AnglicanChurch HistoryEcumenismTheology & Spirituality

William Temple’s Vision for a Truly Catholic Church

Anglicans and the Catholic Church

There is often confusion about the meaning of the word “catholic” within the Christian religion. Used as a common adjective, the word simply means “universal.” This seems to be what the Apostles’ Creed refers to when it speaks of the “holy catholic church.” It is also the meaning that Protestants tend to prefer when they use the word. On the other hand, throughout most of church history, Christians have also used the word as a proper adjective in “the Catholic Church,” a formal name originally used with reference to the true church across the world in contrast with local heretical bodies that falsely claimed continuity with Christ.

In the present day, the capitalized “Catholic” usually refers to the Roman Catholic Church. However, many Anglicans across the world use it to refer to the orthodox visible church that has been divided into Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and other bodies. Protestant bodies that do not have the historic episcopate—that is, the chain of bishops going back to the very early church—are often not considered fully part of this visible Catholic Church. This Anglican usage naturally causes some discomfort, since a Catholic Church that has been bitterly divided for a thousand years and excludes millions of genuine believers across the globe seems hardly catholic.

One twentieth-century Anglican theologian who addressed this problem, though somewhat indirectly, was William Temple, who served as archbishop of Canterbury during the last few years of life. During the First World War, as Christians of various nations and denominations were slaughtering each other and mincing the inherited optimism of the nineteenth century, Temple published a short yet powerful essay in which he confronted the fragmentation of the church and cast a vision for a church that would be both Catholic and catholic: the reunited visible church spread over the entire world. The essay may be overly bold and flawed in some parts, but I nevertheless find it fascinating and wish, in the remainder of this brief article, to summarize its argumentation and offer a few words of discussion. (Page numbers are provided in parentheses; the full citation is at the bottom of the article.)

The Church (3–12)

Temple begins the main body of the pamphlet by developing a basic idea of what the church truly is. Holding true to his Anglican roots, he rejects the idea that the church is fundamentally a “voluntary association” of people that exists for public worship (3). The church, he asserts, is “the creation of God in Christ” (4), a spiritual reality in which all Christians are actually united by the Holy Spirit to Christ and therefore to each other as well. Regarding the purpose of the church, he states that it is to be the instrument of the will of God, which includes the evangelization of the whole world. The church, however, does not exist strictly for this purpose. Worship of God is also essential to the church’s life and is necessary for proper evangelistic activity.

Having established a rough ecclesiological framework, Temple considers how the church ought to express itself outwardly in an organizational way. He rejects the idea that Christianity should be a loose affiliation of groups of Christians that organizes itself and operates based on what seems most effective. With such a system the church fails to embody the divine will and is ineffective in addressing real-world problems. Furthermore, this system, being governed by what seems right to people, fits better with natural religion than with Christianity. The organization of the church, like the sacraments, should express the fact that “religion is a gift from God, and not a discovery of man” (11). Only through expressing the transcendent nature of Christianity can the church become truly catholic. He does not go into detail about what this system might be, but presumably, what he has in mind includes the historic episcopal order of the church. In such a line of reasoning, it would perhaps be fair to say that catholic (universal) Christianity must be Catholic (historic visible church) Christianity.

Nations and Nationalism (12–18)

Temple criticizes the historic Western Church for failing to give adequate attention to nationalism, either affirming or disaffirming. In the Middle Ages the Western Church presented itself as transcending nations, both in the sense that its rules superseded national laws and in the sense that it stretched across political boundaries and was therefore not strictly associated with any particular national government. From this position, Christian leaders had little concern for nations and did not give them sufficient attention even to criticize their excesses and condemn the wars they caused. This neglect from the church also, Temple says, led to a confusion of loyalties. The common people were supposed to be loyal first and foremost to the spiritual powers, not to kings, lords, and so on. However, in times when people had to choose between loyalty to the church and loyalty to their nation, a natural sense of nationalism often drove people to choose the latter.

The proposed solution to this problem is to christen nations and nationalism. Nations have an important God-given place in the present order, says Temple, and the natural human instinct to be proud of and loyal to one’s nation is good in itself. Further, since church and nation have complementary roles, they can work together for divine purposes. Christian nations and the church relate to each other as a family relates to its country: the family gives allegiance to its country, and the country is made up of families and “can reach its welfare only through theirs” (17). With such a relationship established, the church can hold people and nations accountable to Christian moral teaching. Temple also proposes that, in keeping with these relations, the church organize itself along national lines, meaning that there would be a French province and a Spanish province and so on.

Maintaining Balance (17–20)

The maintenance of theological and spiritual vitality in a huge worldwide organization divided along national lines would be quite a difficult task. There would be, for example, a danger of people lapsing into the worldly kind of nationalism and entering into conflict with other nations. Temple finds a solution in the religious orders of the past, like the Order of St. Francis. Remarkably, Temple, a committed Anglican and future archbishop, puts forth the idea of an Order of St. George Fox, the founding leader of the anti-institutional Quakers. This order could give expression to the universality of the church without denying the importance of nationalism. He also suggests an Order of St. John Wesley in England, which would testify to the ongoing need for personal conversion. Temple then concludes by stressing the importance of pursuing this united church and by acknowledging that its pursuit is possible if Christians act in humility, penitence, love, and other Christian virtues.


I will limit my discussion to three comments. First, Temple’s essay does not propose a plan for reuniting Christianity; what he primarily offers is a goal, a destination. Therefore, it would not be helpful to take him to task over his decision not to give much attention to the huge barriers the church faces in pursuing greater unity. More useful would be critical evaluation of the destination he articulates: is this what Christians should be striving for this side of the second coming? It seems that many Christians who are involved in ecumenical activity do not attempt to answer this question and therefore have only the vaguest of notions as to what they are working toward. We can expect ecumenism to be more fruitful when participating Christians have come up with at least some answer to this question. Whether or not Temple hits the bullseye, he is to be praised for having the vision and the bravery to take a shot and, more importantly, for calling others to the range.

Second, in relating transcendence to church organization, Temple touches on an issue that, though rarely recognized, is a fundamental point of division in the worldwide church. In the Catholic tradition (and here I use the word in the Anglican sense described above), transcendence is a central theme that permeates theology, liturgy, morality, architecture, art, and church governance. Coupled with this theme is the concept of mystery, which likewise occupies a prominent place in the life of the church. On the other hand, those of more evangelical commitments tend to treat transcendence differently and are more oriented toward immanence, to the earthward direction of Christianity. Among such believers there is also a tendency to be dismissive of mystery and sacramental theology. I wonder to what extent many theological differences flow more from these two orientations than from surface-level exegetical disagreements. Temple, in raising the issue with respect to church governance and ecumenism, sets the stage for conversations that are sorely needed in the church today.

Third, Temple invites further reflection on the church’s need to express a plurality of emphases. Christians have frequently divided over theological differences, and it would not be fair to downplay the importance of these differences or ascribe the splits solely to other causes. Even so, I wonder whether, in some cases, healthy unity could have persisted in spite of these disagreements if the ecclesial bodies involved had been more willing to allow variances in emphasis and style. If so, perhaps an increased ability to express differing emphases would open up avenues for reunion. Temple’s idea about new religious orders, while not the whole solution, could prove useful if carried out cautiously and sparingly. This could be an area for further exploration.

My hope is that these brief reflections will encourage further discussion stemming from Temple’s pamphlet. Whether or not one accepts all of its details, it has rich theological content that is worthy of close examination by believers of any Christian tradition. I also pray that in considering these ideas we in the contemporary church will heed Temple’s call to catholicity and work toward a richer expression of the gospel.

Temple, William. Our Need of a Catholic Church. Papers for War Time, series 2, 19. London: Oxford University Press, 1915.

The header image shows the Cloister of Canterbury Cathedral. Photo credit: David Doherty. Used with permission from the Cathedral.

David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

Previous post

Pensées, Reality, and le Coeur (Part Two)

Next post

Freedom in the Flesh: A Reflection on Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”