Your starter for ten in the Great Statue Stakes: which 20th-century Englishman, when he died at 63, had served time as an Oxford philosophy don, the headmaster of Repton, a West End parish priest, Bishop of Manchester, and Archbishop in turn of both York and Canterbury? Clue: besides these oh-so-establishment positions, he had also taken the opportunity to co-found the Workers’ Educational Association and preside over it for 16 years; had been a stalwart member and supporter of the Labour Party between 1918 and 1925 before it became a refuge for the worthy and respectable; had worked with the Chief Rabbi against anti-Semitism before that became a fashionable cause; and in addition had helped draft the Beveridge plan for post-war social security. You don’t know? The answer is William Temple, Archbishop of York from 1929 to 1942, then Canterbury from 1942 to 1944.
Step back a moment and ask what was best about Britain from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th, and is now lacking or positively discouraged. Three things stand out. One: encouragement, and admiration, of all-round ability and engagement, as against esoteric expertise and narrow commitment in one area of life, coupled with ignorance and indifference about almost anything else. Two: a ‘live and let live’ attitude to most matters of personal opinion, coupled with quiet and steadfast adherence to a limited number of fundamental principles. Three: a widespread instinct that those who haven’t done well in the lottery of life deserve a leg up, but only that. Help must be subject to their always contributing what they themselves can, and there is no question of anyone demanding equality of outcome.
Discreetly and effectively, William Temple exemplified all three of these. Apart from being a divine with the evangelical’s passionate concern for his country’s spiritual welfare, he was no mean intellectual. His 1917 book Mens Creatrix was a very competent academic exposition of Christian Hegelianism, and his 1942 work Christianity and Social Order a masterly analysis of the extent and limits of the Christian body’s duty to the underdog. He was also an organiser (apart from running the WEA he worked tirelessly, and with surprising success, for church unity whenever this was possible). And he was an effective political operator: witness his appeal, despite his open Labour sympathies, to Conservative politicians as disparate as Churchill, who raised him to Canterbury when Cosmo Lang died in 1942 (having referred to him as the half-crown bargain in the penny bazaar), and even Edward Heath, who was heavily influenced by his spirituality and wrote a moving foreword to a second edition of Christianity and Social Order. Personally austere, his Anglican morality left matters of sex to others and was otherwise very pragmatic: it concentrated on duties of charity and social organisation. Interestingly, in the context of the Second World War he was very much a hawk, with little or no time for pacifism. And his passion for helping those less fortunate was very much tied in with a feeling that with a right to help came a duty to contribute. The WEA was in its early days a traditional self-help organisation rather than one devoted to hand-outs; and, as is well known, Beveridge, before its subversion in the 1960s, was based solidly on the idea that entitlement to help depended on contribution according to ability.
Not surprisingly, William Temple’s contribution to public life and morality, at first taken for granted as entirely admirable (he died prematurely in 1944), was quickly sidelined and overlooked in the hedonistic 1960s. But not quite forgotten. An educational institute remains devoted to his thought. And eight years or so ago, he had a surprising renaissance. The current Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, gave a lecture to the Smith Institute in Somerset House in which he chose to laud his predecessor. In a surprisingly conservative appraisal, he emphasised Temple’s insistence that in order to expect Christian solidarity from the society we live in, we all owe duties not only of Christian fellowship but also of service and contribution. We are not told how this went down with the Smith Institute, which is a fairly Left-leaning organisation. But it is a fine memorial to the essentially English and conservative virtues of one of the most impressive churchmen of the last century. A statue of him, preferably one unavoidably visible to anyone going into or out of the gate of Lambeth Palace, would wonderfully concentrate some important minds.