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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 object of this short history is to give a picture of the Church of England in Victoria during the last one hundred years. The occasion is the Centenary celebration of the consecration of the first Bishop of Melbourne, Charles Stuart Perry (1807-1891), on St. Peter's Day, June 29th, 1847, in Westminster Abbey, London. That day saw the establishment of no less than four sees, namely, those of Melbourne; Newcastle (New South Wales); Adelaide (South Australia); and Capetown (South Africa); and at the same time W. G. Broughton, Bishop of Australia since 1836, was instituted Bishop of Sydney and Metropolitan of Australasia. The period marks a great expansion in the growth of the Colonial Episcopate, for in the years 1840-1850, sixteen Bishops were consecrated to carry "the full benefits of her (the Church of England's) Apostolical government . . . to the distant provinces of the Empire." (1). It is indeed a most important chapter in the history of the church in modern times.

Today, one hundred years later, the scene however, is vastly different. In Australia alone, there are twenty-five dioceses, and one hundred and seven others, "in the distant provinces of the Empire," that is, in the Dominions and British dependencies. And as in political and social history, the growth of these colonies of England into a family of nations, the British Commonwealth of Nations, has been the development of an adjustment between the claims of loyalty and the claims of liberty, between what was imposed from without and what grew up in the respective communities; so, too, has the Church of England in the colonies been faced with the same problem of the adjustment of loyalty and liberty. The first one hundred years of the Church of England in Australia has illustrated a fundamental problem of that kind, for here the Church has adopted fixed constitutions in each State but yet maintained loyalty to church traditions, and also at the same time declared itself free from the control of the State. The spirit of the young and vigorous communities overcame the endeavour of the Church of England to enter into the new colonies as a privileged and endowed church, in alliance with the State. In Australia, the first wedge in the breaking of this alliance was driven by Sir Richard [9/10] Bourke's Church Act in 1836, giving equal financial aid annually to four religious bodies* [Footnote: * The Church of England, the Church of Rome, the Presbyterians and the Wesleyians.] on the basis of census returns. The process was completed by the abolition of State Aid to Religion in 1851 (South Australia); 1862 (New South Wales); 1869 (Tasmania); 1871 (Victoria); and 1895 (Western Australia). The separation of Church and State was carried further by the introduction of secular education.

Again, all the young churches in the Dominions have experienced in the spiritual sphere, something parallel to the political aspirations of the Dominions towards nationhood. In Australia, the Church of England in each colony was originally an isolated unit; effective unity has been an ideal rather than a reality, and the bond of union has been the inheritance of a common tradition rather than any outward organization. It is fitting perhaps, that this centenary year for the dioceses of Melbourne, Adelaide, and Newcastle should see this isolation overcome, and outward constitutional unity as well as inward unity as a strong likelihood.

Today, the Church of England in Australia is a voluntary body of twenty-five dioceses in a free community, dedicated to Christ and to the welfare of the community, self-supporting, self-governing and largely autonomous. Any criticism of the Church in Australia as having been a rather pale imitation of the Church in England for most of its short history speaks of an outmoded attitude, for it is a vigorous, independent church of equal status with the provinces of Canterbury and York, though yielding them primacy of honour.

Limitations of space have prevented the mention, in this short work, of the many generous gifts that the Church of England has received from her members throughout her short history, and also of the faithful service given by clergy and laity.

Acknowledgment must be made of the encouragement and guidance to research, of which this work is a part, by Professor R. M. Crawford, Professor of History in the University of Melbourne; and of the assistance given by two members of the Editorial Committee, the Bishop of Geelong, the Rt. Rev. J. D. McKie and Mr. E. C. Rigby.

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