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Giving welfare a fair wind

18 February 2022

Eighty years after William Temple became Archbishop of Canterbury, Rod Garner suggests that his vision is still needed

John Frost Newspapers/Alamy

The new Archbishop of Canterbury: William Temple, 1942

The new Archbishop of Canterbury: William Temple, 1942

IN 1942, to wide acclaim in the Church of England and beyond, William Temple was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. The prospect of his elevation, and his left-leaning politics, had caused concern in some Conservative quarters; but the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, recognised his gifts and nominated him as “the only half-crown item in the sixpenny bazaar”.

To his new post, Temple brought the qualities that had established him as a scholar, teacher, and bishop, and a respected spiritual leader alert to the sombre mood of the nation in a time of attrition. His reputation rested on his indefatigable energy and vision; his critical intelligence and wide knowledge; and a deep personal devotion that — combined with a sunny disposition and a capacity for laughter — endeared him to many. It was hard to dislike a distinguished prelate from a privileged background with a Double First from Balliol, Oxford, who patently cared about the needs of ordinary people, and included among his passions a lifelong enthusiasm for strawberry jam (a truth attested to by his waistline).

Temple’s time at Canterbury was brief: barely two and a half years before he died of a heart attack, aged 63, on 26 October 1944. During this short period and before, his mind had been turning to the future beyond the war, and the urgent questions of social and economic reconstruction which lay ahead. What sort of nation was going to emerge? How would the poorest and unemployed fare? How would scarce resources be fairly distributed?

Beyond the acquisition of credits and certificates, what part should education play in the creation of a purposeful life that also contributed to the wider good of society? And, no less importantly, there was a matter that had taxed him since the 1920s: what, ethically speaking, was the responsibility of the State towards its citizens, and to what end and purpose should the economy be managed and directed?


SUCH questions called for the hard thought that Temple regarded as a religious imperative. The duty of the theologian was to dig. In a dark time, as many suffered hardship and were denied access to adequate health care or social security, he sought to provide a prophetic leadership informed by “service to the point of absolute devotion and complete sacrifice”, centred on the divine life disclosed in Christ. From his commitment to the incarnation, as related in St John’s Gospel, he formulated the principles that underpinned his commitment to social reform throughout his episcopal ministry.

In the previous decades, first as Bishop of Manchester and, subsequently, Archbishop of York, Temple had convened and presided over international conferences on the relationship between the Church and society. In the General Strike of 1926, he mediated between miners and coal owners. Two years later, and, with many personal stories of human need arising out of his pastoral experience, he coined the term “welfare state”, and, in a series of lectures, argued for its development.

The dignity and necessity of human labour was another priority. At the end of the 1930s, and under his leadership, the Pilgrim Trust produced Men Without Work, a substantial and carefully documented report on unemployment and its impact on individual lives and local communities.


THE publication that brought Temple’s life’s work to a persuasive conclusion was his Christianity and Social Order, first published in 1942, and subsequently reprinted many times. In it, and on the basis of Christian doctrine, he argued for the primary principle of the importance of persons, and the necessary social and economic structures required for their flourishing in community with others. Citizens were children of God, and deep in every one of them was “the spark of the divine fire”.

From this fundamental proposition flowed three further principles that he defined as freedom, social fellowship, and service. Too detailed to elaborate here, these guiding maxims or values could provide a bridge or platform for more substantive discussion leading to detailed policies in, for example, the fields of education, housing, levels of income, and the necessity of work and leisure.

In this small and incisive book, Temple showed how it was possible to make connections between theology and “the giants of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness”. In collaboration with representatives of other intellectual disciplines, he produced a practicable programme — a road to recovery for a nation exhausted by war.

Temple immersed himself in extensive consultations with politicians, academics, and policy makers. Experts in their field, they included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the historian R. H. Tawney, the Labour politician Stafford Cripps (who would later become Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Atlee Government), and the social scientist William Beveridge, the author of the pioneering 1942 report that led to the provision of adequate state social security for all, “from the cradle to the grave”.


TEMPLE’s Christianity and Social Order generated interest and attention well beyond the Church, and made a marked contribution to the public conversation about common values and aspirations. A meeting of the Industrial Christian Fellowship at the Albert Hall in October 1942, at which Temple spoke, attracted 10,000 participants, and included in its demands “a central planning for employment, housing, and social security”. Together with Beveridge and others who had advised him in writing his Christian manifesto, Temple was preparing the way for a new, post-war welfare state that he did not live to see.

Eighty years on, his personal programme of social reform remains relevant to the vastly changed social order of today. The giants of poverty, health inequalities, poor housing, and huge disparities in wealth, education, and opportunity still remain to be slain. The challenge to the Church is to develop more thoroughly in our own time what Temple attempted to achieve in his, aided by the same hope and clarity of purpose as fuelled his transformative endeavours.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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