An English Church in Australian soil
Anglicanism, Australian society and the English connection since 1788
In recent years several general histories of Australian Anglicanism have appeared together with a plethora of books, articles and postgraduate theses dealing with various aspects of the church’s history. One theme that has not been adequately explored, however, relates to the changing relationship between the Australian church and that from which it sprang in England. Admittedly, there are some articles and the occasional book that deal with the subject, but only in reference to specific themes, or limited periods.1 General histories, particularly the recent ones edited by Bruce Kaye, former General Secretary of the Australian Anglican Church and Tom Frame, previously head of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, leave the subject largely alone.2 My own previous writing has concentrated on the way in which Anglicanism shaped the course of national history in Australia.3
Two factors alerted me recently, however, to the existence of a gap in the historiography of Australian Anglicanism. The first was the seminal book, Australia’s Empire, edited by two leading historians, Deryck Schreuder and Stuart Ward. Their object was to remind Australians that the imperial connection, once recognised as having key importance for understanding Australian history, had slipped into the background and needed restoring.4 Their book included a valuable chapter on religion by Hilary Carey although there was only limited space for a discussion of Anglicanism. My thought was to carry the idea behind the book a little further by focusing on the Anglican Church and making more of the British connection.
Second, the idea sparked more than the intellectual curiosity about the past that naturally inspires the historian. Personal considerations also came into play. My experience of Anglicanism was shaped by my upbringing in England and experiences in Australia. My formative years were spent in a nation suffering the effects of depression and war. Naturally, the nation looked for guidance and comfort to the Church of England which was still deeply embedded in the national psyche. Monarch and church were closely linked: to be truly English was to be Anglican. My faith was a natural outcome of that cultural identification and was strengthened by the influence of parents, relatives and friends. All were staunchly Church of England. So, too, were the elementary schools I attended and the Maidstone Grammar School where I completed my education. There, every day opened with the school assembling for communal prayer, hymn-singing and Bible-reading. For me, this social and spiritual enculturation was capped by detailed studies of the English Reformation while I was in the Sixth Form preparing to enter Oxford University. Vital, too, was life as a chorister at the local church, St Peter’s, which was of ancient lineage and High Church leanings. My faith accompanied me to Australia in 1949 where worship in a succession of churches, culminating in St Alban’s at Epping (a suburb in Sydney’s north-west), enabled me to observe first-hand the whole church becoming more Australian. Yet, the church retained much that had been inherited from England. Clearly, the British heritage was firmly etched into its corporate life and the outlook of its people. I was conscious that this heritage had also imprinted itself on me, thus strengthening my resolve to explain why it was so enduring. Acting on this resolve led me to examine the Australian church’s history since 1788 with a view to identifying the elements of continuity and discontinuity. What follows satisfies personal instincts as well as the desire to present a fuller understanding of the church.
The importance of the English theme is reflected in the fact that the Australian church included the words ‘Church of England in its title until 1981 and drew most of its leaders and followers from Britain. The Australian offspring was doctrinally divided along lines similar to those within the English church. Its people used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer subscribed to the 39 Articles of Religion and sang from hymnals that had been compiled in the ‘mother country’ as many referred to England. Church architecture was deeply influenced by that current in Britain and so too was the design of church interiors. To enter an Anglican church in Australia and worship there on Sunday was, in fact, to be transported in time and place to the land where the church originated. The same held true both of those for whom the letters ‘C of E’ effectively meant no more than attendance at ‘Christmas and Easter’ and who, at best, sought its ministrations for marriage, baptism and funerals but little else. If only temporarily, they found themselves in an English setting where quite often the Union Jack adorned the sanctuary.
Invariably, however, the Australian flag hung opposite, serving as a reminder that the church could not simply be categorised as English. The voice heard from the pulpit was often resonant with the polished tones and practiced intonation of southern English but increasingly was replaced by an educated Australian accent. I noticed these and other signs of the emergence of an Australian ethos at the time of my arrival. And with the passing of each decade I realised the flavour became steadily more pronounced. How and why had that happened? Here was another historical question that led me back to the evolution of the church in Australia and the society in which it existed. Comparisons were needed to show how the Australian church was influenced not only by the land from which it sprang but the land of its adoption as well. Physically the two differed greatly, the one a small, ‘green and pleasant’ land located in the centre of world power; the other a vast bronzed continent situated at the ‘far side of the world’. Whereas the one was until recently a great imperial nation with a long and complex past; the other took the form of an assemblage of colonies first settled by Europeans in 1788 that eventually grew into a stable and sophisticated nation. History had fashioned in England a class-based society that was not translated to Australia where society was much more open and democratic. These were just a few of the differences that involved the Australian church in a steady process of adaptation.
Nor should it be forgotten that the English church was itself constantly evolving despite its innate conservatism and commitment to tradition. This was particularly true of the period under review when Anglicanism followed the Union Jack across the empire to remote and distant parts of the world. In England, the church responded to the needs of a nation where the village was replaced by overcrowded industrial towns, factories took over from domestic industry and democracy prevailed over autocracy and gained a hold over the nation. Gradually the church renewed itself and removed many long-standing abuses. It was a church on the move, ever open to new ideas, engaged in internal reform and heavily involved in foreign missionary work. The dynamic forces at work within the Established Church of England influenced the Australian Church until late in the twentieth century when both found themselves drifting apart and in difficult circumstances that required local responses to culturally specific challenges.
Such are the contours of the present study. It endeavours to explain how what was, by definition, a derivative church remained in part so while it adjusted over more than two centuries to a new environment and a different social order. It makes no pretence to being a complete history of Australian Anglicanism since 1788. The emphasis is rather on those features which are germane to the themes under review. Hopefully exploration of these themes will give rise to a fuller appreciation of Australian Anglicanism and of the British dimension of Australian history which is now overlooked or, perhaps worse, deliberately disparaged. Those interested in the developments that took place in other parts of the Anglican communion may gain something from learning about what happened in Australia. Perhaps there is scope for a series of volumes, each showing how the various Anglican provinces were affected by their surrounds and how this influenced their relationship with the English church. Such a series may well heighten our understanding of the nature of Anglicanism which is frequently viewed only from the centre.
1 December 2014
1. Examples by historians such as Hilary Carey, Michael Gladwin and Rowan Strong are listed in the bibliography to the current book.
2. Bruce Kaye et al, (eds), Anglicanism in Australia: a History, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002; Tom Frame, Anglicanism in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007.
3. Brian Fletcher, The Place of Anglicanism in Australia: Church, Society and Nation, Broughton Publishing, Melbourne, 2008.
4. Deryck Schreuder and Stuart Ward (eds), Australia’s Empire, Oxford History of the British Empire Series, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008.
The Church of England has had an enduring impact on the course and content of Australian history. In this engaging study which draws on decades of research and reflection on Australia’s social and spiritual history, Professor Brian Fletcher explains the slow and steady evolution of local expressions of Anglicanism and the forces and factors that obliged its members to adapt their theological worldview to the rapidly changing religious and political landscape of the “Great Southern Land”. Rather than being another comprehensive history of Australian Anglicanism since 1788, the emphasis is on exploring English influences on Australian belief and worship, art and music, and on the church’s struggles to remain true to its past while responding to emerging challenges unknown to their English ancestors. While many scholars and students overlook the place of religious convictions and spiritual aspirations in Australian history, Professor Fletcher shows the importance of Christian teaching to visions of popular culture and the significance of Anglican identity to everything from voting habits to family life. This book highlights a vital dimension in the nation’s past and contributes to a fuller appreciation of church, state and their interactions.
Emeritus Professor Brian H Fletcher OAM was the foundation Bicentennial Professor of Australian History at the University of Sydney. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Royal Australian Historical Society and the Federation of Australian Historical Societies,Professor Fletcher is also the recipient of the New South Wales History Council’s Citation for 2007 and the Centenary of Federation Medal for services to Australian history. He has published many books and articles on various aspects of Australian history. In recent years his research and writing has centred on the role of religion in Australia and has led to the publication of The Place of Anglicanism in Australia. He is an active member of the Anglican Parish of St Alban’s at Epping. Professor Fletcher presently chairs the Journal of Anglican Studies’ Board of Trustees. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in the January 2012 Honours List for service to education as an academic, researcher and author in the discipline of Australian history.