The future of the Anglican Church in Australia in the light of the decline of the Anglo-Catholic movement

By Peter Corney

(This is an edited version of the original lecture. The full version can be found on the TMA website……)

The Australian Anglican Church, like most old mainstream churches, is in numerical decline.

Many of the reasons for the Anglican church’s decline and difficulties are shared with other older mainstream protestant denominations like the UCA and the Presbyterians,


  • The marginalizing pressure of modernity and secularism on the church.
  • The process of institutionalisation. It’s a long time since we had a revival or major radical institutional change.
  • Over-centralisation and the compliance and control syndrome that aging institutions develop to cope with anything outside the institution’s cultural framework.
  • Loss of passionate evangelism
  • The dominance of the pastoral maintenance model of ministry
  • The slowness of the majority of local congregations to contemporise their worship style and music
  • The failure to plant new churches and adopt new models of church planting.
  • Theological Reductionism and the cave-in to secularism and modernity. Many of our current leaders were trained in the 1960s when the loss of confidence in orthodoxy reached its peak. The pattern of reducing the gospel to fit the prevailing plausibility structure of society became entrenched and historic, credal Christianity was profoundly weakened.

But with Anglicanism there is another unique and very important factor that has accelerated and contributed to our decline – that is the role of the “Anglo-Catholic movement”, sometimes referred to as “Tractarianism”.

This movement has been greatly influential in Australian Anglicanism. By the 1960s it had become the dominant force in most dioceses in Australia, even assuming its style as the “Anglican norm”.

At its most vigorous and vital, its influence was profound – theologically, liturgically, architecturally and aesthetically, pastorally, governmentally, and particularly on the way the nature and role of ordination and ministry was understood.

It developed at its height, numerous institutions, parachurch organisations, orders and societies for education, welfare and mission. E.g. The Brotherhood of St. Laurence, Mission to Streets and lanes, Bush Brothers, hospitals, schools, religious orders like “The Community of the Holy Name”, retreat centres, a theological college, “Crafers” in SA. It was also the primary support base for the Anglican Board of Missions (ABM).

But by the 1960s it began to run out of stream as a movement and has now lost its vitality and momentum. With the exception of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, almost all of the organisations above have died or been absorbed into other organizations like Anglicare – or, as in the case of ABM, have had considerable difficulties.

And here is the point! Having developed such influence, its decline and loss of vitality at the very time the church was under so many other pressures from the late 60s and 70s on has had very serious consequences for Australian Anglicanism.

A brief historical sketch of the movement

The movement began in the first half of the 19th Century in Oxford in 1833. It became known as the Oxford movement. Its most famous name being John Henry Newman, later to become Cardinal Newman.

They became known as “Tractarians” because of a series of tracts or papers they produced on major issues of theology and church life. They also inspired an association of artists, architects and designers called the “Camden Society”. Their influence on church architecture and interior design was very great as there was a church building boom in the late 19th Century. The Camden Society reinforced the Gothic revival of the 19th Century in the U.K

They were really a “renewal or restoration” movement. In their case they wanted to take the church back to some of its pre-Reformation roots and traditions. They made a careful study of the Early Fathers. They were concerned about personal holiness and committed discipleship and so the recovery of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian life.

They were also concerned to restore a sense of awe and beauty and holiness to worship. This led them to recover a more elaborate and symbol-rich liturgy. They were concerned about the aesthetics and the accoutrements of formal worship. They wrote many beautiful hymns:

Blest are the pure in heart,

For they shall see our God;

The secret of the Lord is theirs,

Their soul is Christ’s abode.

[Rev John Keble, 1818]

They wanted to restore what they believed was lost and among the things they believed we had lost was a particular pre-Reformation concept of the Lord’s Supper and Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. This also led to a greater emphasis on the priestly identity and role of the minister, particularly as the celebrant (or president) at Holy Communion.

They had a very high view of Scripture and the creeds and were deeply orthodox and theologically conservative on credal fundamentals. They were not a theologically liberal or reductionist movement.

They also emphasised a more central and Catholic notion of the role of the Bishop and the diocese – “The Ignation” idea of the church being the people gathered around the Bishop and the Bishop standing in direct historical succession to the Apostles.

They also set forward a vision of Christian service and commitment that challenged a whole generation of young men and women to start new religious orders to serve others in evangelism, welfare and education.

Later they developed a strong emphasis on “Incarnational Theology”. At one of their conferences in 1923, Bishop Frank Weston, a noted Anglo-Catholic said: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the Slums.” Father Tucker’s work during the great depression and the development of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne is a direct outcome of this emphasis. This emphasis led to some outstanding work and ministry.

But by the late 1960s, the vision was running out of energy. Today it is almost exhausted. Many of the movement’s institutions, societies and organisations have collapsed,been absorbed into other organizations like Anglicare, or are terminally sick, e.g.

the female orders that ran the schools and hospitals have almost completely gone.

  • The “Bush Brothers” are no more.
  • Their theological college, “Crafers” has gone.
  • The Brotherhood of St Laurence is still going but is now a highly secularised agency.
  • The Anglican Board of Mission has shrunk to one office for the whole of Australia and has had to realise most of its assets to survive.
  • The Retreat House is gone.
  • Their student ministries are almost non-existent.

And with one or two notable exceptions, the parish churches they dominated for years are now small, struggling and aging.

Outstanding people like Archbishop Strong and the Rev Dr Barry Marshall were among the last of their inspirational leaders and thinkers. In recent years they have not produced people of this caliber.

It’s a sad story, but the bigger tragedy is that they have taken large sections of the Australian Anglican church down with them.

Why? What happened?

The answer is important because it has very significant lessons for all of us. “Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes.”

What happened is that the movement gradually embraced a series of theological trends that eventually sapped its vitality. It lost touch with its theological and ideological core – the very things that had produced its energy and passion. As someone said: “Passion leaks” – it must be constantly renewed by its source.

This is a brief summary of the trends that, once embraced, eventually ate the heart out of the movement.

1. It drifted away from the credal and biblical orthodoxy of its founders and gradually embraced a reductionist liberal theology. Most people in ministry now who have been influenced by this movement could be more accurately described as “liberal catholic”. They have retained some of the outward expressions of the movement but departed from its core theological ideas.

When a movement that has a highly symbolic and formal liturgical expression of Christianity goes down the theologically reductionist pathway, what you end up with is “religion” – form without substance. What happens is that the meaning of the symbols becomes more and more mysterious and fuzzy as the orthodox core is reduced, lost or reconstructed to fit the spirit of the age. The appearance of Christianity is preserved but the essence is lost. The signs and symbols are retained but their first order meaning is changed. Reductionism is a familiar pathway for Liberal theology.

In spite of its claims to be broad and open, Liberal theology is frequently intellectually narrow and provincial. It becomes trapped in the immediate landscape of the spirit of the age and what its host society finds plausible or implausible.

2. The second trend was to allow a recovered incarnational theology to become unbalanced. The idea of the importance of “presence”, particularly presence with the poor, eventually over-powered the importance of proclamation. So instead of a balance of “the whole gospel for the whole person” confidence in preaching was eroded and the link between word and deed fatally weakened. The inevitable eventually happened: preaching, evangelism and proclamation were devalued and diminished.

Historically the very opposite trend happened in many parts of evangelicalism before and after WWII. It wasn’t till the Lausanne Movement in the early 70s that evangelicalism recovered a proper emphasis on social justice and restored the balance of deed and word. This was largely due to the influence of evangelical leaders like John Stott in the UK and Ronald J Sider in the US. [1]

There were two other negative results for Anglo-Catholicism that came from its unbalanced incarnational theology. Because Biblical teaching and preaching was diminished, this produced a poorly taught laity.The second result was the development of an insipient “Pelagianism” – salvation by good works. Being good and kind to others came to be seen as the essence of the Gospel.

3. As reductionist liberalism ate the heart out of its theology, the distinctiveness of Anglo-Catholicism was left to depend more and more on its particular liturgical, symbolic and cultural expressions.

Many people associated this with elements of so-called “High Culture” – classical music and art. It was, and is still seen in some circles, as a more cultured and sophisticated form of faith expression. The result of this rather snobbish attitude was that the movement began to attract people and clergy who were more drawn to its style than to the core ideas and earlier passions of personal holiness and a desire to evangelise and care for the poor and marginalised.

These more “effete”[2] recruits often displayed a worldly sophistication that Newman and his friends would have felt very disturbed by. These new followers were not so drawn to sacrificial ministries to the poor or in difficult places or in highly committed “orders”.

The other effect was that this style was well out of step with ordinary Australians and further marginalised Anglicanism from the mainstream of Australian life. We were fast becoming a boutique church.

4. Because the emotional tendency of the movement has been to look backwards to a very late-19th Century English expression of Anglicanism, the movement failed to assist the process of really grounding Anglicanism in Australian culture. The model of the English village church is a sentimental and anglophile vision that has been fostered by the movement and helped to alienate us from Australian culture.

I am sure that many of you have seen and chuckled at the TV show “The Vicar of Dibley”. At one level it is amusing; at another level it is very disturbing for the thoughtful Christian, because what it does is to trivialise us and, by association, trivialise the Gospel.

Once we can be identified as eccentric, odd and quaint, we can be dismissed as a harmless anachronism, an amusing curiosity, a source of nostalgia, a bit like a tableau in an historical theme park – but of no serious threat or challenge.

Sadly, there are Anglican clergy who think this is wonderful and positive: they imagine the world is laughing with them, while in fact it’s laughing at them!

A gutted Anglo-Catholicism leads to this sad scenario – “The Vicar of Dibley Syndrome.” It’s not what Newman, Pusey and Keble desired. To them it would be better:

  • To be violently disagreed with
  • To be a challenge to people’s beliefs
  • To hold views and ideas and behaviour that people find confronting and disturbing
  • To be a John the Baptist to Herod
  • To be a Paul before Felix
  • To be a Christ before Pilate

than be dismissed as a trivial, harmless and amusing anachronism.

5. They focussed on a pastoral maintenance model of ministry and so did not grow churches. The emphasis on the priestly role fed this trend.

6. Because of the tendency to look backwards nostalgically to the English village or cathedral model and ethos, and their commitment to more formality in worship, they were very slow to embrace contemporary and informal styles in worship and music. They were totally unprepared for the rejection of formality in the 70s and 80s by the “Boomers” and very few ever worked out how to minister to them effectively.

All the liturgical experiments and changes from the 1975 Prayer Book to the 1995 Prayer Book were basically changes to the written liturgy. They were helpful, but basically the project completely misunderstood the fundamental change that had taken place in the minds and emotions of the average punter as to how the style and ethos of the service should be set and the worship conducted. Pentecostalism and contemporary evangelicalism understood this and swept the field.

7. The Parish Communion Movement of the 1920s and 30s was a child of Anglo-Catholicism. The idea was that the principal service of the day should be Holy Communion and that everyone should be present including youth and children. This view has had great influence but it had several very negative effects:

(1) Other non-eucharistic services disappeared. This created a barrier for non-communicants and fringe people. It also made outreach and guest services difficult to hold in a way relevant to outsiders.

(2) Because it downplayed Sunday Schools, insisting children be in the whole service, the Sunday School movement was undermined and children’s and youth ministry suffered. A generation of clergy had little interest in either and this was a disaster for the future.

8. The issue of women’s ordination created a crisis in the Anglo-Catholic movement. The traditionalists were opposed but their offspring, the liberal Catholics, were pro. As the traditionalists are now a minority, their bitter rearguard action failed. This has left many unhappy legacies and further weakened the movement.

The issues surrounding gender and sexual politics have been a major pre-occupation of the movement in recent times, and so it has had little energy for other fundamental issues.

To conclude

Anglicanism is essentially protestant and its formularies were forged on reformed anvils. The Anglo-Catholic movement, for all its early achievements in ministry, really took Anglicanism too far to the Catholic right – we are now seeing a major correction to that trend.

It must also be remembered that, historically, in Australia the major dioceses of Sydney and Melbourne, including almost all their Provincial dioceses, and others such as Tasmania were founded by evangelicals. (Bishop Perry the first bishop of Melbourne was an evangelical – he also created the first lay representative synodical government in the Anglican Communion.) That history is now reasserting itself.

[1] See the very influential and popular book by R J Sider, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” (Hodder, 1977) and “Issues Facing Christians Today” by J. Stott (Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1984).

[2] “Too refined”.

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  • Peter Corney

    Thanks Steve, good to hear from you. Peter

  • Joshua Bovis

    Dear Peter,

    This is very very insightful and very helpful.


  • Roy Gwyther-Jones

    Dear Peter,
    At present I’m preparing a study on Joel. Your articals on the decline of the Anglican church in Australia are extremely relevant and should lead my group into a lively discussion and hopefully, repentant prayer.
    sincerely in Christ,

  • Peter Corney

    Not all evangelicals are homophobic and mysoginist, sadly we dismiss people with tags and labels.
    You should read some balanced and thoughtful evangelical scholarship it would modify your views. Start with Bishop Tom Wright an internationally respected NT scholar, then try Alister McGrath the Oxford theologian it might widen your horizon.