Book review: Archbishop William Temple – A Study in Servant Leadership

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Stephen Spencer, Archbishop William Temple – A Study in Servant Leadership (London: SCM, 2022)

reviewed by Philip Lockley, Cambridge

Ask either of the two main political parties in the UK to identify their outstanding example of leadership in the twentieth century, and they will likely choose Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, respective prime ministers for the daunting period of the Second World War and its aftermath. Ask the same question of the Church of England, and plenty would identify a leader of much the same era: William Temple – Archbishop of York, then Canterbury until his untimely death in 1944.

Temple is perhaps best remembered for coining the term “welfare state” and spearheading the Anglican contribution to wartime debates about the kind of society Britain should become once peace came. Yet, Temple’s leadership extended into numerous fields of both ecclesial and national life and did so over several decades. He played an important role in the development of synodical governance in the Church of England and in the pre-war ecumenical movement that led to the World Council of Churches. Temple was also a reforming diocesan bishop, a popular theological writer and missioner, and further negotiated many of the legal requirements for religious instruction and provision in state schools still in place today.

The questions of what makes a good leader and why have long animated the fields of business and politics. Latterly, churches, mission organisations and ministerial training programmes have begun to ask them too. Among existing models and theories of leadership, “servant leadership” – popularised by Robert K. Greenleaf since the 1970s – has obvious appeal for Christians, arguably because it sounds most like “what Jesus would do” or has a ring of appropriate humility for his disciples. There is, of course, far more to the theory than that. According to Ken Blanchard, servant leadership involves both “the leadership part” – providing vision and direction from the way things are to what they can become, and “the implementation part” – personally providing the support to realise that vision, typically through caring, listening and serving everyone else below and around the leader in an organisational hierarchy.

For Stephen Spencer, currently Director for Theological Education at the Anglican Communion Office, William Temple’s life and achievements are a rich and engaging example of the full theory of “servant leadership”. Spencer has consciously written his biography of Temple both to illustrate this theory in modern Christian practice and to examine whether Temple’s experience in the corporate life of the Church adjusts, enriches and deepens the insights of the secular theory.

Spencer has been writing on Temple for many years, and here narrates his life, thought and illustrious career with masterful clarity and poise. The book’s structure combines chronological and thematic approaches by both charting Temple’s career progression and giving focused attention to his contributions to different dimensions of church and national life – including as a pastoral and spiritual leader, a political leader, an intellectual leader, a wartime leader. Spencer utilises Blanchard’s distinction between “leadership” and “implementation” across his study and concludes most chapters by deftly drawing together the threads of his preceding discussion, showing its relevance to the theme of servant leadership.

For some Anvil readers, William Temple may be warily associated with theological liberalism and an overly “social” gospel. Yet, as Spencer reveals, Temple was more consistently engaged by mission, a love of the Bible and evangelistic preaching than such a reputation implies. Temple’s theological convictions also evolved, particularly across the 1930s, increasingly emphasising themes of redemption, justification and conversion. This book is therefore recommended to anyone intrigued either by what servant leadership can look like in a hierarchical Church and society, or simply by Temple himself, and how an outstandingly gifted disciple chose to lead in daunting times.

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