Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Finding an old treasure on my bookshelf

The other day I was rearranging books on one of my shelves when I ran across an old book with a green cover that I didn't realize that I had: Christian Faith and Life, by William Temple. My copy was published in 1936 and the pages were none too worse for wear. A kind saint must have given it to me; doubtless I had set it aside and forgotten about it.

William Temple (1881-1944) is one of the great figures of Christianity of the 20th century and a heroic prophetic voice during the rise of Nazism. He became Archbishop of Canterbury, denounced Hitler and anti-semitism, and  famously gave a speech in the House of Lords decrying how "Jews are being slaughtered at the rate of tens of thousands a day." Temple became the first  Archbishop of Canterbury to go into battle since the Middle-ages, landing with the troops on the beaches at Normandy. He worked tirelessly to create ecumenical and interfaith dialogue particularly between Christians and Jews.

Let me tell you about his book I found on my shelf. It is short -- 139 pages -- and it is compilation of eight lectures Temple gave at Oxford in 1931 when he was Archbishop of York. The language is a bit dated, a bit muscular and male-gender-specific, but he nonetheless has much to teach us and much that sounds still fresh.

I read the book recently on an airplane, and it was a perfect way to launch my summer reading program. This summer I want to look at what it means to call ourselves "Church," and how old ideas meld with newer ideas of our own time. Our Vestry has been in a lengthy conversation over the past year about our future as a parish, and it seems to me the basic question -- what is Church? -- fits in that dialogue. I will take you along with my summer reading, writing occasionally on this blog about it, sharing some of what I read.

A good place to start is with Archbishop William Temple. Today I leave you with an excerpt from Christian Faith and Life (pages 128-131) that is well worth considering in any conversation about what it means to be the Church of the 21st century:
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As Christ’s purpose was to found a Kingdom, so we should think of the Church as the army of that Kingdom. It is, no doubt, true that we have repeatedly substituted compromise for warfare and prudence for the spirit of adventure. The world in which the Church is set to work has, over and over again, made terms with it, which the Church of that period has most wrongly accepted. One of the commonest of the compromises that have been made is for the world to allow the Church to be at peace in proclaiming what may be called its philosophical paradoxes provided that it keeps quiet about its moral ones. And to some extent we have to confess that the Church, as we ourselves constitute it, has fallen into the snare. We have shown, no doubt, a disproportionate of concern about the distinctive philosophical doctrines of Christianity as compared with the moral duties of all disciples of Christ. We have, for example, been much more silent than we ought concerning Christ’s perfectly plain teaching on the subject of wealth and poverty. We have not driven home upon men His clear intuition that though, if wealth comes, it ought to be accepted and used as an opportunity, yet it must be recognized as rather a snare to the spiritual life than an aim which the Christian may legitimately set before himself and pursue. … 
An Army does not exist for its own benefit; it exists for its kingdom and its king; and you must come to the Church not chiefly for what you can gain from it, but for what you can give it. When you come like that, you will gain far more than if you come looking for gain. … Come to lend yourself as a member of the Body of Christ – one of His limbs, to be moved according to His will in cooperation with the other limbs in His Body. … 
And, remember, the supreme wonder of the history of the Christian Church is that always in the moments when it has seemed most dead, out of its own body there has sprung up new life; so that in age after age it has renewed itself, and age after age by its renewal has carried the world forward into new stages of progress, as it will do for us in our day, if only we give ourselves in devotion to its Lord and take our place in its service.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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