A Servant Who Continues to Lead

Review by Charles Hoffacker

William Temple was the most influential Archbishop of Canterbury of the 20th century, yet since his early death in 1944, relatively few books about him have appeared, many of them before 1970. Stephen Spencer, director for theological education at the Anglican Communion Office in London, has done much to address this shortage with his William Temple: A Calling to Prophecy (2001) and his helpful anthology, Christ in All Things: William Temple and His Writings (2015). Now comes a third title from Spencer, Archbishop William Temple: A Study in Servant Leadership.

In this worthwhile new contribution, Spencer recounts the life of Temple interspersed with major sections on books he produced at different stages of his life. The reader is thus freed to approach a prodigiously productive life in a way that is almost leisurely, if that term can appear in a sentence describing anything about William Temple. F.E. Iremonger’s 1948 life of Temple, written four years after the archbishop’s death, remains a standard work, but this third book by Spencer benefits from perspectives from the decades since then.

A Study in Servant Leadership is a phrase that speaks to our time. Christian interest in servant leadership has roots in Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The work of Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-90), a self-described businessman and seeker, has recently made servant leadership a recommended practice in many sorts of organizations and among their officers and directors. His work is carried on today by the Robert K. Greenleaf Center at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

Servant leadership is not explicitly discussed at great length in Spencer’s new book. Instead, what we have is, as his title promises, a study in servant leadership in the life of one extraordinary man, William Temple. Spencer studied that life at great length, and his readers who do so, even a little, will gradually recognize Temple as a servant leader worth emulating, even though their circumstances differ drastically from his.

Temple was a person of extraordinary intellect, boundless energy, and persistent stability. When Temple was a teenager, his father Frederick, already a bishop, became Archbishop of Canterbury. His career path may have looked smooth to many, but he experienced serious obstacles and failures in his early years.

While he came to occupy three of the leading sees of the Church of England (Manchester, York, Canterbury), he increasingly rejected prelacy in favor of prophecy and service, challenging both church and society and working for changes mandated by human need. “He was academically active, but it was his work making things happen, being involved in organizations and in being an incredibly energetic figure, that is really at the heart of his legacy,” Frances Knight observes in her essay “Why Study William Temple?”

Spencer goes further. Temple “was not just an academic or teacher, or an activist and campaigner, or a man of prayer and evident spirituality, or a larger-than-life or charismatic figure, or a person of unassuming humility who despite his privileged upbringing found his own way in life, but was all of these rolled into one, a person of simple integrity and holiness. He was both a prelate and a servant, a paradox and a gift.”

Temple was a leader who through his example continues to serve, a servant who through his example continues to lead.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, lives in Greenbelt, Maryland, with his wife, Helena Mirtova.

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