BOOK REVIEW / Life, liberty and the pursuit of impossible dreams: 'William Temple' - John Kent: Cambridge, 8.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM TEMPLE was larger than life. Fat as a boy, he remained overweight as an adult. Talented as a juvenile, he became an intellectual star among some formidably talented fellow bishops. Why, then, was his life a failure? That is a question which is answered - but only just, and then wrongly - in this book.

In the traditional sense, this is not a life at all. Temple's background, crucial to an understanding of his ubiquitous confidence, is covered extensively only in comparison to information about his wife. In place of a biography that might give some idea of what Temple was like, Kent devotes the space allotted to him to an examination of Temple's ideas and how these circumnavigated the aims he set himself. Within these limits the book is a glorious success.

Temple had two absorbing objectives. The first was to gain a grouping of the worldwide Protestant churches to act as a kind of spiritual British Empire. While such a grouping was to provide a bulwark against secularisation, a revamped Anglican Church at home would fight the battle on a more limited front.

For success on this latter score, Temple embarked upon what Kent terms a modernisation programme. Winning an independence from the state compatible with establishment was Temple's goal, although not all those who jumped on board the Life and Liberty bandwagon believed that was the objective. But how could it have been otherwise, if the church was to use every means at its disposal to preach the Gospel?

Much space is given over to describing the policies this modernised church should espouse. Here one can only gasp at the scope of Temple's work and objective. It is not so much that in youth Temple was the beneficiary of a late Victorian confidence. Temple's programme is simply medieval in its insistence that, as the Christian faith is all-embracing of every part of our lives, so, too, must be its teaching.

With such a vision, it was natural for Temple to argue that there was no department of public life from which the church's influence should be excluded. That must have gone down like a lead balloon on the Tory benches of the inter-war years. Throughout his life Temple strove to provide the Anglican Church with its own social reform programme. On this score, he could never be successful. How could he be when the active membership was largely Tory,

and the programme was inevitably radical?

What is surprising is Kent's judgement on why Temple failed. Kent believed that Temple's stance on Christian politics should have led him to form a distinct political party. Here is not the only example of Temple showing a surer touch than his critics. Temple was equally unsuccessful in his other ambition: the formation of an ecumenical British Empire.

The World Council of Churches was about to get off the ground at the time of his death, but such a strategy, grand as the vision behind it was, would have been bound to fail. Indeed, I would argue that the more the church has lost ground and influence, the greater has been the efforts to form supranational organisations to hide its nakedness. It is as though the pain resulting from the loss of influence is assuaged by the building of paper castles.

It is in describing the ecumenical movement that Kent overplays Temple's hand and underscores the role of George Bell. Bell's greatness does not need to be lessened in order to spotlight Temple's. But the success of the post-war international settlement - which Kent acknowledges - surely owes more to Bell's condemnation of the obliteration policy than to Temple's connivance. The ecumenical movement may have been mistaken, but its changing objectives were as noble as they were foolish, and they owe more to Bell than Temple.

Germany remains the big European issue. At the end of the First World War, the ecumenical movement sought to bring Germany back into the family of nations. The instrument to achieve this was the League of Nations, into which the movement would breathe spiritual life and strength. As the league faded, the ecumenical movement became the means of holding out hope to a world plunged into the darkness of Nazism.

The strategy was faulted, but its conception illustrates that most wonderful side of human nature, whose aspirations can rise above the clay feet of the political foot-soldiers. Failure for Temple was merely an inevitable result of trying to accomplish the impossible. But what a try.