ACL Centenary Dinner Address

Posted on September 7, 2009 
Filed under History

Ed LoaneThe Rev. Ed Loane gave this reflection on the history of the Anglican Church League at the ACL’s Centenary Dinner on Thursday 3rd September 2009:

I’ve been asked this evening to offer some account of the work of the ACL over the last 100 years. So I humbly put on my amateur historian hat – and amateur should be read in capital letters in light of present company – and I offer these reflections…

It has often been claimed that Sydney Diocese, with its pervasive and dominant conservative evangelicalism, is unique within the Anglican Communion – particularly within western Anglicanism. One of the chief questions that this situation raises is ‘how did this come to be?’   

Well many dominant factors could be offered in response to this question. The evangelicalism of the early chaplains, the episcopates of Bishop Barker and Archbishop Mowll, Moore College… Now, these are all good answers but I’m going to argue tonight that any account of why this diocese is the way it is that does not give a significant place to the labour and influence of the ACL is a deficient account! In other words, one of the reasons the Sydney diocese is like it is today is because of the century long existence of this League.

My starting point in making this argument is the place of the diocese before the formation of the ACL. Synodical governance had been established more than half a century earlier than 1909 and since then a number of groups had formed around common causes to exercise influence in the decision making of the diocese. But from the 1880s onwards a series of events took place that caused alarm to many evangelicals in the diocese. A tractarian, Thomas Hill, was appointed principal of Moore College. The chasuble was introduced at Christ Church St Laurence and St James King Street. There was the cathedral reredos saga, as well as more churches introducing robed choirs, brass crosses and other ritualistic elements. These events indicated to the evangelicals a trend within the diocese towards ritualism. So when Archbishop Saumarez Smith died in 1909, an opportunity arose to consolidate the evangelical character of the diocese.

At this time, F. B. Boyce, the rector at Redfern, rallied hard to gain support for J. C. Wright. Wright was an evangelical who was at the forefront of a new movement in England, called the group brotherhood. This group set about rethinking the way evangelicals engaged in society. (The other likely candidate for archbishop was W.H. Griffith-Thomas but his popularity dived after a photograph circulated of him wearing a tie rather than a clerical collar – shocking attire for an archbishop I’m sure we all agree!!!)

Anyway, at about this same time, Boyce was the driving force behind the formation of a group to provide a unified evangelical voice within the diocese. This group was the Anglican Church League.

The ACL was affiliated with the National Church League in England which itself had been formed in 1906. The ACL adopted the NCL’s constitution and began to meet regularly with the aim of defending and promoting evangelical truth within the diocese of Sydney.

Over the next 20 years the ACL was highly successful in the job it was doing, particularly in recommending suitable candidates for synod elections. Judd and Cable note that ‘By 1926, the A.C.L.’s influence was pervasive. Virtually all of the small number of non-A.C.L. members who held elected positions in the diocese only did so because the Anglican Church League allowed them to do so.’ However, throughout these years dividing lines were occurring within evangelicalism itself.

Sydney evangelicals had seen many evangelicals in England drift towards liberalism and many staunchly evangelical organisations had split on matters of biblical authority and doctrine. The CICCU split with the SCM, the CMS split and the BCMS was formed. It became apparent within the ACL itself cracks were appearing along the similar lines. Even from early on there were problematic differences of opinion within the ACL. On one spectacular occasion in 1914, at an ACL dinner like this one, there was an open dispute between the principal and a lecturer of Moore College which resulted with the lecturer resigning on the spot… Now that would add a bit of drama to the evening wouldn’t it?

But by the late twenties it became clear that these differences were going to be irreconcilable. The liberal side were in the minority but their leaders held influential positions within the diocese. The most notable two were the Dean of the Cathedral, A.E. Talbot, and the principal of Moore College, D.J. Davies. They had both been appointed soon after Archbishop Wright had arrived in Sydney and were members with him in the group brotherhood. Not only were they prominent in the diocese, they were prominent within the League, Talbot was president and Davies was a vice president.

By 1930 a number of factors within the diocese were causing conservative members of the League concern. Perhaps most importantly was the state of Moore College. You see, at that time the Presbyterian Church was being ravaged by the liberal teaching of Samuel Angus down the road here at St Andrew’s College. Here at Moore, less and less students were interested in affiliating with evangelicalism. This included being affiliated with the ACL. In 1930 a group of students began meeting with the intention of promoting Anglo Catholicism. (This was a different agenda to the missionary SUS groups that ran when I was at college.) Anyway through association with this group a fellow student renounced his evangelicalism and his BCA candidacy. The minutes of the ACL council meeting following records ‘the seriousness of this matter was fully realised by everyone.’

By the time Archbishop Wright died in 1933 the trajectories of the liberal and conservative elements within the ACL were diverging rapidly and it became apparent that no consensus would be found. The liberals wanted to use the opportunity of a new archbishop to make the diocese broader. The conservatives saw an opportunity to halt Sydney mirroring the demise of evangelicalism that had occurred in England. Talbot and Davies championed J.W. Hunkin and the conservatives championed H.W.K. Mowll.

Archbishop Howard HowllWith the future churchmanship of the diocese on the line, the conservatives engaged in a tremendous effort to ensure Mowll was elected. The ACL sponsored four meetings for selected synodsmen and then they embarked a strong campaign using instruments like the Australian Church Record. Their effort was rewarded in synod’s overwhelming support for Mowll.

Most historians claim that a spit occurred in the ACL as a result of this election. I think that to call it a split is an over statement. A couple of people leaving a membership of over 100 being called a huge split doesn’t seem to accurately represent what happened. But whatever we call it, because the overwhelming majority of the League had decided to stand up as conservatives, both Talbot and Davies resigned their membership. They joined together with Author Garnsey, warden of St Paul’s College, to form a new group called the Anglican Fellowship. Certainly Garnsey didn’t see these events as a split in the ACL, he saw it as a defection from the ACL – he was delighted and wrote in a letter at the time that Talbot and Davies had ‘Come over from THEM to US!’

Following 1933 the ACL went from strength to strength. The electoral success in synod grew. In 1933 there were 109 contested elections and ACL candidates won 106. In the next four years only one elected position each year would go to a non-ACL candidate. On top of this Membership increased significantly. There were quarterly public conferences held to further the gospel. These, along with numerous other activities, the League promoted evangelical Christianity within this city. The Anglican Fellowship on the other hand, floundered and folded a few years later.

Now let’s consider for a moment the impact that the 1933 archbishop election has had on our diocese. The trajectory we could have been on if those ACL men hadn’t been decisive and diligent in their efforts to win support for Mowll. We would have had a more liberal Archbishop. When D.J. Davies died in 1935 we probably would have had a more liberal principal of Moore College.

T C HammondIn fact, when T.C. Hammond was appointed principal, the college only had 13 students and was in several thousands of pounds debt, so perhaps we would have had no Moore College at all. Instead the work of the League changed the direction of the diocese. We got Mowll, a vice president of the National Church League in England. We got Hammond who ended up serving as president of the ACL himself for 15-odd years. The Sydney diocese stood firm at a time when other bastions of evangelicalism waned.

Now, there are several other stories that I could have used to demonstrate the important place the ACL has played in shaping this diocese to be what it is today, from constitutional issues to prayer book revision. The ACL has been intimately involved in progressing the evangelical agenda so that our churches can continue to faithfully proclaim the biblical truth of our Lord Jesus. I’m sure everyone here has in some way or another benefited from the way God has used the ACL over the last hundred years. You probably didn’t have any idea that the ACL existed when you first benefited from the influence it has exercised. Having learnt some of this impact myself, I for one believe this is a centenary well worth giving thanks to God for. It’s a centenary well worth celebrating. As someone who has been nurtured week in week out with the evangelical truth at the seven Sydney parishes I’ve been a member of – I’m grateful for the way God has used the ACL. As someone who was taught the evangelical truth at the two Anglican Schools I attended – I’m grateful for the way God has used the ACL. As someone who received a thoroughly conservative evangelical theological education at this theological college – I’m grateful for the way God has used the ACL. In so many ways – I’m grateful for the way God has used the ACL. This is a centenary worth celebrating!

I just want to close with two lessons from the past that might shape our future. Archbishop Mowll once said in an address to Synod ‘we must remember that our responsibilities do not end at our diocesan boundaries.’ There was a point in our history when the ACL gave support to ACL Melbourne and ACL Port Lincoln as well as to similar organisations in Brisbane and Tasmania. Each of these other organisations ended up lacking perseverance and folding. Well, it appears to me that several dioceses across Australia are experiencing something of a changing tide in terms of evangelical growth. There is no doubt in my mind that the evangelicals in these dioceses could advance the cause of the gospel by organising themselves in a way similar to the Sydney ACL. Perhaps, as in years gone by, it might be time for us again to actively support and encourage such organisation so that our brothers and sisters might enjoy similar benefits to what the ACL has brought to us.

Moore College 1956The second lesson comes from the late fifties when the harvest of what had been sown by the ACL in the ’30s was being reaped. The college was booming, churches were being built, Sunday services and Sunday schools were exploding, people were preparing for the much anticipated Billy Graham Crusade.

And while all this was going on, suddenly at the end of 1958, Archbishop Mowll died. The problem was that after so many years of conservative evangelical advancement across the diocese the ACL had grown somewhat complacent. At the ACL meeting to discuss the upcoming ballot it was first suggested that the ACL should not even make any recommendation for the position at all!! Eventually instead of settling on one candidate the council resolved to offer three names and a series of non-specific principles about potential candidates. The end result was that none of the conservative ACL names were elected and instead a man with broad sympathies became archbishop. The point here is this, we might look around at our diocese today and say there is no need for the ACL any more. Things are stronger than they’ve ever been. Why waste time worrying about defending and advancing evangelicalism in Sydney? Surely things will be OK from now on!!

Well the truth is, while our challenges might not be ritualism or modernism, evangelical truth is still challenged. Whether it’s the new perspective, the charismatic movement or something else, we must not get complacent and think Sydney evangelicalism is invincible – the challenges remain.

In 1909 there were 104 parishes in this diocese – now there are 268. In 1909 there were 172 clergy – now there are 568. In 1909 Sydney’s population was less than 700,000 – now it is over 4 million. Today our responsibility is greater than it’s ever been… If 100 years of history teach us anything, it teaches us that today, more than ever, we need a strong and effective ACL.


Ed Loane is a member of the ACL’s Council and serves as Assistant Minister at Moorebank.

Photo of Ed Loane courtesy Kathryn Thompson. Photo of Archdeacon T C Hammond from A Centenary History of Moore Theological College by Marcus L Loane. Photos of Archbishop Mowll and the Moore College 1956 group photo are from The 1956 Sydney Diocesan Digest.