William Temple and the Environment by Dr Martin J. Hodson

Dr Martin J Hodson

It is now just over a month since I attended the Malvern 2017 Conference at St. George’s House, Windsor, organised by the William Temple Foundation. It is time for a little reflection now that Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (see my blog), which was announced during the conference, has passed mostly from the news. The Malvern 2017 Conference was intended to look at religion and society in the UK in 2017, which is 75 years after the original Malvern conference that was inspired by Archbishop William Temple. The original conference was extremely influential, and Temple is often seen as a key person behind the development of the Welfare State in the UK. We had a good set of talks on all aspects of the topic, and I ended up as a last minute replacement for the environment talk. A few days before the conference I spotted a tweet from the William Temple Foundation with an interesting quote from Temple’s book Christianity and Social Order, originally published in 1942.

A view over Windsor from St George’s

“The fundamental source of all wealth is Land. All wealth is a product of human labour expended upon God’s gifts; and those gifts are bestowed in the land, what it contains and what it nourishes. Most truly the ‘Malvern Conference’ declared that ‘we must recover reverence for the earth and its resources, treating it no longer as a reservoir of potential wealth to be exploited, but as a storehouse of divine bounty on which we utterly depend.’ The land legislation of the Old Testament rests on the principle that the land in a special sense belongs to God. This principle appears in our own Common Law in the doctrine that only the King has full Dominion over land; only its Use is granted to landlords.”

Wow! I had always thought, wrongly as it turns out, that environmental theology, as we know it, more or less began with Lynn White’s famous (or maybe infamous?) paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” published in Science in 1967. But Temple gave a clear exposition of the stewardship ethic 25 years earlier. So he was not just a great social reformer, but a Christian environmentalist, and a pioneer in the field.

Am I the first person to think this? Actually no, I am not. A quick web search and I came up with a fascinating paper by Panu Pihkala, which is, fortunately, open access (Pikhala, 2016). In the section on “Early British Contributions,” Pihkala explains the environmental background to the Malvern Conference. It seems that Temple was a friend of Charles Raven, a controversial theologian who had an interest in religion and science, and was an amateur botanist and birder (he was a biographer of John Ray!). Raven had a considerable influence on Temple. When the original 1942 Malvern Conference was being set up environmental stewardship was included in the materials sent out in preparation for the conference. The main spokesman for the environment was sociologist and theologian, Vigo A. Demant, who included a section on “Respect for the Earth” in his conference presentation. Another important figure who had input into this theme at the conference was the writer Dorothy L. Sayers, who was a lay theologian. The 1942 conference statement thus came to have a significant environmental component. As Pihkala correctly states, ecotheology is not what the 1942 conference is usually remembered for. Maybe it should be.

Dr. Martin J. Hodson
JRI Operations Director

Panu Pihkala (2016) Rediscovery of Early Twentieth-Century Ecotheology. Open Theology 2: 268–285. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2016-0023

One Comment

  1. I thank John Reader for pointing out a more detailed article on the first Malvern conference and its environmental implications by Panu Pihkala. This article also considers why it was that the environmental ideas set out in the conference did not seem to get picked up on in the same way as the social agenda. Unfortunately, this article is behind a paywall.
    Pihkala, P. (2016). Malvern (1941) as a pioneering venture in Christian ecotheology. Journal of Beliefs and Values 37, 296-307.

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