The view from Church House: An analysis of ‘Sydney Anglicans’

Historians (and book reviewers) tell us something about their subjects and a lot about themselves. History forms an important part of our self understanding, but the reverse is also true—our perception of history is shaped by our attitudes and theories. This is reflected in the contemporary bicentennial passion for our past, and in the publication of a diocesan history commissioned by the Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church in Sydney. Two professional historians, both Anglicans, Professor Kenneth Cable and Dr Stephen Judd, have produced a serious contribution to our historical understanding. It does not claim to be an exhaustive or definitive description of the Sydney diocese, but does seek to give a thematic explanation of various events and their long term effects on the diocese. It is an interpretation of the diocese with a major focus on the developing churchmanship of Sydney.

While not claiming to be a chronological description of the diocese, it generally follows the chronological pattern. There is a lengthy appendix of all the clergy who have ever been licensed in the diocese, giving such fascinating information as the dates of births, deaths and ordinations. There are about 50 pictures—otherwise the book is text, and continues with the infuriating publishing practice of printing notes at the end of chapters, rather than at the foot of each page.

The book is the result of enormous industry, well written and easy to read with interesting insights into diocesan development. It continues to show the development of church life parallel to that of the colony and nation. Brief summaries of certain periods of our national history are very helpful and illuminating. As can be expected from professional historians, there is a thorough acquaintance with primary and secondary source materials. The reader cannot help but learn from the enjoyable experience of wending through 200 years of church development, roughly following the chronological pattern, but paying particular attention to the diocesan churchmanship. Issues other than churchmanship are also explored, particularly the relationship with government and the fights over education.

However, this history has some serious flaws in its perspective. These flaws mar the accuracy of its perception and its value for our self-understanding. The problems arise from the book’s secular historical viewpoint and from its place as a diocesan history with a particular ecclesiastical bias.

A Secular Historical Perspective

One of the problems of writing the history of a Christian movement is whether to adopt a God-centred or a godless view of the world. While it is possible to describe the events of the world without reference to God (other than as the almighty sovereign, ruler of everything) is it possible to write a history of the church without reference to God? Will this not be a distortion of perception? If the gospel is truth, then sociological forces are not the key factors in understanding the development of church life. God may be using these sociological factors, but his real agency is the preached word and the work of his Spirit in the lives of people.

To write of the spread of the gospel in Australia over 200 years without reference to the hand of God is not a particularly Christian perspective. Without the prophets’ clear revelation, it is difficult for people to know when God’s special hand of providence is at work. However, the prophetic word has been given to us in Scripture: that through the preaching of the cross, Evangelicals will be treated as fools, and people will be saved, and lives transformed. The Christian historian should at some point see the hand of God at work. However, in Sydney Anglicans, even the George Grubb Mission and the Billy Graham Crusade are described in purely secular terms.

This secular perspective is a significant flaw in the work for it leads to a selection of material that fails to explain the nature of our diocese. It sees the different movements and battles as responses to the sociological shifts of the day. The issues are fought out in a political, even impersonal, fashion.

This failure to adopt a gospel-centred perspective means that churchmanship and political interaction, rather than people, are the focus of the history. Only rarely do we get any insight into the great ministries of men like RBS Hammond, Howard Guiness or Paul White, or of the development of churches such as at Summer Hill, Leichhardt, Mosman and Marrickville, or of the great evangelical families who have played such a key part in our diocesan life. The perspective is not how the gospel has changed people, but how ecclesiastical, political fighting has reflected the sociological development of society and shaped the outcome of our church tradition.

A Church House Perspective

Writing a ‘diocesan history’ raises an important question: What is the locus of our diocese? Where is the important action taking place? What should we document and write about?

Unfortunately, Ken Cable and Stephen Judd have written their history largely around the significant figures in the diocesan administration, and the result is a serious weakening of the value of the work. No doubt bishops and archbishops have a significant part to play in the development and character of a diocese. However, evangelical dioceses are characterised by the limited power that a bishop or archbishop has in changing the the diocese. The power of evangelical laymen and the gospel initiative of ministers has always run ahead of the episcopal bureaucracy. To describe the development of church life in our diocese from the viewpoint of Church House is to misunderstand significantly the development of church life in our diocese.

The real work has always taken place in the parishes where men and women have struggled to proclaim the gospel and establish a congregation upon the word of God. However, starting from the viewpoint of the diocesan administration, our authors conclude that the congregations are ultimately dependent on the diocese, not vice versa: “It was only because of the growing strength of the diocese as a whole that the emphasis upon the local congregation was practable.”

Failure to see the development of the Anglican Church from the standpoint of the gospel and the local congregation, ultimately leads to a failure to understand even the ecclesiastical politics at the diocesan level. It is the grass roots work of evangelism and teaching in the congregations that has lead to the synodical strength and ecclesiastical flavour of the diocese. It was this evangelical mindset that voted for and supported Howard Mowll and Marcus Loane, who further reinforced the evangelical nature of the diocese.

A Non-Evangelical Perspective

Not only is the book written from the perspective of secular history, and from a centralised diocesan standpoint, but also from a non-Evangelical viewpoint. This third error in perspective is the most serious in this otherwise worthwhile book.

Liberal Evangelicals have always contended that they are Evangelicals who happen to be Liberal on some matters. Conservative Evangelicals have tended to see it a little differently—that these people are Liberals who happen to share some Evangelical perspectives. The bone of contention is: “What constitutes a genuine Evangelical?”

In seeking to define Evangelicalism along more liberal lines, this history sees the comprehensive nature of the Anglican church as a good thing, and any particularist party as decidedly negative. This comprehensive, Anglican, ‘Liberal Evangelical’ viewpoint, seriously weakens the understanding of the Evangelicalism of the Sydney diocese and weakens this book as an account of the development of the diocese.

Thus, of all Howard Mowll’s interdenominational activities, supporting such groups as the Crusader Union, the IVF, the Katoomba Christian Convention, interdenominational missionary societies and Scripture Union, only his involvement with the World Council of Churches is spoken of. In fact, these great evangelical movements are not even mentioned within the development of the diocese.

Similarly, the handling of the Memorialist Controversy is criticised, as is the takeover of the Trowel (when it gave too little emphasis to the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of the atonement). These incidents are seen as examples of Evangelicalism being defined too narrowly. Howard Mowll and T C Hammond are perceived to be mistaken about the need to stand firm for evangelical truth. TC Hammond is written off as being Irish, while Howard Mowll is criticised for not learning how to compromise or conciliate. This is a serious misunderstanding of evangelical thought.

It amounts to a subtle attempt to link Liberalism with Evangelicalism. The Liberal Evangelical candidate for the episcopacy in 1933 was Joseph Hunkin whom, we are told, upheld the divine inspiration of the Bible, but he did not believe that literally it was the very utterance of God. This, we are assured by our authors, was an evangelical man. The Synod didn’t believe it in 1933 and it is hard to accept in 1988. The very thing that Liberals have never understood is the exclusiveness of Evangelicalism. To write a history of the evangelical diocese without understanding the necessity of doctrinal purity in areas such as the atonement and the inspiration of Scripture, is a most serious flaw in perspective.

For what it is this book is an interesting read. It is professionally produced and nothing to be ashamed of. It has the great merit of being willing to challenge and question and even criticise our own traditions. It should be a springboard for further discussion and a useful introduction into the history of our diocese for those who have never asked about our past. Yet for what it intends to be, it has started on the wrong premises and arrived predictably at the wrong answers.

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