gillis

Thanks so much for this article. In addition to his contribution to Anglican social theology, Temple was a highly influential and effective pioneer ecumenist.

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