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Melbourne Anglicans:
Diversity or Division?

ISS Reports


A seminar presented by Dr Peter Sherlock on April 15, 2008

Melbourne Anglicans regularly speak with pride about the diversity of the diocese. Usually this is taken to mean the varieties of what we once called churchmanship: Melbourne is the only metropolitan diocese in Australia that has a roughly even mix of evangelical and catholic clergy and parishes. This would not be especially remarkable in an urban English diocese, but in Australia the tyranny of distance and the strong influence of early bishops have led to most dioceses being overwhelmingly either Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic. Today, there is good reason to question whether Melbourne embodies a healthy diversity or is starkly divided, as evidenced by recent articles in The Melbourne Anglican, the experience of the last election for an archbishop, and underlying disagreements about the so-called crisis in the Anglican Communion.

I argue that it is useful to broaden out the question of diversity or division into a much wider range of categories: rich and poor, liberal and conservative, apathy and action. This paper investigates our ability to embrace difference from an historical perspective, especially that of the 1850s when many of the structures we now inhabit were formed. I will discuss two main areas: the cultural diversity of Melbourne Anglicanism, and the difficulties thrown up in attempts to appoint the diocesan bishop. I hope that we might be surprised by our past and encouraged to lift our game so that we might surprise our beloved city.

Anglicans arrived in Victoria in the 1830s with the very first European settlers, but long-term church-planting really began in 1847, with the creation of a new diocese and the appointment of Charles Perry as bishop. Bishop Perry arrived in the colony in January 1848, and the group of clergy and ordinands who travelled with him was relatively diverse. Perry and his wife were middle-class Evangelicals, both from northern English mercantile families. Henry Handfield would become vicar of this parish, steering it from a high church ethos towards Anglo-Catholicism. Hussey and Jane Macartney were Irish Evangelicals who were about as low church as one could get, in liturgy, doctrine, and manners. Willoughby Bean was especially interesting: he had farmed in New South Wales for several years, married the daughter of the Commandant of Cape Town, and then returned to Wales to study theology, before coming to Melbourne with Perry to be ordained. What the party on the Stag did lack was diversity in terms of class—the names of several can be found in the pages of Burke's Landed Gentry—but in this they reflected the nature of the Anglican clergy of the period.

When the gold rushes began in 1851, they brought to Victoria an extraordinary cultural diversity as people from across the world flocked to the colony in search of instant wealth. Today, that diversity has its legacy in one of the world's most multicultural cities. Although the leaders and councils of the Anglican church remain largely Anglo-Celtic, there are promising signs of a renewed commitment not only to cross-cultural mission, but to embracing Melbourne's cultural diversity within every aspect of our life together. To what extent was this ethnic diversity reflected in colonial Anglican life? The attempts of British Anglicans to evangelise Indigenous and Chinese communities in the 1850s is a useful way to approach this question, although there is little evidence that the church was prepared to be changed by the people it sought to embrace.

Melbourne Anglicans were slow to engage with the First Australians, and it was not until the mid-1850s that a Church of England Mission to the Aborigines was begun. Supporters of the mission were surprisingly articulate about their role in colonisation. The Reverend Cooper Searle told the 1857 Annual General Meeting that 'The gospel of Christ was the only compensation that could be given to the aborigines for the robbery of their land. Almost the only compensation that we had given them hitherto was to teach them the language of blasphemy and the use of intoxicating liquors.' Searle went on to argue against prevailing beliefs among the colonists that Indigenous Victorians were incapable of receiving the gospel, while noticing the difficulties faced by European missionaries. His conclusion, disturbingly, was that 'The main thing was to get a hold upon the children, and thus to secure future generations.' The same conclusion was reached in 1857 by a committee established at the very first meeting of the Church Assembly (what we now call Synod). Their report acknowledged Anglicans had failed to protect the Indigenous population from the death, disease and disorder brought by Europeans. The committee recommended the creation of boarding institutions to which Indigenous children would be removed in the hope that they could be educated to live a British lifestyle, theoretically with the consent of their parents and elders.

The pattern of engagement was set: Indigenous Victorians were always marginal to the Anglican colonists, and interaction occurred on terms set by the Europeans. It was not until well into the twentieth century that white Anglicans began to recognise that there were Indigenous Anglicans alongside them in the church, and we are still learning what this means today.

Another area in which Anglicans have consciously sought to reflect and engage with the people of this diocese has been the mission to the Chinese. The gold rush brought tens of thousands of Chinese workers to the colony of Victoria. As a result, in some areas of Victoria the population was divided almost equally between people of British and Chinese origin, with a handful of Indigenous people trying to survive in their midst. This changed the composition of our population forever. The Anglican leadership saw missionary work in the Chinese community as a means of indirectly proselytising China itself, hoping that itinerant workers would take Christianity home with them. As the Governor of Victoria told a packed meeting of the Chinese Mission in August 1857, the conversion of Chinese goldminers was a route by which British Australians could contribute to the wider missionary work of the worldwide church.

The Chinese missions are noteworthy because the church adopted what has always been the most successful approach to missions: empowering missionaries from the community that is to be evangelised. In 1856 Bishop Perry successfully obtained the services of Lo Sam Yuen, a Chinese catechist recommended by Hong Kong's Anglican bishop. Yuen and another Chinese agent worked the Castlemaine goldfields, visiting tents. While they were placed under the supervision of a European clergyman and former missionary to China, there is no question the Chinese men did the real work. Although conversions were few, and success was limited, the Anglican commitment to Chinese Christians survived in an era characterised by increasing ethnic hostility.

The tactic of working with the Chinese, rather than sending in British agents, was employed with more success in setting up a mission centre in Little Bourke Street. These efforts contributed to the conversion and growth in faith of generations of Australian Christians. One such example is the family of Ham Hoy Ling, a native of Taishan county who arrived in Melbourne in 1864. Hoyling, a successful merchant, married a Scottish woman, Emma McCloude, and they had ten children. Hoyling attended the Chinese Church of Christ, while Emma and her children became parishioners of St Augustine's Moreland. At first glance this seems like a white, working class Evangelical parish, yet one of its leading families was a middle-class Chinese-Australian family.

Our history is more diverse than we might think. The challenge for today is to manage the tension between providing language-specific ministries for first-generation congregations, and integrating our diverse cultures, not to assimilate them into some supposedly dominant 'Australian' culture, but to engage and share our different perspectives on our God and our world, and to ensure that we hand on the faith to future generations.

* * * * *

Now I turn to the problem of church politics and synods. Something approaching half of Melbourne synod members presently vote by one of two tickets that are prepared by small groups and widely circulated. This practice, or at least its covert usage, continues to perturb many Anglicans. Yet voting advices have been used at one time or another in most Australian synods since at least the late nineteenth century. One of the best-documented controversies about church politics took place between 1918 and 1921, during the messy transition of authority from Archbishop Clarke to Archbishop Lees. It is my belief that in this crisis Melbourne Anglicans formed the evil habits that have repeatedly returned to haunt the diocese in the appointment of a new Archbishop.

Archbishop Lees was elected in 1921 by a Board of six clergymen and six laymen appointed by the Melbourne Synod in October 1918. That 1918 Synod was one of the most divisive ever experienced in the diocese's history. The presenting issue was churchmanship, against the backdrop of Archbishop Clarke's forthcoming retirement and the sectarian tension caused by the 1917 referendum on conscription. The Synod elections were dominated by a new political party that later became known as the Central Church League, led by Alexander Leeper, sometime Warden of Trinity College. Their ticket was highly effective: of the eleven existing members of the Board of Electors who sought re-election, only three were returned. For the first time the Board that would appoint the Archbishop was dominated by Evangelical Anglicans. The acrimony which ensued was caused by bad communication and misperceptions, the refusal of key players to admit they were wrong, and the desire of men in their fifties and sixties to hang on to power. How different Melbourne would be if Anglicans had embraced the post-war trend towards reunion, reconciliation, and reconstruction.

Archbishop Clarke finally resigned his office in late 1920, six months after he had returned to England for the Lambeth Conference. But Leeper took the initiative long before, writing to the former Registrar of the diocese and even the Principal of Moore College for advice. By October 1920, Leeper had fixed upon the name of Archdeacon Henry John Cody, an internationally renowned preacher in Toronto, and a Canadian MP. In January 1921 Leeper and another board member, Archdeacon Langley, decided to write to Cody quite independently of the Board to tell him they believed he was called by God to be Archbishop of Melbourne, and they wanted him to be ready for a formal offer. We do not know what Cody made of this bizarre and deeply inappropriate letter.

Leeper and Langley successfully persuaded the Board of Cody's merits, and he was actually elected Archbishop on 1 March 1921 with only one negative vote. It being Melbourne, someone leaked the news to the press and for two weeks the whole city discussed the new Canadian Archbishop, until it became apparent that Cody had not actually accepted the appointment. On 25 April 1921 the Herald broke the humiliating news that Cody had telegrammed the Board to decline the offer. There was a near universal loss of confidence in the Board. Leeper had failed dismally and deeply damaged the credibility of the church — and the office of Archbishop. The Board reconvened and, using a better and more confidential process, finally elected an English vicar, Harrington Clare Lees, in a unanimous vote in August 1921. There was little enthusiasm for the Lees appointment; such is the way with Melbourne Anglicans. Nevertheless, Lees brought stability to the diocese, building a good reputation as a preacher. He strove successfully to establish a working consensus across divisive factional lines, and suppressed unhelpful electioneering. It was all the more tragic that he died in office less than eight years later.

Because of the controversy surrounding the tickets in 1918, the mechanism for electing an Archbishop was itself questioned in Synod in 1919, and again in 1922. The Reverend E.J.B. White brought a Bill to Synod to abolish the Board and give the responsibility of appointing the bishop directly to Synod. He put forward three reasons: first, the clergy should have the right to elect their Father in God; second, an Archbishop would have a stronger mandate knowing he had been appointed by Synod; and third, the only reason to have a Board not a Synod election was when it would be necessary to appoint an unknown clergyman from outside Australia. His supporters pointed to the use of election synods in other Australian dioceses, such as Sydney. Those against argued that Synod was ill-equipped to make judgments about clergy its members may never have met, and that the process was best served by the confidentiality of a Board to prevent candidates' merits being openly canvassed in the press. In 1922 the bill was voted down after a debate when the new Archbishop left the chair to speak against it, arguing that no 'self-respecting man would come if he knew the pros and cons for his election had been bandied about in open Synod.' Election by Synod was adopted in 1988, however, and is the system we still use.

What do we learn from this mess? The long vacuum of leadership between Clarke's intention to retire from early 1919 through to the arrival of Lees in early 1921 meant that Melbourne missed out on the spirit of renewal that swept throughout much of the Anglican world in those years. The church's process did not serve it well, not because of the method of election, but because institutions like the church rely on goodwill and generosity and are therefore all too easily divided by those who would seek power at any cost. Confidentiality was absent and the 1921 Board leaked, adding pressure on those under consideration and raising public expectations that could then fall dangerously low. Then as now, Anglicans hoped for a new Messiah, whether Australian, English or Canadian, who would come to Melbourne and revive the church, and found their hopes and desires gradually battered down only to discover that God is gracious, sending them an Archbishop beyond what they deserved.

* * * * *

When Anglicans first arrived in Melbourne they believed they shared a common framework. Their liturgy was that of the Book of Common Prayer, their doctrine was that determined by the 39 Articles, and the Scriptures and Creeds those Articles serve, while their identity was shaped by the Royal Supremacy. Leading Anglicans saw themselves as British, and if not upper-class, then at least middle-class. Today, Melbourne diocese may be on the brink of some of the most bitter divisions in our history. Nevertheless, I argue that our divisions are not irreconcilable; the question before us is whether we are committed to living out the reconciliation embodied in the death and resurrection of our saviour Jesus Christ. There really is nothing new under the sun, and many of the problems we encounter today are precisely those which faced us a century and a half ago.

I believe we can step back from division and turn towards a fruitful and lively diversity. Since 1847 Anglicans have been pretty consistent in reaching out across social, cultural and political divisions. We have been transformed in our understanding of ourselves as catholic and evangelical, liberal and conservative, immigrant and first Australian. We've excelled at expressing an Australian Anglican theology in our liturgy. Yet we've been hopeless at doing so in our governance, and still haven't recovered from the end of the Royal Supremacy in the 1860s. Our sense of mission to the wider community and to each other has been regularly and clearly articulated, notwithstanding our many blind spots. Our problems have arisen when we have failed to translate our rhetoric into action. Too often we have identified ourselves with cultural, economic and theological diversity, but with the caveat 'So long as I don't have to sit next to them on Sunday'. The challenge for the future is to embrace a true diversity, embodied in the recognition of the humanity of each person we encounter, and of our call to live in tension with each other within one body, the body of Christ.

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