The early 1960s were a significant period for the direction of Australia, its institutions and not least of all the Anglican Church. It was in 1962 that the Church of England in Australia finally, after decades of discussion, adopted a constitution to bring the Anglican Church of Australia into being and sever the constitutional links between Australian Anglicans and the Church of England. It was also the year when the book, Immigration: Control or Colour Bar? The Background to ‘White Australia’ and a Proposal for Change, was published.

Australia’s post-federation immigration policies were subject to the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, legislation that found ready consensus amongst Australia’s first federal legislators and the labour movement. This Act gave effective colour-based immigration control and the power to deport non-white Australians. The deportation of the vast majority of South Sea Islanders from Queensland was completed between 1906 and 1908. Of the 9324 South Sea Islanders living in Queensland at the time and mostly working in the sugar industry, only 1654 Islanders met the criterion of residence in Australia before 1879 and were given permission to remain. The inhumanity of this mass deportation remains a stain on Australia’s history. The fact that it is part of a largely forgotten history is even more shameful.

Legislation like the Pacific Islands Labourers Act, 1901 and the Commonwealth Naturalisation Act, 1903 were logical developments from the consensus that the new nation should be a white Australia.

The Yale theologian of half a century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr, believed that Christianity’s external critics demanded that the church “become a ‘saviour’ of society rather than ‘the company of those who have found a saviour’.”[1] In other words, he considered that the Christian Church was always at risk of being co-opted into the broader societal agenda rather than engaging that agenda with the critique that came from its own central principles. Australian Anglicans like most other Australians supported the core institutions, the White Australia policy amongst them, of what Paul Kelly referred to as the “the Australian settlement”[2]. James Gustafson, writing in the United States context at the same time as Immigration: Control or Colour Bar? observed that, “The proper stance of the Christian community in its ethical reflection is self-criticism and repentance, not pride and aggrandizement.”[3]

Anglican Bishop of Carpentaria, Gilbert White, wrote a measured defence of the White Australia policy in 1917 combining a pragmatic realisation of the weakness of white hegemony over northern Australia and a criticism of racial arrogance. 
[The White Australia policy] has been advocated in some cases on such purely selfish grounds, with such absurd arrogance and self-conceit, and with such unjustifiable contempt for all coloured races, that decent men are tempted to turn from it in disgust because of its advocates; nor do we see how it can be defended unless those who advocate it are prepared to admit that it is their duty to “take up the white man’s burden”, and that in return for their privileges they must have duties and responsibilities also.[4]
Despite his attack on extreme views, this was hardly the basis for a radical challenge to the consensus position. White’s Labor sympathies in discussing the White Australia policy meant that he was caught between his despair over the under-development of the north and his fear that the working conditions of Australian workers would be eroded by unrestricted immigration. Bishop Gilbert White may well have been surprised if he were to know that almost a hundred years later I would be visiting part of his diocese with a group of South Sudanese Melbourne Anglican leaders.  The group of five priests and lay leaders, both men and women, participated in the Katherine Christian Convention in the Northern Territory. Along with new meetings with Aboriginal Christian leaders from the Top End, they were able to facilitate a meeting of South Sudanese living in Darwin. This was not the White Australia envisaged in the Immigration Restriction Act.

It would need the emergence of a new generation of Anglican leaders, including those formed at university by the Student Christian Movement (SCM), to challenge the consensus wisdom.[5] Young Anglicans through their involvement with the SCM had been exposed to other young Christian leaders from countries like India and China whose citizens were barred from immigration but with whom they shared Christian  solidarity. Such experiences quickly exposed the blind prejudice that was behind Australia’s restrictive immigration laws and mobilised them as advocates for change.[6]
The Melbourne Anglican Synod in 1953 urged the Australian Government to prevent British migration dropping below half of the migrant intake. Such was the concern about non-British European migration becoming numerically significant in the post-war period. Only seven years later, the same synod was considering a very different position. The impetus to review an unwavering endorsement of the White Australia policy was the 1958 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from across the world and its recommendation that, “Australia’s non-white immigration policy be modified as soon as possible in order to allow for controlled entry of members of any race or nation”.[7] International attention from such a significant body of Anglicans could not be lightly dismissed. The 1960 synod noted the recommendation of the international bishops and commended it to the Diocesan Social Questions Committee for further advice. Subsequent synods in 1961 and 1962 had the injustice of the deportation of Malay divers and the plight of Chinese orphans in Hong Kong as topics of debate. Caution was still in the air but the mood was changing.

From the perspective of Melbourne Anglicans of 1962, the position of the Diocese of Melbourne in 2013 could not be more different. Where they experienced only worship in English, and the Elizabethan English of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer at that, there are now 30 congregations worshipping in 20 different languages each Sunday in addition to the many services that continue in English. The new Anglican migrants of the present era are more likely to be South Sudanese, Karen, Chinese, Indian or Maori than those from the last wave of English immigration in the ’60s.  Over the same period, the self-identification of Christian religious affiliation reported in the census has declined from 90% to 61%.

The fact of greater diversity for Anglicans exists within the church’s membership as in the wider society.

The publication of the report, A Garden of Many Colours in 1985 was a significant turning point in this journey near the mid-point of the period in question. Running to nearly 200 pages, it engaged with historical, theological and institutional reflections on the Church’s response to multiculturalism in Australia. The Archbishop of Melbourne who commissioned this report, Dr David Penman, was in no doubt about the centrality of diversity. He said in his 1984 Tyndale Lecture,
It is the purpose of God that the nations should be diversified, both for salvation and for judgement, and that it is in plurality and multiplicity that these fundamental elements of His purpose will be fulfilled.[8] 
Archbishop Penman’s advocacy for a deeply principled Christian multiculturalism is a significant element in his enduring legacy.

An even earlier Anglican engagement was through the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Ecumenical Migration Centre (EMC). EMC is the oldest migrant and refugee settlement agency in Australia having emerged out of the European Australian Christian Fellowship (EACF) and work of the Australian Council of Churches with refugee boys (minors) from Eastern Europe after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. EACF, a social movement that transcended purely religious concerns, built friendship networks around refugee young people in the community via social, sporting and cultural activities which then developed into outreach work including pioneering street work. The EMC is a case study of a unique community-based model of settlement leadership and support for refugees and migrants that has remained dynamic and responsive over more than 50 years of our recent immigration history. A contemporary development is worth mentioning in a little more detail.

The African Australian Community Centre (AACC) is a joint partnership between the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Anglican Parish of Footscray. Its vision is to assist with achieving successful and positive settlement outcomes for the African Australian community in Melbourne’s west, through developing a centre that can be run by and for the African community. People who come as immigrants or refugees to Australia may originate from the same African country or region but come from different sides of conflicts and often have identities built on religious or ethnic grounds. One of AACC’s great successes has been the forging of co-operation and shared aspiration amongst people with these different identities and experience. The current AACC committee has people from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia, Eritrea and Congo amongst its membership.

The program at the AACC is based on community needs and views, assisting the African community to be empowered to grow in capacity. Along with significant site redevelopment, one of the great achievements of AACC has been the expansion of its leadership and client base from the Sudanese community around whom it was founded. From what was originally called “the Sudanese Centre”, with an initial emphasis on a “welfare model” of providing services, there has been a transition to a “community development” approach, where the community participates in goal-setting and in strengthening its own capacity to be responsible for its own continued development and settlement within the wider Australian community. In 2010, it was renamed as the African Australian Community Centre (AACC) to recognise the growing African community and ensure it was more inclusive.

At the widest level, to facilitate inclusion and understanding involves both economic and social inclusion. Economic inclusion involves being able to participate in employment and have adequate income support to avoid poverty. There is a need for targeted services for new arrivals, extensive and responsive language services and cultural training. Our society needs to keep renewing our ability to flexibly meet the cultural and language needs of all new groups of migrants and refugees as they arrive.  In terms of social participation, we need to create an inclusive society that welcomes and supports diversity. Social inclusion counters discrimination based on religion and ethnicity.

Compared with the early 1960s, Australia is a much more diverse society. Movement across the expected boundaries of identity and religion is common. A fluidity of identity and the aspects that construct it for each of us is more prominent.  Cultural identity and the possibility of breaking out of its narrow definition coexist with significant movements to reinforce cultural identity within a multicultural Australia. We see both trajectories within the Anglican Church in Melbourne with people having similar immigration experiences making different choices about the communities with which they will affiliate for worship and community. The same patterns are also visible in the wider community.  Movement between religious communities sits alongside of an increasingly diverse urban worship building landscape. 

We are fortunate to have many opportunities of increasing our knowledge of the human social and cultural diversity that is part of modern Australia. Events in public locations right across our cities and towns give events like Harmony Day and Refugee Week continuing prominence. Cultural festivals occur in many places throughout the year. Despite their familiarity, these are important counterweights to the xenophobia that can easily arise out of the debate about policies prompted by boat arriving asylum seekers.

We should never devalue the importance of being in mutually respectful relationships or the importance of the “soft” side of policy formation and consensus-building. I hope that religious bodies like the Anglican Church can continue to play a constructive role in the building of community harmony and respect across any divides that arise from social, cultural and religious difference.

This speech was delivered by the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Philip Freier, on 20 June 2013 at a conference at Melbourne University marking the 50th anniversary of the Immigration Reform Group’s publication ‘Immigration Reform: Control or Colour Bar?’, which helped lead to the abolition of the White Australia Policy. The conference was organised by the Population, Migration and Multicultural Studies Network, established in 2012 as an interdisciplinary forum for academics and those interested in population, migration and multicultural studies, such as  community groups, non-governmental organisations, politicians, public servants and external partners and researchers.

 Related news