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A Short History of the Church of England in Victoria 1847-1947

By H. W. Nunn

Issued by the Editorial Committee of the Centenary Celebrations, Melboune Diocese, 1947.



THE Church of England in the colony was full of hopeful excitement about New Year time in 1848, watching for the signals to announce the arrival of the clipper-ship "The Stag," for on board her came the first Bishop of Melbourne. She reached Hobson's Bay on Sunday, 23rd January, in that year. Superintendent La Trobe, the mayor, the incumbent of St. James' Church (Rev. A. C. Thomson), and at least a hundred others, went out in boats to welcome him; and as the Bishop left the ship the crew manned the yards and gave three farewell cheers, which were answered by the crowd on Liardet's beach. He was brought in a barge up the river, and lodged in the parsonage in Bourke Street. To a congregation that crowded St. James', he preached his first sermon on Friday, 28th January, and was duly installed. This was the beginning of the Diocese of Melbourne. Bishop Perry had sailed on the 6th October, 1847, and with him were the Reverends H. B. Macartney, Daniel Newman and Francis Hales,* [Footnote: * His diary is in the possession of the Victorian Historical Society.] and also Mr. Willoughby Bean, Mr. Edward Tanner, and Mr. H. H. P. Handfield. The Bishop had a team of six clergy, for the Reverends Thomson, Collins and Wilson were already at work, and three catechists. His episcopate lasted 29 years, during which time the infant colony of Victoria had developed into the leading state in Australia.

Charles Stuart Perry, a man grave in manner, and dignified but kindly, and with that indefinable attraction that culture gives, was forty years of age when he arrived in Melbourne, and although some doubts were felt as to his physical fitness for work amidst surroundings so new and different from his previous experience, every year of his long episcopate demonstrated the wisdom of his selection, particularly as an ecclesiastical statesman. A Cambridge University mathematician, and a contemporary of Cardinal Manning, Perry had to grapple with the following [19/20] inter-related problems; the ending of the connection of the Church with the State (first introduced into Christendom by Constantine the Great in the 4th century); the development of the Church's freedom of action within her own fold; and the desperately fought battle for Education.

In Australia, we are so used to disendowment that it is quite difficult to envisage an originally established church with quite definite privileges. Such however, was the case in New South Wales in 1826, when the constitution of the Corporation of the Trustees of Church and School Lands provided for the Church of England only. At this time, there was a definite movement to give official recognition to the Church of England alone, and the connexion of the Church with the State was at its closest. The Corporation, however, did not live long, for it was soon clear that some provision should be made for other denominations, and in 1836, Sir Richard Bourke's Church Act realized the demand for full religious equality, providing for an annual sum to be divided between four religious bodies. Grants of land were also to be made. The Act met with some opposition, for Broughton, now Bishop of Australia, was desirous of introducing into New South Wales, the institutions of England "in all their integrity." Also the universal charity which Bourke had thought to introduce by indiscriminate patronage to all forms of faith, fostered an unwholesome competition for State aid, and substituted the discretion of the government for the desires of the denominations. From the foundation of the Colonial Bishoprics' Fund (1841) onwards, the policy of the Government tended definitely in the direction of the abolition of all State Aid to the Church, and when self-government was granted to the colony, then disestablishment followed, which was not unnatural as the colonists were Scotch and Irish as well as English.

In Victoria, the same problem of State Aid to Religion had to be fought out, and here, the battle between those in favour of established institutions and those who favoured the voluntary principle in maintaining churches, raged fiercely. At the general election for the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly in 1856, aid to religion was regarded as the "test," and even the importance of the "land question" was overlooked in the eagerness with which the friends and opponents of State Aid laboured to gain [20/21] strength in both branches of the Legislature. Practically however, it was a small political question; the expenditure of £50,000 set aside for public worship by the 53rd section of the Constitution Act; but in principle it appeared wide. Two-thirds of the smaller denominations had refused their share. These were enthusiasts for the voluntary principle in church matters, and they raised a good deal of clamour against contributing through the taxes to the possible endowment of error. It became in fact a "deafening din" (15), but on a calm analysts of the agitation, it was the sound and fury of the few. Most of the churches were unwilling to surrender the aid, but the objectors found strong support in the many thousands who looked with unfriendly eyes on all the churches. State Aid to religion was finally extinguished in 1874. The Bill for its abolition had been passed five times in the Legislative Assembly, and defeated four times in the Legislative Council over a period of over 20 years. At that time, in 1874, the feelings of the Church of England as a body were that the ending of State Aid was a "most wise settlement of a very long and painful dispute, which it is in every interest.... most desirable to set at rest." (16).

Bishop Perry himself was opposed to State Aid, objecting to endowments by which "error" was at the same time supported. He enjoined his clergy in 1850, to receive support as long as it was offered, at the same time protesting against the principle upon which the grant was made, and advised them to prepare for the time when they should receive it no more. The first years of his episcopate witnessed the transition of Victoria from a crown colony to a free colony. In the former stage, the colony was governed by a legislature of crown nominees and popular representatives, and in the latter stage by a Parliamentary government with responsible ministers. The first stage was the sort of doubtful ground to which a church system might well cling, and it is true that there were efforts to secure some predominant authority to the Anglican Church; for example, Perry, in 1850, endeavoured to obtain two Acts of Colonial Legislature, the Church Temporalities Act, and the Church Discipline Act. Both, however, were withdrawn because of opposition from both within and without the Church. Again in 1852, and in 1854, Gladstone attempted to pass Imperial Legislation on the position of the Church [21/22] of England in all the colonies. It could not, however, be said, "that 'State Aid' to religion was the price of the Constitution" (17), for Bishop Perry at least, was opposed in principle to the grant.

The whole matter was confused by the fact that the Bishops in the Church of England held Letters Patent from the Crown, giving them power of jurisdiction. In June of 1863, the Privy Council, in the case of "Long versus the Bishop of Capetown," decided that Letters Patent issued after constitutional government had been established at the Cape, were ineffectual to create jurisdiction in that colony. After this, no Letters Patent were issued to Bishops in self-governing colonies. Thus it is clear that Bishops do not derive their authority from the State. In Victoria, however, the establishment of responsible government made absolute rule by the Bishop apart from the cooperation of clergy and laity, "an intolerable anomaly." Bishop Perry saw this, and his first concern was to divest himself of the well-nigh despotic powers his Letters Patent (18) gave him, and to provide means by which a voluntary church in a democratic community could so function as to allow the right of the whole body to a share in its own self-government. His method of attaining this was by an Enabling Act which passed through the Victorian Legislature and was given the Royal Assent of Queen Victoria. (19). Other Bishops achieved the same ends by means of Consensual Compacts (an agreement together on the part of all concerned), without consulting the government at all. The different methods of procedure appear to have been prompted by the conflict between those who clung to the idea of a Church with at least some connection with the State, and those, who trusting to the Church's inherent rights and powers, wished to make it altogether free from State influence and control. Perry belonged to the former body of opinion, declaring that "we can do nothing without the assistance of the Legislature," and that sums up his
whole policy.

In 1854, the Legislative Council of Victoria passed the Church Assembly Act, and Perry went to England to ensure the Royal Assent. Although the first meeting of the clergy, representative laity and the Bishop had taken place on the 24th June, 1851, the first actual Assembly of the Church in Victoria took place on 16th October, 1856, and [22/23] constitutional episcopacy was established in the place of the autocratic bishop who now disappears from the scene. Perry himself, disliked despotism, "believing that whether it exists in Church or State, the disadvantages always preponderate over the advantages. A limited monarchy is that which I consider the most desirable for both." He felt that "despotic authority crushes all independence of thought and action in those who are subjected to it. . . . also . . . there is great danger of its affecting injuriously the character of him who exercises it." (20). So spoke the intense Victorian Evangelical.

As to his Church government, Perry laid down the lines of admission to Holy Baptism (21), he forbade the use of confirmation veils by candidates, and practically placed St. Peter's Church under an interdict for seven years when it established the first surpliced choir in the diocese. Perry also had strong views against music, and went to the extent of writing a pamphlet on "Music in relation to Spiritual Worship." In it, he admits "he has no ear for music," but that is not his real ground in objecting to its use, for he maintained that music was a hindrance rather than an aid to worship. In many cases he felt it to be "an artificiality which is inconsistent with earnestness," and that "spiritual worship must be worship with understanding," whereas with music the people rarely follow the words. The background of Perry's church government however, was a desire to avoid the formation of parties within the Church in Victoria. In his charge of 1866, he points out that the Church in England exhibits its strifes and divisions to the gaze of the whole world. He wished to avoid that in his diocese. Bishop Perry of course, was Evangelical in his outlook, and the impress of his views is traceable in the theological temper of the diocese to the present day; but one cannot but feel that this great pioneer's main aim was the unity of the church in the rapidly changing social and economic stage upon which he and his team were placed. He pleaded that it was essential that all his clergy should acknowledge the supreme authority of law, that none should attempt to restrict the liberty which the church allows its brethren, and that no private association for the purpose of carrying out objects in relation to the church, concerning which there existed a difference of opinion among its members, should be formed [23/24] within it. He hoped that they might continue a united church, all striving for its common faith and strengthening one another's hands. He even went so far as to state "that rather than allow a state of lawlessness to prevail in this diocese, he would prefer that every obsolete rubrical direction, however inexpedient and unsuitable to the present time, should be revived and strictly adhered to" (22).

In September 1851, an event of great importance, the gold discoveries, took place. In 12 months, 70,000 were added to the population of Victoria. Nothing before or since has quite equalled the Victorian gold rushes, says Dunbabin. (23). "Gold! Gold ! Gold! My dear Amelia, we are gone mad with gold; and what is to be the end of it no one knows," declared Mrs. Perry in her diary. (24). Social and economic problems followed on its train and every form of industry but gold-getting lost its attraction for most of the colony. Melbourne was deserted to "petticoat domination", and the Church was in great straits to provide for the spiritual needs of the inpouring multitudes, for the parish system being built up was a static, not a fluid machinery. Bishop Perry made an earnest appeal to the miners at Bendigo to get a church erected (1852) before the wet season came on, but it was of comparatively little use urging this duty upon men who knew they might move to another gold field next week. He consequently began the Gold Field Mission, and later still, permanent clergy were stationed at towns which followed in the wake of the "diggings."

At this stage, in 1851, the Legislature passed an Act to set aside £50,000 for the erection of churches and the maintenance of ministers of religion. Bishop Perry, although holding strongly that "an endowed church was bound to be a lazy church," and opposed in principle to the grant, accepted the help of the government, for his need was overwhelming. Even so, the grant made by the Legislature was inadequate to meet the needs of the growing church. External assistance was absolutely essential. Already the Church at home had privately, notably through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, subscribed large sums for the work of the Church in Australia. A further source of the necessary revenue was the newly established "Colonial Bishoprics' Fund." (1841). It is [24/25] scarcely an exaggeration to claim that, without the work of this body, the large expansion of the Anglican church during the 19th century would not have been possible. The important part that English support played in the preparation of the growth of the episcopate, and so of ordered church life in the Dominions, is generally unknown. Unquestionably the master mind was Bishop Blomfield of London. The early middle years of the 19th century saw the revival in the English Church of far-reaching ideals and ambitions. The Evangelical revival was enriched and fulfilled by the Oxford Movement, and this in its turn prepared the way for more general and enthusiastic attention to the needs of the Church overseas. Bishop Blomfield saw that there was little hope of securing provision for new dioceses out of State revenue, as the propriety of the State supporting the Church was being openly called into question. Colonial opposition too, came in part from non-conformists who had migrated for freedom's sake, in part from those who saw in Bishops prelacy, autocracy, and a "hidden-hand" interference with the liberties of their legislatures, and in part from the tax-payer who foresaw episcopal stipends being paid out of revenue. Blomfield boldly declared that if the State refused to act, it was the duty of the Church herself to "take the work in hand, and do that which may in no case be left undone." The Colonial Bishopric's Fund grew quickly and vigorously. Between the years 1841 and 1890, this fund received a total sum of £991,388, and was instrumental in providing for 67 new dioceses. The fund was a constant source of revenue for the Australian Church.

Again in the seventies, the withdrawal of State Aid from the Church meant that it was no longer possible for the Church in Australia to pursue her career without further support from the Home Country. This help came chiefly through the different missionary societies, of whom the chief contributors were the S.P.G., and the S.P.C.K.
In recent years, however, the Australian Church has become less and less dependent financially on the Home Church, and that it is self-supporting is now generally recognised.

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