Sacred ground

This history of the Anglican diocese of Wangaratta delivers a great deal more than it promises, since its author has a real affinity with the subject. Colin Holden went to north-eastern Victoria as an ordination candidate in 1974, a young man with a strong attachment to Anglo-Catholic liturgy as well as a strong sense of Australian identity. Wangaratta, with its well-known high church leanings in a rural setting, seemed to provide a synthesis. With some courage, though perhaps not altogether intentionally, Holden reveals the limits of that synthesis.

The book has been written from the respectful radicalism that often accompanies a high church position: one is put in mind of Anthony Trollope describing himself as ‘an advanced conservative liberal’. Holden is at pains to demonstrate that although the Anglican church might have been seen as an instrument of the controllers of the upper classes, its abiding strength came from elsewhere. In Benalla as early as 1858, three-quarters of the vicar’s stipend came from the village rather than the great landowners. As Holden rightly points out, the sense of ownership that followed helps to explain why the selectors stuck to the church through their struggles with the ­squatters and the Kelly outbreak; for them it was not, as in England, the embodiment of ­deferentialism. Indeed the clergy found that they could not claim respect as a right, but had to win it through their personal qualities, including a capacity to handle farm work as well as anybody else.

But identification with parishioners could stem only for a time the nominalism which has always been the curse of the Church of England. The squattocracy took the pre-eminence of the Anglican church for granted, and indeed at the high noon of empire so did the whole community; but even in the 19th century only one in five of those who identified themselves C. of E. took communion regularly. When, years later, one of the 19th-century churches that went up so exuberantly was pulled down, it was found to have no foundations.

Nevertheless for most of the 20th century, following its establishment in 1902, Wangaratta flourished as an Anglican diocese. The clergy were now subject to closer episcopal supervision, while cathedral services set standards for the parishes to follow. Soon there was a local training centre for priests—perhaps less demanding academically than those in Melbourne, but which by recruiting locally saw its graduates become more integrated with the life of the region. If there was no grammar school, there was a boys’ hostel, and an intermittent diocesan press. Finally, as the result of an extended building appeal, the cathedral was completed in 1965 and dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

But there were also considerable tensions. Although there was some identification with masonic lodges even among the high clergy—no doubt as an expression of community—there were also people
like the Anglican divine who, parading around Myrtleford in a Roman soutane and a biretta, was asked by a visiting busload of Catholic tourists whether he could conduct mass for them. He obliged, and they left his church none the wiser. Such capers served to increase anxiety about chasubles and altar lights and any other hints of Romanisation. As time moved on, there could sometimes be a rift between clerical practice and the Protestant impulse of the congregation. ‘Whatever happened to Morning Prayer?’ they would chorus; the priest felt most engaged when serving the eucharist. And nearer to the present, as Holden points out, this exclusivist tendency could lead clergy to look for validation beyond this world, rather than in it.

In the country, in particular, the challenges posed by the contemporary world have come at a faster rate than anybody could have anticipated. In 1951, an assiduous diarist could write of attending an 8am service at the cathedral and afterwards joining 140 men at breakfast. (He then went off to crutch sheep all day.) As late as the 1960s, more Anglican churches were being built than were closed. Moreover, Whitlamite programs of decentralisation and the tail end of the long boom sustained a sense of

optimism in the diocese. In the early 1970s, there was still an Anglican program on the local radio station, and a successful mission to the young at the cathedral. But the incense blended into marijuana, and not enough notice was taken of the fact that the youth, as well as the men, were increasingly staying away. Symbolically, the ex-chorister who became a household name was Nick Cave.

Holden’s interchapters on religion and the landscape set up a useful counterpoint in the book which, while detailed, is rarely bogged down in the minutiae of church matters. The new land becomes a dynamic which must be coped with, recognised, and then perhaps celebrated.  He points out how slowly this came to be done. Indeed the founding Anglican bishop in Victoria deliberately excluded Aborigines from his brief, and even when the church supported missions to Aborigines in the 1930s, they were to the Northern Territory rather than to the local diocese. Similarly, the first churches replicated English Victorian gothic, occasionally vernacularised, but by 1928 the Euroa church was blending into the landscape with an unusually squat tower. In 1957 a picture window behind the altar of the church at Toowong revealed Mount Bogong, as if it were being  worshipped.

Implicit in this ­narration is a suggestion that the battle to retain strictly traditional forms, and to expect continued devotion to them, was—in the longest run—impossible to win. One reading of Anglican nominalism is that the lay retreat, amongst other things, was a cultural response to the new setting. For as Holden shows by his inclusion of extracts from Fanny Barbour’s diary, a strong sense of a mystical response to the land was, and perhaps still is, beyond the range of Anglicanism. The discussion of contemporary diocesan problems, such as the reluctance to share churches and non-eucharistic services, or to seriously entertain ideas of amalgamation with other dioceses, reveals how tradition-bound the core constituency remains. This is quite apart from any conservative response to the more general problems besetting the church, in connection with the ordination of women and (openly) gay priests.

While devout people no doubt remain in country districts, it also seems likely that the Anglican church for many acts as a buttress to their sense of heritage and identity. (Holden mentions one little church sustained by the attendance of one extended family.) The real problem is the eclipse of transcendence, and the contemporary collapse of most forms of spirituality. Perhaps in a country diocese one can see more clearly people clinging to temporalities as religion is gradually reduced to a metaphor. 

Church in a Landscape: A History of the Diocese of Wangaratta, Colin Holden. Circa, 2002. isbn 0 95809 380 6, rrp $29.95

Jim Davidson is Professor in History at Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne.

Church in a Landscape: A History of the Diocese of Wangaratta by Colin Holden is available from Circa Press, PO Box 176, Armadale, VIC 3143. Illustrations used with permission of publisher.
Left: Holy Trinity cathedral, Wangaratta, as envisaged by the architect, Walter Butler. The towers, criticised by those with more conservative tastes, were never built. Above: Sunday school picnic, Holy Trinity, Nathalia, 1971. The vitality of a Sunday school group in a community dominated by selectors and their descendants.



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