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Archbishop William Temple: A study in servant leadership by Stephen Spencer

17 February 2023

Jeremy Morris looks at a great archbishop’s manner of primacy

OF THE many able leaders of the Church of England in the 20th century, by reputation William Temple stands out as a colossus. The only son of an Archbishop of Canterbury to follow in his father’s footsteps as Archbishop, his rise was as meteoric as it seemed, in retrospect, inevitable. Theologian, educator, social activist, popular apologist, charismatic motivator of people, he was many-sided. Even Churchill — no admirer of bishops — is supposed to have admitted he was the “only sixpenny article in the penny bazaar”.

Stephen Spencer has studied and written about Temple for most of his adult life, and we are already greatly in his debt for two previous books about him. His latest study is not a new biography as such. Although several shorter lives have been written about him, no one has attempted such a thing since Frederic Iremonger’s 1948 volume. That is a pity, because Iremonger’s account was written too close to Temple’s death in 1944 to enable a lasting, measured, and critical assessment of him. Still, what Spencer has produced yet again is a fascinating survey of Temple’s life and thought, drawing, above all, on his extensive published writing, and on Iremonger’s book.

The basic approach is chronological, but within that there are specialist chapters covering different aspects of Temple’s ministry and, in particular, of his philosophy and theology. The lens through which this is done is, as the subtitle indicates, the theme of leadership. A running preoccupation throughout Spencer’s account is the question “What kind of leader was he?” Spencer subtly challenges the very common accent on management skill and leadership “from the front” in some church circles today, laying out the collaborative, socially inclusive vision of Temple’s way of leading.

William Temple, archbishop

For all his “Establishment” credentials — Lambeth Palace, Rugby, Oxford, Repton as headmaster — Temple’s sympathies were cosmopolitan, and socialist. His Christian socialism was deeply considered, and grounded in his intellectual formation in British Idealism, a philosophical movement ultimately influenced by Hegel, as well as his genuine sympathy for the poor and marginalised. But, as Spencer shows very well, Temple continued to evolve in his mental outlook throughout his life, modifying his early progressive optimism for a more sober “realism” informed by reading Niebuhr and by the gathering clouds of war in the late 1930s.

It would be difficult to find a better way into assessing Temple’s life and theology than this book. Some readers may feel that the leadership theme is a little too overdone, but the basic point that Spencer is making, interpreting our understanding of Christian leadership through the life and experience of a great modern archbishop, is well made. The style is always clear, and he has the gift of making seemingly obscure arguments accessible to the reader.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the C of E’s National Adviser for Ecumenical Relations.


Archbishop William Temple: A study in servant leadership
Stephen Spencer
SCM Press, £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.39

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