Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 2nd June 2013
2 June 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
No one who works in this place can be unaware of the legacy that we inherit at the Abbey. Many years of faithful and devoted service have been given to this place by all manner of people, and today we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. As this is my last period in residence here before I retire next month I want to use these five Matins addresses in June to look at some of those who have been Canons here in the last century in order to assess something of their significance and their continuing importance for today.
I start with one who was here for the shortest period of all, but who in his way was one of the most distinguished. William Temple became a Canon here in 1919 and left less than two years’ later, first to become Bishop of Manchester, then Archbishop of York and then Archbishop of Canterbury until his untimely death in 1944. But he was here for a critical period to see through what had been a major part of his life for some years before, and in that work he left a lasting legacy to the Church of England.
Temple is, I think, the only son of an Archbishop of Canterbury to go on to hold the post himself. His father, Frederick, was Archbishop from 1896 until he died in 1902, and it was from an obviously privileged background that his son William went to Oxford, where he had a brilliant career and became a lecturer in philosophy. After many periods of questioning what he believed he was ordained in 1908 and contributed to a book published in 1912 called Foundations, which looked at some of the critical questions raised by scholarship for some aspects of the Christian Faith. The book was reviewed by Ronnie Knox, at the time Chaplain of Trinity College Oxford, but who was later to leave the Church of England to become a Roman Catholic priest. Knox entitled his review of Foundations ‘Some Loose Stones’ where, among other things, he accused Temple of watering down the Christian Faith to enable Jones, the mythical man in the street to swallow it. Temple’s response was magnificent; ‘You misunderstand Ronnie, I am Jones, looking for something to eat.’
But while Temple was establishing his reputation as a profoundly thoughtful Christian theologian, he was also engaged in ecclesiastical politics. Like many of his generation he was frustrated by the position of the Church of England as being seen almost as a Department of State by the Government of the day. Any legislation that might affect the church, like, for example creating new Dioceses to deal with the growing population of England, required legislative time in the Houses of Parliament, and, not surprisingly, Parliament sometimes thought it had more urgent matters to deal with. Also within Parliament there were a group of those rather strongly opposed to the Church of England and they too could develop delaying tactics to prevent any bit of sensible reform on behalf of the Church. There had been a Commission on Church and State to investigate the matter, but the Commission’s findings had got bogged down in bureaucratic problems. In 1916 Temple, who had become Vicar of St James’ Piccadilly, was being visited by his friend and neighbour, Dick Sheppard, Vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields when Sheppard said ‘Don’t you think, William dear, that there ought to be a ginger group in the Church?’ From that comment what became known as ‘The Life and Liberty Movement’ was born the following year, devoted to dealing with some of the anomalies in the church, church patronage, disparities in clerical incomes, the conditions of tenure, and, most significantly of all, parliament’s control over the church. Towards the end of 1917 Temple bravely decided to resign the post of Vicar of St James to devote all his time to the movement, and he toured the country encouraging change.
He had also devised a method for bringing it about. There was within the church great reluctance to give to Parliament the control over the details of any legislation, so instead Temple and his friends arranged for the Convocations, which were legal bodies established to represent the clergy of England, to put to Parliament a scheme for the creation of a National Assembly of the Church of England, with the right to devise and present to Parliament legislation on church matters. It required something known as ‘The Enabling Act’ to be passed through Parliament, and it was for that Act that Temple worked so indefatigably. During that period and earlier over the course of six years Temple had been offered a canonry of Westminster on three occasions, but he only accepted the third offer when he knew the legislative process he has set in train would be coming to Parliament. His first month in residence was August 1919 and in November of that year the House of Commons, by a huge majority, accepted the Enabling Act. It was an enormous achievement by the Life and Liberty movement, and there is little doubt that it would not have been achieved without the labours of its full time secretary until he moved to the Abbey.
With the legislation through there was a question as to whether the Life and Liberty Movement should continue, but Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of York said when the legislation was passed ‘all depends on the spirit, the motive, the purpose, the outlook with which church people enter the new era, upon the character which is impressed upon it at its start.’ Temple took that as a guide for thinking the Movement should continue for a further two years to see the changes through, some of which were quite major. For example there was what Temple described as ‘the vile decision about women’ which had said that only men could be members of the Church Assembly, a motion proposed I might add by the then Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle. Temple worked hard, and effectively, to get that decision changed. He also had to deal with some rather over-optimistic hopes for the new system. One churchwarden wrote ‘I understand that now the Enabling Act is through we can get rid of our parson. Please send full particulars by return.’ It was not quite as simple as that.
But while all that was going on the essential battle had been won, and Temple said of his role here ‘Westminster gives what I think I most need after these three years of rushing about – and that is the opportunity and even the duty to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. He did not have long to do that. Sixteen months after the was installed in the Abbey he was invited to become Bishop of Manchester, and eight years later was enthroned as Archbishop of York, and thirteen years after that was invited to become Archbishop of Canterbury. His time here was brief, but for the Church of England very significant. In time the Church Assembly became the General Synod, and it is perhaps worth reflecting on the cautions Archbishop Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time offered when the Church Assembly came into being. ‘I find a little difficulty’ he wrote ‘in making my own all the hopes and ambitions which have found eloquent expression in the fine body of men and women who have advocated it.’ With the benefit of hindsight many may find his cautious words wise. I am not at all sure the General Synod is universally loved, but on the other hand to go back to the parliamentary control that operated before the First World War would be unthinkable. Perhaps like many visionaries Temple was disappointed with the details of the final outcome, but there is no doubt that it was a huge change that has had a profound effect on the Church of England subsequently. And the critical decision was taken while he was here.