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Theology Reforming Society edited by Stephen Spencer

02 March 2018

Peter Sedgwick sees the relevance of the Temple tradition

IN 2014, Malcolm Brown, who is the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, edited a much-discussed book, Anglican Social Theology. It was the result of the desire of the House of Bishops to have a teaching document on social theology, and it did its job very well. Three years later, Stephen Spencer called a conference at Mirfield to “revisit Anglican social theology”.

These papers are the result of that conference, and take further the project of making Anglican social theology better known. Given that Spencer has just been appointed Director of Theological Education for the Anglican Communion, it is likely that the heritage of Anglican social theology will become much more appreciated.

The book really falls in two halves. At the height of the British Empire, from 1850 to 1950, the Church of England attained great power and prestige. There was, however, a huge gulf between rich and poor, both in England and across the Empire. A series of English Anglican theologians wrote on these issues, and it is these theologians whom the first half of the book revisits. F. D. Maurice wrote both on co-operation, which later developed into retail and industrial co-ops, and on education. He is ably served by Jeremy Morris (who has already written extensively on him) and Alison Milbank.

Octavia Hill, who worked in the field of social housing, and also founded the National Trust, is analysed by Diane Ryan. The great Victorian and early-20th-century triumvirate of Westcott, Holland, and Gore is surveyed by Paul Avis, who, again, has written a full-length study of Gore.

Finally, we turn to William Temple, the only Archbishop of Canterbury to be the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury. Temple dominated the period 1920-44, before dying in his early sixties towards the end of the Second World War. Nevertheless, Temple’s influence, writings (especially Christianity and Social Order in 1942), and his friendship with politicians and William Beveridge, who drew up the blueprint for the welfare state, meant that his influence was colossal. Spencer, who again has written extensively on Temple, gives a good defence of his continued relevance.

Susan Lucas’s essay is the pivot on which the book turns. Lucas, a parish priest in east London, is a strong critic of neo-liberalism, and defends the Temple tradition as a way of combating “the over-heated, economized version” of liberty which has been dominant these past three decades.

This powerful essay is followed by three others. Malcolm Brown reflects on the success of his 2014 book, and the current political stance of the English House of Bishops. Matthew Bullimore, who is close to a much more Catholic understanding of theology in Radical Orthodoxy, shows that the Temple tradition, Graham Ward, and John Milbank are not as far apart as one might think.

William Temple signs an autograph book at the Blackpool Mission before the Second World War

Finally, Peter Scott, from Manchester University, offers a searching evaluation of the whole tradition of Anglican social theology. As the nature of the Established Church changes, the environmental challenge grows stronger, the presence of non-Christian religions is more accepted and the Evangelical constituency in the Church of England grows more dominant, how is all this to be held together? This is a very thought-provoking piece.

This collection, along with Brown’s earlier book, shows the strength of Anglican social theology today. There are other strands that could be mentioned. There is allusion in this book to the William Temple Foundation, with John Atherton (who died last year), Chris Baker, and John Reader. There are Evangelical theologians such as Jonathan Chaplin and Joshua Hordern, and the Catholic approach of John Milbank and John Hughes.

Given how much British political life seems to be sinking further every day into chaos and ineptitude, three things seem urgently needed. One is a fraternal dialogue with Roman Catholic social teaching (as Anna Rowlands suggested in the earlier book). Second, the Anglican tradition needs to become much less European, never mind British. Stephen Spencer will certainly encourage this. Third, this theological heritage needs to be put to work in holding up a more compelling vision for political and social life than our current Government offers.

This very welcome and timely volume needs to be widely read.

Canon Peter Sedgwick was Principal of St Michael’s College, Llandaff, and is writing a history of Anglican moral theology.


Theology Reforming Society: Revisiting Anglican social theology
Stephen Spencer, editor
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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