Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sunday Essay - church, state and social change in Australia

On Christmas Day 1884, Bishop Torreggiani was celebrating mass in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Armidale. A deranged Irish road worker tried to stab him, but failed because of the Bishop's vestments. He then pulled out a revolver and tried to shoot the Bishop, but failed again, with the bullet passing through the vestments. The vestments with the bullet hole are still held in the Armidale cathedral.

This post has been triggered by musings on three apparently very different books.

The first is Kenneth Dempsey's Conflict and Decline: Ministers and laymen in an Australian country town (Methuen Australia, North Ryde, 1983). This is a sociological study of the changing relationships between ministers and lay people in a Methodist community in New England from 1905 to mid 1967 written by a man who lived in the community to carry out the study.

The second book is Pauline Kneipp's This Land of Promise. The Ursuline Order in Australia 1882-1982 (University of New England History Series 2, Armidale, 1982). This is a history of this order of nuns from their initial Australian establishment in Armidale written by a member of the order who was also a member of the University of New England's history department.

The third book is Don Aitkin's The Country Party in New South Wales: a study of organisation and survival (Australian National University Press, 1972). As the title says, Don's book is an organisational study of a political party from its establishment through to the end of the 1960s.

I have a special interest in all three books because of family and locality connections. However, beyond this the books have some common linkages that together make for an interesting mix.

All three book overlap in time. All three are concerned with organisational survival and change over periods of great change in Australian society. All three are connected in some way with faith, whether it be church or party.

Ken Dempsey's towns are disguised.

The Barool Methodist circuit centres on Barool, a small country town. About 8km northwest from Barool lies the farming and orchard centre of Treeleigh. Not far away from both lies the educational centre of Highcliffe. Barool, Treeleigh and Highcliffe - the relations between the three form one thread in the book.

This is a slightly uncomfortable if interesting book from my viewpoint.

I went to Methodist Sunday School in Highcliffe, was a member of the Order of Knights and of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. My grandmother was born in Treeleigh, my grandparents married there, my mother attended Church and Sunday School at Treeleigh when staying with her grandparents. Some of the lay people Dempsey talks about are members of my broader family. All this provides a very particular context. Don Aitkin, too, would find aspects of the book very familiar since I think that he actually lived in Barool while attending high school in Highcliffe.

Even though Ken Dempsey disguises the towns, he talks about Highcliffe as a nearby coastal city, anybody who knows anything about the area would quickly make the connections. Highcliffe is Armidale, Barool is Uralla, Treeleigh is Arding.

Founded by John Wesley, the Methodist Church began as an evangelical movement within the Anglican Church.

On 17 May 1738 after attending a meeting conducted by a group known as the Church of the Brethren, John Wesley wrote in his diary:

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Within months of his conversion, Wesley started preaching in the open-air to miners and factory workers, winning thousands of converts with his message that the love of God was for all men, irrespective of social class, wealth or religious heritage.

The new movement developed an autocratic flavour that would seem familiar today in a somewhat different context.

The only condition of membership was a desire to flee from the wrath to come. However, once joined, converts were expected to attend worship at the local parish church, receive the ministrations of its clergymen and subordinate himself or herself to an exacting discipline.

Initially, Wesley organised his members into local societies. Each society was divided into cells called classes. Each class comprised eleven members under the leadership of a layman. The leaders would call on members weekly to collect dues and admonish those straying from the rules. The classes met regularly for bible study, for prayer and to personally testify what God was doing for them. Those who did not comply with the rules were expelled.

With more members, Wesley organised the societies into circuits, with himself as superintendent for each circuit. Lay people were appointed to partially deputise for him in every circuit. During Wesley's life, the movement remained within the Anglican Church. However, after his death, the highly centralised, autocratic and well-disciplined organisation of Methodism facilitated its shift into an independent denomination. It was also a denomination that was to split, including especially the creation of the Primitive Methodists in 1811.

All this may sound a long way from Uralla, but there are some features of this brief history that are relevant to later events.

Methodism was a movement that appealed to the working and lower middle class. However, the very disciplines and structures of Methodism with their emphasis on hard work, mutual support, education and abstemious  behaviour made for a degree of material success.

In my own case, Grandfather Belshaw was an industrial worker who became a Primitive Methodist Home Missionary in New Zealand. There is just one generation between me, two generations in the case of my daughters, and the harsh industrial world of England into which my paternal grandparents were born in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Methodism was also a movement that combined central autocracy with a degree of lay responsibility. As the Church and its members became more successful, the Church moved away to some degree from its evangelical roots, seeking to retain members. Yet the Church tradition and culture remained in what was called the Connexion, the name given to Church organisation and structures.

Many of the original Methodists came to Uralla in search of gold at the nearby Rocky River goldfields and as free-selectors following the passage of the Robertson land acts that allowed people to select blocks from the big pastoral runs.

By April 1905 when Uralla achieved its long held desire for its own circuit and independence from Armidale, Uralla's social structure had been set in a form that would hold for the following decades.

At the top were local squatters, generally Anglican or Presbyterian. Then came the middle class: local business people and farmers who were generally Methodist and had achieved success through hard-work. Then came the lower middle or working class such as shop assistants or rural workers. Here the Catholic Church was strong.

The relative numbers of each group were reflected in voting patterns. Farmers, graziers and town business people voted Country Party, the rest Labor. For much of the twentieth century, Uralla was a Labor Party town. My maternal grandfather was first State and then Federal member for the area that included Uralla from 1920 to 1963. In all that time I think he gained a majority in Uralla once, in 1932 at the height of the reaction against the Lang Labor Government.     

In looking at the history of Methodism in Uralla, Dempsey broke it into two periods: years of harmony 1905-1949, followed by years of conflict 1950-1967. The differences between the two periods partially reflect differing ministerial styles. They also reflect economic, demographic and cultural change.

Dealing first with demographic and economic change.

One of the reasons why Don Aitkin added the words "organisation and survival" to the title of his book on the Country Party lies in the nature of the economic and demographic change that has taken place in Australia over the last one hundred and forty or so years.

In the Australia of 2009, it is hard to believe that majority of the Australian population once lived outside the capital cities. The decline in country Australia began in the nineteenth century, but accelerated during the twentieth century and especially in the period after the Second World War. Uralla really suffered - by the 1960s and 1970s even its main stores had closed.

This decline reduced the population available to the Methodist Church. However, the Church's decline was accentuated by other factors. A key was the social structure of the Church itself. To survive, the Church had to reach out beyond its now middle class base; it could not because of the attitudes of its membership and especially its senior laity. Dempsey quotes case after case where those in the lower middle and working classes with some connection to Methodism dropped out because they felt excluded.

This problem was accentuated by cultural changes that divided ministers from laity.

In looking at this issue, Dempsey distinguishes between what he calls consensual and conflictual styles.

The Methodist Church's Connexion had always, and this reflects the Church's history, given the Minister ultimate formal authority. Ministers were appointed centrally, not by the circuit, and answered centrally. They had a role to preach and convert, to extend the influence of the Church.

Despite the Church's formal position, in the period between 1905 and 1950, Uralla ministers generally saw their role in strictly parish terms. They were there to minister to their parishioners; the senior laity really controlled the circuit.

This was a complex and demanding role on ministers and their wives and children. They were expected to represent what the laity saw as the austere moral values of the Church in their lives. They also had to comply with the perceived culture of the Church inherited from its past in terms of their approach to ministry.

A key example was home visits. Ministers were expected to visit Church members in their homes. They were also expected to minister to the young. The failure of individual ministers to do both to the satisfaction of the laity were some of the most frequently cited reasons for negative attitudes towards individual ministers.

From 1950, cultural change in Australia affected the ministry.

Increasingly, minister's wives were no longer prepared to play the traditional pastoral roles expected of them. Increasingly, the ministers themselves came to Uralla in part to advance their studies at the nearby University of New England, creating conflict with their much older and less well educated senior laity who were suspicious that their circuit (and financial contributions) was being used simply as a means to the end.

Perhaps most important of all, the new ministers were affected by and reflected the waves of intellectual and theological change sweeping the Church. An aging, conservative, country congregation found themselves dealing with younger ministers who wanted to substitute reading from the newspapers for bible readings, who wanted to debate the moral issues of the Vietnam war, who wanted to energise their congregation to go out and convert.

I remember this last period well because of my involvement in the Methodist Youth Fellowship. There was a real excitement in the debate on theological issues and what it meant for Church and life. However, I can also understand the position of the Uralla laity who felt that Ministers had ceased to meet their needs. Conflict replaced consensus. 

The results were a disaster on both sides.

Of the ten ministers who served in Uralla between 1950 and 1967, no less than six resigned from the ministry immediately or soon after leaving Uralla. This disaster for the Church was finally matched by the abolition of Uralla circuit, leaving the Uralla laity as part of an Armidale circuit whose whole tone was set by its proximity to the nearby university.

Reading Ken Dempsey's description of the process I was struck by the apparent similarities with the County  Party experience.

Like Methodism, the early Country Party in New England had an evangelical, populist, feel. Unlike Methodism, the New England dominated NSW Party explicitly rejected rigid central control; no pre-selection or pledge was adopted as an early slogan to distinguish the Party from its metropolitan and centrally controlled rivals.

This rejection of central control did not apply in all the newly emerging Country Parties. In Victoria, for example, the Party did adopt the pledge system that applied in the Labor Party. Parliamentarians were pledged to comply with Party policy. However, in NSW the concept of the independence of parliamentarians was deeply imbedded.

Like the Methodist Church's Connexion, the Country Party's success meant that it developed a central organisation dedicated to the continuance and success of the Party. This continued independent of the rise and fall of the Party in individual areas.

Interestingly, too, the most politically active branches were also the least stable and for the same reasons that activist reforming Ministers experienced trouble within Uralla. Political activism built numbers, but also created and highlighted divisions on specific issues. The most stable branches and electorates were those where Party officials and local parliamentary representatives focused on the Party equivalent of their pastoral or representation role.

Like the Methodist Church in Uralla and for the same reasons, the Country Party and its membership had become older and more conservative by the 1950s. The Country Party represented thousands of Urallas, and suffered just as much as the Uralla Church from the loss of young people from country areas. The branches of the Country Party youth wing struggled to survive in the same way as did Uralla's Methodist young people's groups.

We can see the same type of broader issues, the interplay between Church, organisation and changing community, in the Roman Catholic Church.

To some degree, the attempted assignation of Bishop Torreggiani in 1884 by a deranged Irishman was a side effect of broader trends playing out in the Catholic Church.

Initially, the Catholic Church in Australia was dominated by English orders. Their dominance was successfully challenged by the Irish Catholic Church who established almost total control over the Australian Church. The diocese of Armidale under Torreggiano was unusual in that Torriegiano was Italian and saw the role of the Church in broader terms, reaching out to the whole community, not just the Roman Catholic faithful.    

This view was not shared by many of his Irish colleagues. Fearful of what they saw as secular tendencies in Australian society, distrustful of the English and with strong historical grudges, they were determined to maintain control over their congregations.

When in 1880 the NSW Government under Sir Henry Parkes introduced a new state education system and in so doing withdrew financial support from Catholic schools, the Church responded by launching a huge program to build their own schools to protect the faith and the faithful. This inflamed sectarian tendencies; the Church withdrew into what became a self-imposed ghetto apart from the broader Australian community. Even in Armidale, Bishop Torrieggiani's broader vision was finally replaced by a narrower world in which Catholics came to mix with their own from tennis clubs to welfare organisations.

Pauline Kneipp's view of this ghettoing process is not sympathetic.

Writing as a Church insider, she suggests that until the 1860s the Church had an opportunity to develop into a vital social and cultural force in what was basically an open secular society. She also points to the way events far beyond Australia shattered the dream of the first Australian Bishop, John Bede Polding, to make the Australian Church a Benedictine mission which would help bring learning and culture to the country in the way the Benedictine tradition had done for centuries in Europe. These included the opposition of Pope Pius IX to liberalism and other modern developments including secular education, as well as the influence of Cardinal Cullen, an Irishman whose interest in Australia ensured that a steady stream of Irish bishops filled the new dioceses being established.    

In many ways, the process in the Roman Catholic Church was no different from the attempts of some Methodist ministers in Uralla to build activities and organisations that would encourage the faithful to mix with the faithful independent of the broader society. This failed because there were just too few Methodists. When it came to the choice, the laity nearly always opted for the broader alternative. The Catholic Church was more successful simply because of its size.        

The construction of the Roman Catholic school system after 1880 itself is a quite remarkable story. This was no small endeavour. Inspired by faith that God would provide, huge building programs were launched well in advance of funding.

Buildings were one thing, teachers another. To find the teachers, all the Bishops looked to the religious orders. They were the industrial canon fodder on which expansion depended. Bishops begged and pleaded to obtain support for their particular endeavours.

In Bishop Torrieggiani's case, when he arrived in Armidale he had just two schools across a huge diocese of more than 10,00 square miles.

First he persuaded an Australian Order, the Sisters of St Joseph, to establish a school at Tenterfield.  Founded at Penola in South Australia in 1866 by Mary Mackillop, the Sisters were to run a number of schools in the Armidale diocese including one at Uralla. Then Torrieggiani persuaded a group of Ursuline nuns exiled from Bismark's Germany to come to Armidale to establish a new school.

The Ursulines date their foundation to 25 November 1583 when a  small group of twenty eight women and girls met in the Northern Italian city of Brescia. Under the influence of Angela Merici, they attended mass and then signed their names in the Book of the Company of St. Ursula. In doing so, they signified their willingness to commit themselves to God, living according to the rules drawn up for them by Angela.

The initial Ursulines lived in and served the community. The new order spread rapidly in a decentralised way. Church pressure then transformed them from an open to a cloistered group, but they retained the tradition of openness and community contribution.     

The Ursuline nuns that arrived in Armidale in 1882 were highly educated but spoke very little English. They found a very different world, far removed from the European culture that they had known. The first school they established, St Ursula's in Armidale, quickly became a success.

Initially the Ursulines concentrated their educational focus on educating their girls not just in religion, but in the culture the nuns had brought from Europe. They saw education in broad, holistic, terms. Then, recognising the growing importance of exams and of further education,they began preparing girls for public examinations.

One can argue about this switch. Pauline Kneipp recognised that it was a loss in a broader educational sense, but it also had an important side-effect.

At a time when the Church focused especially on the need to provide mass primary education and was in fact suspicious of education for women, girls from St Ursula's in Armidale were entering University or Teacher's College. In this sense, the Ursulines were well in front of broader social trends.

The Ursulines'  new Australian establishment quickly came under pressure to establish schools from bishops desperate to meet the educational needs in their dioceses.

Initially the nuns resisted this pressure, there were not many of them after all and they had a lot to do already, but then began the process of establishing new ventures. The order spread slowly from its Armidale headquarters, supported in part by girls from its schools who themselves accepted the call to join the order. One final side-effect of this spread was the shift in the Australian headquarters from Armidale to Canberra.

The processes of change that affected the Methodists of Uralla or the County Party after the Second World War also played out in the Catholic Church, if on a far larger scale.

The mass Australian mass migration program that began at the end of the Second World War brought to Australia more than a million non-Irish Catholics. The Church and its orders such as the Ursulines struggled to build and staff the schools required to educate the new arrivals. Then came waves of change and reform that swept the Church and confused the laity, but even more so the religious whose entire life had been built around previous structures.

The Ursulines were better prepared than most to deal with the changes, if only because they had had a more open outlook. Even so, there were great strains.

Internally, the order had to deal with pressures to create more centralised structures. Here the Australian order became part of the Congregation of Rome, a province in a broader international organisation. Decisions were no longer made just at a local level. 

There were new ways of doing things, including the requirement that all nuns must spend a year studying overseas. This withdrew teachers at a time when recruitment to the order was dropping. The number of lay teachers increased to the point that they far out-numbered the religious.

The nuns themselves wanted to do new things, to widen their vocation from the order's focus on teaching. The aging of the order also meant that there were more retired or semi-retired nuns. Dress itself changed, with the abolition of previous restrictive rules.

Change piled on change piled on change.

At a purely local Armidale level, the decision by the De La Salle Brothers to withdraw from teaching in Armidale meant the closure of De La Salle College.

From a purely personal viewpoint, this meant the end of one of the traditional rival schools against which I played Rugby every Wednesday afternoon in winter. It also meant the end of Armidale's St Ursula College, for the decision was made to merge De La (as we always called it) with St Ursula's to form a new Catholic High School.

Finishing this post still on a purely personal note, I do not regret the end of the sectarian tensions that marked Australia's past. My wife in fact comes from the NSW Catholic English/Irish/Labor Party tradition. I do regret the loss of some elements of that past.

One of the reasons I get on so well with my mother-in-law, a wonderful woman who I think is the greatest, is that we share this sense of loss. Neither of us would want to go back to the past. But how do I explain to my daughters the sense of rivalry between De La as we always called it and my school when De La no longer exists?

A story to finish.

Back in the 1930s the two schools were playing Rugby. A fight broke out on the field. The TAS boys pulled pailings of the fence and chased the De la boys back to their school. They arrived to find the De La gates locked. They opened, and led by the brothers wielding sticks, the De La boys chased the TAS boys back to TAS.

I have no idea whether this story is true. Still, it's not a bad story.       


Anonymous said...

An interesting post. You characterise Uralla's Methodists as being largely conservative in their political outlook, but it wasn't necessarily always that way. The early years of the 20th century saw Australia's nascent labour movement heavily populated with Methodists. The contribution of people like W G Spence, John Verran and Cuthbert Brown (President of the NSW Rail Union in the early 1900's) to the movement meant that in Australia - as in Britain - early labour owed 'more to Methodism than to Karl Marx'. Their brand of labour was cooperative, union-oriented and nationalistic. This stream of thought led to the establishment of many friendly societies for the provision of pharmaceuticals etc and is worthy of study by a post-grad in Australian history.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a very comment anon and for a number of reasons.

To begin with, you have the tension between the laity with their parochial fashion and the ministers more attuned to the broader threads within the church. And then you have the reactions of Methodists as they broke through to the middle class.

As in the UK and as you note, the Australian Labor movement was heavily populated with Methodists. This radical stream continues to the present day.

I agree with you that it is worthy of study. I am going to try to pick up the whole thread in a post on my history blog -