Allan Blanch’s well-written and widely-researched biography of Sir Marcus Loane, the first Australian-born Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and Primate of Australia, is important for reasons in addition to the most obvious purpose for which From Strength to Strength (2015) was produced: to describe in detail and celebrate the archbishop’s life and influence in the Diocese of Sydney and, to a lesser degree, in the national Church. While these aspects are of interest, particularly to those of us who knew the archbishop, and others inquiring into the twentieth-century history of the Anglican Church in Sydney and Australia (for whom the book would be required reading), or wanting to understand conservative Evangelicalism more generally, the biography has an even larger importance.
This essay appears in September’s Quadrant.
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It exposes a particular example of a phenomenon that has been nothing less than a scourge in Western civilisation for the last fifty years, and from which no institution, religious or secular, has been immune: the concentrated attack on those institutions’ history, heritage and traditions. This is an assault all the more insidious for being conducted from within the institutions.
The seeds of this destruction were sown in the counter-cultural movements of the later 1960s. But the concentrated and corrupting white-anting projects which ensued, in their multifarious and nefarious forms, have, typically, taken a generation or two for their agents’ work to have pervasive impact. What remains of the institutions has typically been turned into a contradiction of what they were established to be and of their essential character. The universities provide the clearest example of this dismantling process, recently given detailed analysis in relation to the local scene in Campus Meltdown: The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities, edited by William Coleman.
Conservatives, by nature not given to activism and too inclined to abide complacently in the teaching that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”, were caught either seriously napping, or blithely trusting that the iconoclasts would not do their worst—or, in the process of doing it, might have second thoughts, as the dire results became glaringly apparent. This serious miscalculation has taken us to the point, today, where it is unimaginable that what has been lost can ever be recovered. It is much easier to destroy an institution, through cancelling its history, traditions and heritage, than to create one.
What Mr Blanch’s study demonstrates is how a bishop deeply learned in and committed to one of the several schools of Christian faith and practice which, combined, have formed the character of Anglicanism over the centuries, was unable to prevent the ever-increasing assault, during his archiepiscopal reign and since, on generally recognisable Anglican theology, forms of worship and spirituality within the dominant Evangelical tradition of his diocese.
Sydney is the most famous and formidable representative in the global Anglican Communion of the Reformed character of a Church that was, from its beginning, both Catholic and Reformed. Even Church leaders from within the Evangelical tradition, such as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher (warmly welcomed to St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney in 1950), can write, insistently, of the Church of England, that:
We have no doctrine of our own—we only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition or diminution. We stand firm on that rock.
The long-established practice in Canterbury of alternating between High Church and Low Church archbishops, in this most prominent of Anglican roles, speaks tellingly of the comprehensiveness of the Church. So Fisher, the Low Churchman, was followed by Michael Ramsey, from the Catholic wing. In our day, the Anglo-Catholic Rowan Williams has been succeeded by the Evangelical Justin Welby. Yet when we consider the churchmanship of Welby—who wears a mitre and Eucharistic vestments (banned in Sydney, while clergy wearing no robes at all are perfectly acceptable); who last year led the annual National Pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and spoke afterwards of “the Mass” in which he had participated there, and of how “Mary leads us to Jesus”; who has the Roman Catholic priest, Father Nicolas Buttet, as his spiritual director and, for his prayer life, favours Catholic models from the Benedictine and Ignatian traditions—it is a tad difficult to discern any common ground between that contemporary expression of Anglican Evangelicalism and Sydney’s version of it.
Nonetheless, Marcus Loane showed that it was possible to combine an unswerving commitment to the principles of conservative Protestantism with a profound faithfulness to the history and tradition of Anglicanism, in all its forms. Of his friend, Archbishop Sir Philip Strong of Brisbane, Loane wrote: “He was an Anglo-Catholic at the altar; he was an Evangelical in the pulpit … Both Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics saw in him the qualities of true saintliness.”
At the heart of Loane’s churchmanship was the Book of Common Prayer (the “better he knew it, the more he loved it”, Blanch writes), where, in such services as Matins and Evensong, we see the genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer drawing on the daily offices of the medieval Catholic Church (of Prime, Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline) to produce forms of daily worship in the vernacular—in the most numinous and memorable liturgical language in English that has ever been composed—for the laity, as well as the clergy.
Loane recognised wisely that if the Prayer Book were abandoned, “really significant losses would follow”. Yet, Blanch notes Marcia Cameron’s observation that “despite the Evangelicals’ insistence that the Book of Common Prayer should be part of the Fundamental Declarations” of their faith, “Sydney Evangelicals have led the way in abandoning the use of the Prayer Book, or any prayer book in their worship”.
Further, there was Loane’s contention that, because of the Prayer Book’s familiarity throughout the worldwide Communion, “when Anglicans went to church they knew what service pattern they would find there”. The “gatherings” or “meetings” that have taken the place of Prayer Book worship of any kind in many parishes in the Sydney Diocese today show the extent to which this cherished principle of common prayer has been deliberately repudiated.
Indeed, it has become a badge of honour to proclaim the rejection of the entire Anglican tradition. So, an inner-west suburban parish which describes itself, on its website, “as a Bible-believing church”, is quick to point out not only that “we’re not your typical church”, but “we’re certainly not your typical Anglican church”. The description of what their Sunday gatherings are like, including questions and comments segments, bears no relationship whatever to any recognisable Anglican order of service. Any confirmed Anglican, reasonably seeking, on a Sunday, a service of Holy Communion, would look in vain on this website and on the parish’s roadside noticeboard (and on those of many others in the diocese) for any indication of the administration of that sacrament: “The Lord’s own service in the Lord’s own house” as the little prayer book I was given on my confirmation described it.
The anarchic situation which Loane dreaded has become the norm: what he called “radical individualism and ecclesiastical lawlessness”, where “every parish did what was right in its own eyes”, are the inevitable result of the disposal of the ordered liturgy of common prayer. Even the Lord’s Prayer can be regarded with suspicion as being in a set liturgical form. For the archbishop, this situation revealed “an attitude that is un-Anglican”, leading to “worship confusion” and a squandering of “our great inheritance”.
Amongst those losses, in the dismal spirit of the broader revolutionary “cancel culture” of today, is the now widespread custom of Sydney diocesan parishes to erase the names of the saints to which they were dedicated. So, in my neighbourhood, St Aidan’s in Annandale has become “Village Church”; St Andrew’s in Summer Hill is now “Summer Hill Church”; St Michael’s in Surry Hills is “Vine Church”, and so on. Like deletions from the Soviet Encyclopaedia of persons who have become non-persons, the well-known saints of the Christian Bible and the Anglican liturgical calendar have been eliminated in a program that, obviously, is designed to eradicate the previously recognisable association of such parishes with their Anglican foundation and history.
The familiar irony of anarchic rebellion against allegedly oppressive orthodoxy is that, usually very swiftly, it takes upon itself a rigidity of conformity and its own set of predictable convictions that are at least as enforced and authoritarian as the former despised and rejected regimen. Nowhere, again, is this more clearly seen than in today’s universities, where the ancient and fiercely-defended tradition of freedom of thought and expression, of dissent and vigorous debate, has been overturned by a mandated insistence on “correct” views on such as race, gender and class which, should anyone so much as query, will lead to their “no-platforming” and Orwellian vaporisation.
So, as one goes from parish website to parish website in Sydney today, one is struck by the conformity of these non-conforming communities to a check-list of standard attributes: with the senior pastor, married with children, pictured in open-necked shirt, trained at Moore College, and with leisure interests that are peculiarly notable not so much for what they include (usually physical activity of some kind), but what appears to be all but universally excluded: any interest in reading or literature, in classical music or playing an instrument, in art, architecture, history—indeed, any of the humane pursuits that, for most educated people, make life worth living. The absence of literary interests is particularly striking in a supposedly Anglican context. You would look in vain for any minister who enjoys poetry, yet a distinctive feature of the priests and laity of the Anglican Communion, through the centuries, has been their distinguished and formidable contribution to our literary culture, from Shakespeare, to Donne and Herbert, through to T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden and R.S. Thomas, in the twentieth century, and, in our own day and country, the brilliant Tim Winton:
Most of [Winton’s] best friends are refugees from evangelical fundamentalism. He also admits a fondness for liturgical worship with bells and smells. “The sacrament of The Eucharist has become the central, the still point, if you will; I receive it on my knees and cross myself.”
The rich literary aspect of Anglican culture was conspicuously present in the minds of church leaders in Sydney’s recent past. Marcus Loane was a lover of poetry—he wrote his MA thesis, indeed, on “The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray”—and, amongst his successors, Donald Robinson was a skilled musician, widely read, too, in English literature and devoted to Anglican hymnody. Sir Marcus (although not musical in the same way) once said to me, of the modern choruses that his clergy were becoming so fond of, that they were “trash” and that his favourite hymn was “Jerusalem the golden”, translated by John Mason Neale (one of the formidable figures of the Oxford Movement) from the twelfth-century text of the monk, Bernard of Cluny. These Sydney Evangelicals were men of the Word and of words. One is reminded of the old adage: “No one reads his Bible well, who reads only his Bible.”
Two specific explanations of the anarchical situation which Archbishop Loane correctly foresaw and abhorred in his diocese (although he may not have imagined the extent to which it is apparent today) can be offered, in addition to the generally fertile ground for revolution against established institutions that has been the marked feature of Western civilisation over the last half-century
The first can be sourced from Moore College, where all Sydney ordinands are trained (another element in the narrowness of outlook of the Anglicanism of the diocese), and, in particular, from the long and very influential Principalship, from 1959 to 1985, of Dr Broughton Knox. The Trollopean element of Principal Knox and Archbishop Loane being brothers-in-law did not assuage the Archbishop’s well-founded apprehensions about the opposition to his idea of the Church that would be advanced by Knox to his trainee ministers: “I am afraid that he will try to push his policies in ways which will be very much to my discomfort,” Loane noted, and so it has turned out in the disappearance of Prayer Book Anglicanism from Sydney.
The second reason must be sourced from Archbishop Loane himself. He, with his deep learning about and immersion in the Book of Common Prayer, was able to reconcile that orthodox ecclesiastical heritage with his particularly pronounced Protestant theology. But for him to imagine that many others would be similarly capable of—or even interested in—achieving such a deft reconciliation was surely, always, a pious hope and, now, in a culture of studied repudiation of orthodoxy, it is all but unimaginable.
No one would suggest that any of the congregations, determinedly jettisoning their Anglican history and heritage and, specifically, the fundamental principle of common prayer, are not sincere about and committed to their mission. Yet, at the end of reading Allan Blanch’s excellent biography, one cannot help asking: At what point, in the devolution of a parish’s and, indeed, a diocese’s identity, is the position reached where it has so removed itself from what can generally be understood as the essential “marks” of the denominational organisation it theoretically belongs to, that claims—however minimal—to still be representative of it can no longer, in all reasonableness, be sustained?
Barry Spurr, Literary Editor of Quadrant, grew up in the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and has written extensively about Anglicanism and its expression in liturgy, in The Word in the Desert (1995); its literary influence, in Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (2010), and on the spiritual life, in See the Virgin Blest (2007), an account of English poetry, through the centuries, devoted to the Virgin Mary