Changing Britain (Part II)

If Christian people need to help public debate focus on the spiritual dimension to many of our current social and political problems, what should be done? It is sometimes easier to say “what should not be done”.

Lessons from William Temple

William Temple, who shaped much Christian political thinking in the 20th century and became Archbishop of Canterbury, once issued this warning:

“the Church and the official representatives of the Church must keep themselves free from entanglements of party politics. Their business is something far more fundamental and important: it is the formation of that mind and temper in the whole community which will lead to wholesome legislation by any and all parties.”

That, however, was when the state had a more limited public function than it has today and Temple wanted to keep it that way. So he affirmed three fundamentals about the State:

“One, society is more than the State and has a life which is largely independent of the State; two, social progress largely consists of the expression and development of that independence; three, the State is distinguished from other ‘social cohesions’ by the fact that it alone is entitled to use force in order to secure obedience to its commands.”

Temple, therefore, endorsed the view that the Public Square was not to be identified with Parliament Square!

He also knew that the greatest influence on the world by the Church was not in political or social Church pronouncements (or even fights with the Government), but in the faithful “daily round and common task” of individual believers in the world. “Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world,” he said, “is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all.”

He specifically referred to the work of Evangelicals in the 19th century. He cited Wilberforce and his friends who were involved in the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself. But he recognised that there are other more humble people who act as the “salt of the earth”. So he agreed “that the task of the Church in the face of social problems is to make good Christian men and women. That is by far its most important contribution.”

Practical engagement

Temple, however, argued that four factors should cause the Church through its leaders and Christians generally to engage in political affairs (in a non-party way). First, there are the claims of Christ-like love for those who suffer. Secondly, there is the fact that a social or economic system – whether socialist or capitalist – gives rise to certain consequences. Thirdly, there is the need for justice, as the Old Testament so clearly shows. Fourthly, there are the claims of the created order that God intended for man; and man’s creation is as a social being.

But how should the Church practically engage in politics? Temple reckoned there were three ways. One, its members should live positively for Jesus Christ in daily life (as has already been said); two, its members should vote responsibly every five years to promote Christian values (and, in addition, some should be directly involved in politics and government); but, three, the Church itself through its clergy and teachers needs to provide Christian men and women “with a systematic statement of principles to aid them in doing these two things, and this will carry with it a denunciation of customs or institutions in contemporary life and practice which offend against those principles” (and that was written in 1942 during the Second World War in the face of Nazism and Hitler).

Up to this point Temple carried with him all those who wanted to oppose some existing Government policies. He also carried the more “revolutionary” elements who wanted to change the whole social order. For he was saying that the Church needed to point out where the existing social and political order was in conflict with Christian principles.

But he lost support once he was heard to say that the Church was not to dictate means for solving political problems. For he believed that the role of the Church in social and political affairs was, like the Government, limited. It was limited, first, to teaching about ends and, secondly, to a criticism of means that did not achieve the prescribed ends or that were self-evidently evil. The Archbishop gave what has become a famous analogy to illustrate the point:

“If a bridge is to be built, the Church may remind the engineer that it is his obligation to provide a really safe bridge; but it is not entitled to tell him whether, in fact, his design meets this requirement … in just the same way the Church may tell the politician what ends the social order should promote; but it must leave to the politician the devising of the precise means to those ends.”

Three ends of Public Life

The three ends that Temple advocated were fundamentally biblical:

“Freedom, fellowship, and service – these are the three principles of a Christian social order, derived from the still more fundamental Christian postulates that man is a child of God and destined for a life of eternal fellowship with Him.”

So, first, Temple was concerned that the social order should reflect the widest possible opportunities for personal responsibility and freedom. That is why he supported democracy as a form of government – it provides a chance for each person, even if only indirectly, to be involved and exercising a small measure of responsibility. But Temple wanted freedom and responsibility to be positive – not just “freedom from”, but “freedom for” creative and selfless living.

Secondly, Temple saw social fellowship as an important end that needs to be put on the public agenda. This is because much political theory focuses exclusively on the individual on the one hand, and on the State on the other hand. So the debates focus around freedom, liberty and human rights, as individual concerns; and around peace, justice and the economy, as State concerns.

But the social order is not just made up of individuals and the State. For there are “mediating” communities. Paramount among these is the family. So no political theory is adequate that fails to do justice to the family. It is, in fact, in the mediating communities – the buffer groups between the individual and the state – that liberty is experienced.

However, the family, although important, is not the only such community. For example, there are also schools, colleges, professional associations, and, of course, the churches. It is a fact that revolutionary politics either ignores or tries to destroy these subordinate groups. But the health of a society is intimately linked with its mediating structures. So obviously a key means of weakening, if not destroying, the whole social fabric is to attack these structures. That is why current questions that relate to the health of the “marriage family” are so critical. It is, after all, in families that cultural and religious values are transmitted most effectively.

Thirdly, Temple stressed service as an end in the social order. From a Christian point of view, he said, this begins with fulfilling one’s calling. It also will mean an emphasis on duties rather than rights. So Temple regretted that in the history of political ideas Rousseau (1712-1778) and then Marx (1818-1883) “taught the democratic movement to take its stand on rights.” But there is only one safe way to true social progress. And that is not to be found in rights but in duties. True, duties are the other side of the coin to rights. “But the difference in the temper of the movement that rests on rights will be aggressive, violent, contentious, [while] the temper of a movement that rests on duties will be persuasive, public spirited and harmonious.”


Temple died before he witnessed the erosion of our sexual culture and some of the modern attacks on the “marriage family”. He would have been horrified by the fact that while the folly of Marxist economics has been exposed, the folly of Marxist family policy has not. The view in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto of the “bourgeois clap trap about the family and education, about the hallowed relation of parent and child” is, sadly, alive and well. But this and other issues will have to wait until Part III.

[This is an edited and updated version of an extract from my A Nation Under God (Kingsway, 1987). Part III on modern issues is to follow.]

Back to top