EJANZH: H. Carey, Believing in Australia, reviewed by Richard Ely

Hilary Carey, Believing in Australia: A Cultural History of Religions, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996, xviii + 270. A$ 27.95.

Reviewed by Richard Ely, Department of History, University of Tasmania.

Carey states that the basic intention of this ‘nonspecialist’ study ‘…has been to examine religious cultures as they have reflected cultural transformations in Australian society (p. x)’. She thereby implies that religion has been a secondary or dependent variable in Australian history, and also a rather puny one. Religious culture in Australia, she asserts, ‘has been characterised by transience and transformation’, and was ‘achieved by the action of the waves of contact and migrant experiences, from first European occupation to postcolonial society, on the beach of the Australian experience.’ Aboriginal religions, by contrast, are religions of the land and, it seems, religions in a proper and strong sense.

Carey’s approach is broadly chronological. She begins with a brief survey of patterns of settler religion – said to be mainly composed of three religious traditions:’establishment religion’, ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘Catholicism’ – to around 1850. Evangelical Protestantism mostly has been the strongest strand. There follows a chapter on ‘the European discovery of Aboriginal religions’. She traces this discovery by colonists, missionaries, anthropologists; and then, moving to more recent times, briefly comments on reflections by Aboriginals themselves on their religious culture. A linked chapter explores the impact on Aboriginals, and European perception of Aboriginals, of Christian missions.

The next chapter carries the story of the three mainstream Christian traditions from 1851-1900, adding brief surveys of Protestant-Catholic tensions, seen as ‘tribalistic’, and sketches of small-scale religious groups (described as sects), such as Quakers, Unitarians, and Seventh Day Adventists. Secularism is also briefly noted. Next, in ‘Women and the Feminisation of Religious Culture’, her title for the chapter on the period from 1900 to 1945, census statistics are interpreted to show, from 1900, ‘a general decline in the number [I suppose percentage is meant] of people who saw themselves as members of one or other of the main denominational traditions’. This decline reflected, however, a ‘change in the pattern of religious belief’, rather than decline as such. And this is where feminisation comes in; for the change towards privatisation reflected and expressed the growing strength in churches of ‘women’s religious culture’.

In the chapter following, Carey canvasses some longer-term post-war consequences for Australian religious culture of non-British, often non-European, and sometimes non-Christian ‘ethnic’ migration. The last chapter briefly sketches current patterns of religious belief. Mainstream Christianity hangs on, but with increasing desperation, in the private sphere. It, lurches in more or less baffled or limply prophetic ways, in face of what Carey, perhaps disclosing her own value priorities, calls the ‘great issues’ of the age – women’s liberation, Aboriginal land rights, the sexual revolution, the threat of nuclear weapons, world hunger and the environment.

However there is a religious up-side of a kind: some religious or quasi-religious groups or movements – ‘New Age’ groups or movements, Pentecostal groups or movements, and what Carey calls ‘Christian or para-Christian sects’, such as Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – grow and proliferate as never before.

The book has strengths, but serious weaknesses too. It is also, in an unhelpful way, methodologically opaque.

It is described as a ‘cultural history of religions’, but the writer at no point makes clear what she means by ‘cultural history’, or by the study of ‘religious cultures’, except negatively. That is, it is at least clear that what is aimed at is not a history of churches as institutions, or of the politics of religion, or of the relations between churches and the state. Sometime, as is strongly hinted by the punning main title – Believing in Australia – the aim is the study of ‘belief’; at other times (e.g. p. x) religious belief is distinguished from religious culture. It is not even made clear whether the claim that this is a ‘cultural’ history signals a choice of a distinct subject matter, or a distinct method, or some mix of both. In this sense the book is a collection of fragments whose context and therefore relevance is problematic.

Carey is useful on European-Australian scholarly interpretations of European encounters with Aborigines since 1788 and Aboriginal responses to those interpretations. Her remarks on the development of a ‘women’s religious culture’ since the 19th century are grounded on a growing body of strong research, to which she herself has been a significant contributor. Her short survey of writings related to the ‘ethnic’ impact on religious practice and belief in Australia since World War Two is useful. Her survey of the current Australian religious picture (who’s in, who’s out; who’s up, who’s down) is sketchy and tentative, but defensibly so. Scholarly studies are thin here, although there is much axe-grinding.

Since the book as a whole is a kind of ‘cultural’ (in some sense) overview of two centuries of Australian religious history, Carey needed to be comfortably familiar with background and general aspects of Australian and European history, and Australian religious history. Fairly often, she is not. The French Revolution, it is said on p. 11, began in 1776. It is implied on the same page that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was formed in the second half of the 18th century (in fact, 1701). Richard Johnson was not, as claimed, a subordinate of the Bishop of Calcutta (p. 13); that bishopric was created only in 1813. Archdeacon Scott did not depart in 1826 (p. 8) but 1828. Wesleyan missionaries did not first arrive in Van Diemen’s Land in 1831 (p. 18) but a decade earlier. The governor said (p. 96) to have joined Backhouse and Walker in prayer in 1832 was not Franklin but George Arthur. It is not true that ‘throughout the [penal] colonies’ (p. 20) never less than one quarter were Roman Catholics (NSW, yes; Van Diemen’s Land, no). When Gladstone in 1846 took a deep interest in the endowment of Australian bishoprics, he was not Prime Minister (as stated on p. 9) but Colonial Secretary.

The claim that, until the 1850s, ‘the Australian colonies grew slowly’ (p. 82) is false, or at least misleading, if one looks to the impressive rate of population increase. Andersonian libertarianism was not a movement of the late 19th century (p. 105) but, broadly, of the middle decades of the 20th. The claim that at the start of this century ‘Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians were bustling to fund and construct their parish churches, schools and hospitals’ (p. 153) is true of all in relation to churches. It is, however, true only of some Protestants and Anglicans in relation to secondary schools, and, with minor exceptions, only of Catholics and some Anglicans in relation to primary schools and hospitals.

The statement that Menzies, after taking government in 1949, ‘became the leader of a fortress Australia which [was] more hostile to external influences than at any time in her history’ (p. 140) has some force as describing Menzies’ rhetoric, but little as description of the policies he actually presided over and fostered. Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Orthodox Christians are implied by Carey to have been subject to ‘forced repatriation in the Federation era’ (p. 143). This claim, which is unfootnoted, is as sensational as it is chronologically vague. I suspect that what Carey meant was that one consequence of the repatriations, although not their ground, was a thinning of the percentage of adherents of these religions in the total population. If so, the claim is interesting enough to be made clearly. Sometimes what one finds is not error, but deep uncertainty as to what, exactly, is meant. An example: ‘As repositories of ethnic values, all migrant churches in Australia have struggled to create a sense of Australian spiritual identity'(p. 163). No effort is made to clarify this.

Some though not all of this criticism might be seen as nit-picking. One might, for instance, wonder if the spectacular reference to the 1776 French Revolution was the product of a last-moment author or editorial text-change which went disastrously wrong. However many of the mistakes reflect unfamiliarity with basics. This is strikingly evident in her discussion of the legal status of the Church of England during the penal period. It is also evident in regard to the first two of the categories in terms of which she discusses mainstream Christianity – ‘establishment religion’ and ‘evangelicalism’.

The remarkable claim is made that while one can, in early penal decades, identify an ‘establishment religion’, the ‘single most salient feature of colonial religion as it was practised in the Australian colonies in the first half of the 19th century was that there was no established religion.'(p. 4) This is simply false. True, parishes ministered to by early clerics were not remarkable for the piety of inhabitants, but neither were many parishes in England. True, some governors saw religious proprieties in the colony as more their business than that of local Church of England clergyman; but when, say Macquarie and Arthur took this line they were replicating, not subverting, the Erastianism normative in England until High Church challenges were issued in the 1830s. True, Blackstone, an 18th century legal commentator of high repute, seriously doubted whether the religion established in England was thereby established in colonies of English settlers (Commentaries, vol. 1, sec. 4). It is true, also, that Blackstone’s writings were moderately well-known in the penal colonies. But what cannot seriously be doubted is that until the 1830s acceptance of the legal establishment of the Church of England in the penal colonies was an axiom of British colonial policy. The Letters Patent creating Scott’s archdeaconry, for instance, empowered him to set up an Archdeacon’s Court to enforce, as law of the land, English ecclesiastical law.

In the 1830s the British government began drawing back from this policy, but, even in the 1840s, Bishop Nixon in Van Diemen’s Land sought to convene a Consistorial Court to administer English ecclesiastical law. In the event, but only after protracted dispute, Nixon was successfully resisted by the local governor and the Colonial Office. Ross Border’s 1962 Church and State in Australia, 1788-1872 remains the magisterial study of these questions. It does not appear in Carey’s Bibliography.

Carey’s mapping of mainline Christianity into ‘establishment’, ‘evangelical’ and ‘Catholic’ varieties is artificial and misleading in relation to the first two. ‘Establishment religion’ principally means the Church of England. In the 1820s and 30s, in a shadowy sense more contended for than conceded, perhaps it included the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, the established religion of Scotland. ‘Establishment’, as Carey uses it, refers more to social and cultural than to legal status, although she is not consistent about this. ‘Evangelical’ means Methodists, Congregationalists, some Anglicans (evangelical ones) and, after the early colonial period, most Presbyterians. ‘Catholic’ just means Roman Catholic, despite minor blurring between census and mass-attending Catholicism. A powerful strand of Anglican evangelicalism in early decades was establishmentarian in the legal-status sense. It is often difficult with non-evangelical Anglican strands – for instance, broad, ‘comprehensive’ in the Arnoldian sense, Christian socialist, High Church ˜ to see precisely what ‘establishment’ in ‘establishment religion’ refers to, or indeed, since the appeal of voluntarism tended to grow, whether it has any useful meaning. Some Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists have been evangelical in some firmly-defined sense, and in such cases the word can be used comfortably. In other cases ‘evangelical’ can only be applied to members of these denominations if its connotations are stretched unconscionably.

This is not to say one cannot, looking over a wide spectrum of denominations, usefully distinguish between establishmentarian tendencies and evangelical movements. But to reify ‘establishment religion’ and ‘evangelical religion’, as Carey does, creates a historical procrustean bed. And confusion becomes worse confounded when, varying the traditional meaning of ‘denomination’, she refers to the ‘three Christian denominational traditions’ p. 107).

History is long. This study, although sometimes illuminating, reads as if written on the assumption that there are exceptions to this rule.