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Sacred ground

  • 24 June 2006

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