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Australian pluralism and religion

By Bruce Kaye - posted Thursday, 8 January 2009

At Federation the constitution set out in Clause 116 some apparently clear guidelines on religion in public life, while retaining in the preamble a clear reference to God, as indeed did the oath of the current Governor-General.

The High Court interpretation of clause 116 has taken Australia in a different direction from the United States of America. Whereas the US tradition has moved to a doctrine of separation of church and state and a doctrine of non-entanglement, the Australian version has moved to a position of non-separation of church and state and a doctrine of equitable entanglement. The broader and social institutional effect of this has been to assert that religion has a recognised place in public life and in public institutions in a way that is quite different from the US. Australia may not be a religious state, but it is a state whose constitution incorporates religion in its view of public life.

Clause 116 refers to the actions of the federal government and public offices established under the constitution. It does not refer to the vast complex of institutions that make up the fabric of life in Australia. The institutions of commerce, industry and every kind of social activity are not affected by this clause. Yet these institutions directly affect issues of social value and the character of social relationships both within those institutions and with those individuals and groups who relate to them.


These institutions house what has come to be called the social capital, which enables community life to be sustained. I would prefer to say they incorporate social values which provide the basis for the kinds of expectations in public life which we can reasonably expect from each other.

If an institution has become central to the ongoing life of the broader community then the interpretation of the character and value of the institution becomes part of the struggle to give meaning to the nature of that society. In this sense institutions become quite interesting examples of the general question of the historiographical legitimation of the present and of proposals for the future.

That process is clearly at work in the discussion of church-state relations in Australia and can be seen in the official history of the University of Sydney and its account of the origins of the institution. That account elides references to the Christian values of the wider society which those involved in the founding of the university thought would be served by the new institution. It hardly recognises that in these debates secular usually meant outside any particular ecclesiastical control.

In New South Wales in 1850 the bishops represented the ecclesiastical authorities. Key promoters of the project were in fact “card carrying” church members and brought a Christian framework to their work. The opening speeches at the inauguration of the university set this distinction out quite clearly. The charter of the University of Sydney to this day declares the purpose of the university to be for the “advancement of religion and morality and the promotion of useful knowledge”

Another great social institution that began in 1848 was and is the Australian Mutual Provident Society which was created on the initiative of three young friends in their 30s; the Anglican priest at Christ Church St Lawrence, WH Walsh, his close family friend and parishioner Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and Thomas Holt.

Mort was motivated by concern to provide some sort of pension for Anglican clergy like his friend Walsh. Walsh wrote the prospectus, which was adopted at a meeting of these three that he chaired. The three founders were creating an institution from their own experience and values as committed churchmen and introducing these into a novel situation where there was a clear social need.


These three were the founders and their intentions were developed and the group expanded so that in due course AMP became one of the largest and most influential institutions in Australia.

Geoffrey Blainey (in A History of the Amp 1848-1998) goes so far as to say that “Within Australian its long period of influence is matched only by the major religious denominations, several big public companies, major sporting leagues and perhaps a few national newspapers.” He points out that it was among the first to grant women certain legal rights, and “was probably the first institution in Australia to work in effect as a federation” and in being a mutual society it had a special form of participatory democracy which was active in the early decades but diminished as the society grew in size and geographical scope. When it was corporatised in 1998 AMP changed dramatically “in culture and direction”.

Similar processes of precedent and innovation can be seen in the institutions of law, medicine, and the armed forces and are widely reflected in Australian literature, perhaps most poignantly in the writings of Martin Boyd.

The question is further complicated by the fact that major public institutions in Australia were initiated at a time when Christian values and influence were pervasive in society. Those institutions were formed with a keen eye to precedents that were readily available at the time and, especially in the 1840s, in the light of the institutional arrangements inherited from England. Those precedents carried with them tacit values and assumptions. The actual formation of the institutions was also influenced by perceptions of the nature of the society in the colony.

The narrowly legal question of church-state relations for Anglicans is thus cast in a context of social values influenced by significant lines of continuity with earlier patterns. The situation of the two largest churches might be put baldly in this way. By and large Roman Catholics grew from being a dissenting minority and they formed attitudes and institutions to sustain their tradition that reflected that position.

Anglicans presumed they were the established tradition and more easily collaborated with the broader social developments. During the last quarter of the 20th century Roman Catholics have eclipsed the Anglicans as the majority religious tradition. The irony at the end of the 20th century is that Roman Catholics are struggling to transform their dissenting traditions to their more prominent position and Anglicans find themselves without the theological tools to make appropriate adjustments to their new position.

A lot is at stake in this situation because of the values implicit in our social institutions. Those values were inherited from earlier patterns and have been adjusted over time. Their serviceability for a modern plural Australia requires not so much their overthrow but their continuing development. In that process religious bodies need to get their act together on the nature of Australian pluralism and its meaning today.

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About the Author

The Revd Dr Bruce Kaye is a Professorial Associate in the School of theology at Charles Sturt and a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of History at UNSW. He is formerly the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia (1994-2004) and he is the author of Introduction to World Anglicanism, Cambridge University Press, 2008 and Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith; The Anglican Experiment, 2009. See

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