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William Temple

Archbishop of Canterbury; Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
1881 to 1944

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, was born 15 October 1881 at the bishop's palace, Exeter. The youngest child of Frederick Temple, archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife, Beatrice Blanche, daughter of William Lascelles (himself son of the second Earl of Harewood), William was born when Frederick was nearly sixty. In terms of the academy, the church and society, Temple was born into the upper echelon of the late Victorian aristocracy, which laid a solid foundation for his career as a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, Bishop of Exeter and later Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury.

Because Temple was a young man with all the resources that the late Victorian age had to offer, it was only natural for him to pursue studies at Balliol, Oxford. Temple’s early days at Oxford—his lectures, coursework and writings—foreshadowed his later interests in politics, academics and ecumenism. Never content to simply settle for the status quo, Temple was actively involved with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and president of the Oxford Union. Ever the precocious youth, in spite of his many activities Temple still managed to earn a first in both halves of the Classics course.

Following the completion of his degree, Temple spent six years as a fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, where he lectured ostensibly on Plato's Republic but in practice on his own mixture of Christian and Greek themes. In his lectures Temple reflected upon philosophy and history in idealistic terms, choosing to use these topics in the service of his ‘theological philosophy’. Indeed, the pursuit of a theological philosophy (a synthesis of faith and academic philosophy), which begins with the study of mind and ends in the person and work of Christ—Temple’s lifelong interest—is most clearly reflected in the published volume of his Gifford Lectures, Nature, Man and God. Central to his philosophy was a ‘Christocentric metaphysic’ which emphasised the incarnation as the key to understanding both true divinity and true humanity. Despite his proclivity for philosophy and his preoccupation with mind, value, purpose, personality and ethics, Temple had little interest in becoming an Oxford philosophy don. Well before his studies even commenced, he expressed a desire to enter the priesthood. This early determination led Temple into the career for which he is most noted.

In pursuit of the ministry, in 1910 Temple became headmaster of Repton School, Derbyshire, in 1914 rector of St. James's, Piccadilly, London, and in 1919 a canon of Westminster. During this nine-year span, Temple penned ten books, (mostly collections of sermons), was editor of the newspaper Challenge (1915–1918), and was a secretary of the National Mission of Repentance and Hope (1916), all in addition to being the youngest member of the Archbishops' Commission on Church and State. It has been said that Temple’s feverish pursuit of these many disparate interests and his almost manic attitude toward work finally met their consolation when on 24 June 1916 he married Frances Gertrude Acland Anson (1890–1984), daughter of Frederick Anson and granddaughter of Sir Thomas Acland, a friend of Temple's father.

Four years later Lloyd George offered Temple the diocese of Manchester. Between his appointment to Manchester and his translation to the archbishopric of York in 1929, Temple became an increasingly prominent figure in the burgeoning ecumenical movement. He was involved with the first World Conference on Faith and Order, held at Lausanne in 1927, and in the International Missionary Council's conference in Jerusalem at Easter 1928. His interest in ecumenism would continue for the rest of his life, and would become, for many, the hallmark of Temple’s legacy. In this respect, the thirteen years in which Temple was Archbishop of York were among his most important and effective. The lofty ecclesial position provided Temple with the clout necessary for the kind of national and international leadership that he was predisposed to pursue. Despite his almost constant schedule of preaching, lecturing and travelling, as well as his continued activity within the international ecumenical movement, he still managed to find time to write three of his most significant books, Nature, Man and God (1934), compiled from the Gifford Lectures given in Glasgow between November 1932 and March 1934, Readings in St. John's Gospel (1939 and 1940), and Christianity and Social Order (1942). The last of these works is undoubtedly Temple’s finest and most significant contribution to twentieth-century Christian thought. Christianity and Social Order is at once a short and clear text, which upon publication became an immediate classic. Over 140,000 copies were quickly sold, and it was reprinted thirty years later with a preface by Edward Heath. Combined with Temple’s work with the Malvern conference (1941) the volume worked to ensure that a generation of British Christians would come to identify the welfare state as an expression of the Gospel’s commendation for social justice.

Throughout the war years, Temple’s devotion to his nation and his constant moral restraint were well suited to the needs of both church and country at that tumultuous time. It was self-evident, therefore, that in 1942 when Lang retired as Archbishop of Canterbury, there was no suitable alternative to Temple. He was enthroned in Canterbury Cathedral on 23 April 1942. Temple's sermon at his enthronement ceremony at Canterbury spoke of the need for the church to engage in forward thinking with regards to a worldwide Christian fellowship. The unity of the church, combined with a desire to see the church’s self-awareness expand beyond the developed West into the developing countries of the East, were themes of great importance in both this sermon and his one Canterbury book, The Church Looks Forward(1944). For Temple, the challenge of the Church of England in the new landscape of global ecumenism was especially pronounced at a time when England herself was at war. Yet even in the face of global conflict, Temple was filled with hope that through the Church’s pursuit of a worldwide fellowship of Christians there could be unity among men on earth.

During the war, Temple travelled constantly throughout the country, encouraging the citizenry with a message of national pride and Christian hope. The increasing pressures of his Archbishopric during the war years caused his gout to worsen. Early in October 1944 Temple was taken by ambulance from Canterbury to rest in the Rowena Court Hotel in Westgate-on-Sea, where he died on 26 October. After cremation five days later, his ashes were buried in Canterbury Cathedral, next to the grave of his father.

While the range of Temple's concerns as revealed in his thirty-four books and seventy pamphlets was almost limitless, this select bibliography conveys the core of his interests:Nature, Man, and God (1934); Christianity in Thought and Practice (1936); Readings in St. John's Gospel (1939); The Hope of a New World (1941); Christianity and Social Order (1942);The Church Looks Forward (1944); Christus Veritas (1962).

  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow