ACR JournalChurch History

The Election of Archbishop Mowll: A Decision with Consequence

The Conservative Evangelicalism which permeates the diocese of Sydney today has not always characterised the diocesan leadership. Although Sydney may always have had an Evangelical flavour, in the early 20th century the leadership of the diocese represented a more liberal emphasis. 

The election of H.W.K. Mowll as Archbishop (1933-1958) changed the trajectory of the diocese toward a more conservative theological position. The significance of Mowll’s leadership was not merely a result of his duration in office, but rather the growth, innovation and theological consolidation which he instigated. 

Before arriving in Sydney, Mowll’s predecessor, Archbishop J.C. Wright (1909-1933), had been at the forefront of a new movement in the church which came to describe itself as “Liberal Evangelicalism”. At the turn of the century, Wright had become the foundational chairman of the Group Brotherhood which was a scholarly group seeking to restate traditional Evangelical emphases on issues like the authority of the Bible and the atonement.[1] Soon after his election as Archbishop, Wright filled two of the most influential offices within the diocese, Principal of Moore Theological College (D.J. Davies, 1911-1935) and Dean of the Cathedral (A.E. Talbot, 1912-1936), with Group Brotherhood members. This meant that both in the leadership of the diocese, as well as in the training of clergy, Liberal Evangelicalism was dominant. 

There were numerous factors, both in England and Australia, that had Conservative Evangelicals in Sydney alert to the dangers of Liberal Evangelicalism. One key problem was the apparent floundering of Moore College under the leadership of Principal Davies. By the 1930s the College was heavily in debt, had low academic standards and few students. Of the students that did attend, news circulated of at least one student giving up their Evangelical convictions and candidacy under the influence of non-Evangelical forces within the college. The possibility grew of Moore College following the strident liberalism of the Presbyterian St Andrew’s Theological College which was further down the road metaphorically and literally.2 As the College travelled that path, the churches would not be far behind as was evidenced in the N.S.W. Presbyterian Church. 

In February 1933, Archbishop Wright died while on holiday in New Zealand. His successor needed to be elected in just six weeks and those representing the different theological perspectives recognised the opportunity for a new era in the diocese. Australia was still suffering from the devastating effects of the Great Depression and Anglo-Catholics were gearing up to celebrate the centenary of the Oxford Movement. In this cultural and ecclesiastical milieu there seemed to be strong imperatives to find a leader who emphasised a “social gospel” or enfranchised in Sydney a group that was growing in dominance around the Anglican Communion. The occasion of electing an Archbishop in Sydney presented the diocese with a choice of what it would stand for and in which direction it would advance. 

Ultimately there were twelve candidates nominated for Archbishop but publicity in the lead up to the election focused on three men whose supporters emphasised different qualities. Firstly, J.S. Moyes was an Australian who had been Bishop of Armidale since 1929. He was an outspoken advocate for the “social gospel” and had the support of men like Arthur Garnsey, Warden of St Paul’s College. Secondly, J.W. Hunkin, Rector of Rugby and Archdeacon of Coventry, who was the chairman of the AEGM and was championed by Principal Davies and Dean Talbot. His election would have resulted in the diocese continuing along the Liberal Evangelical path it had been on with Wright, albeit with a rejuvenated energy. Thirdly, H.W.K. Mowll, an heroic missionary Bishop of West China who emphasised evangelism and had stood firm against liberalism in his earlier years. He was an unashamed Conservative Evangelical and it was argued that electing him would ensure the diocese would move in that direction. The movement promoting the election of Mowll was led by Archdeacon Langford Smith and he was ably assisted by D.J. Knox and R.B. Robinson. These three organised small group meetings in parishes across the diocese to discuss the upcoming election and highlight the strengths of Bishop Mowll as a potential Archbishop. Articles were written in The Australian Church Record and The Sydney Morning Herald to endorse Mowll. The campaign was diligent and convincing and by the time the election came neither Moyes or Hunkin made it to the final vote. Mowll was elected in a landslide. 

Mowll got on with his task with an energy and effectiveness rarely seen in Anglicanism. He visited every parish in the large diocese and he travelled internationally, as he was a keen advocate of foreign missions. He was winsome and came to be widely respected even by those not sharing his theological convictions. This was evidenced in him being unanimously elected Primate by the other Australian bishops in 1947. For the diocese of Sydney, the twenty five years of Mowll’s Archiepiscopate were marked by growth, consolidation and new ventures. The diocese expanded rapidly and church attendance flourished. One of the first things he did was to redirect and reengage what had been the home mission society (now Anglicare). This would become the largest social welfare organisation in the country and a vital part of the churches work in that area. Another early focus of his attention was the CMS which was at a very low ebb when he arrived in Sydney, but was soon revived and prospered under his leadership. Following the death of Davies, Mowll appointed T.C. Hammond as principle of Moore College and under his leadership the finances, academic standing and number of students improved markedly. Through the war years Mowll was very active with service men and women, providing, amongst other things, numerous recreational activities within the cathedral grounds. Seeing the overflowing Sunday schools and youth fellowships led Mowll to employ the diocese’s first youth chaplain, a role that would later grow into a massive youth department providing scripture and Sunday school material as well as numerous youth camp programs (Youthworks). The diocese also acquired a number of camp sites to facilitate these activities including the site at Port Hacking and Gilbulla. Furthermore, in his later years, the Archbishop pushed the diocese towards providing retirement accommodation and began the Anglican Retirement Villages which are now one of the largest providers of this care in the region. Mowll consistently promoted evangelism across the diocese, culminating in his personal invitation to Billy Graham to conduct a crusade in the city in 1959. Unfortunately Mowll died only a few months before the crusade in which about one quarter of Sydney attended and 57,000 went forward in response to the Gospel call. While Mowll himself did not live to see it, the Graham crusade was a fitting climax to what on any criteria of assessment must be considered an extraordinary episcopate. 

The election of Mowll as Archbishop of Sydney in 1933 was a decisive turning point for the diocese. It changed direction from the Liberal Evangelicalism which had marked its leaders over the early years of the century to the Conservative Evangelicalism which has been its dominant emphasis ever since. Mowll not only offered the diocese theological firmness, but his remarkable abilities and energy led to growth and innovation on an unprecedented scale. Mowll is purported to have said that an Archbishop of Sydney should leave the diocese more Evangelical than it was when he started. This was certainly his own experience and it is undeniable that the choice of Mowll as Archbishop has been of profound and lasting significance. 

[1] J.C. Wright was the man who gave the Group Brotherhood its name and even though this was a private group at its inception, in the 1920s it went public and changed its name to the Anglican Evangelical Group Movement (AEGM). It grew rapidly and specifically stated its aim, which was to increase the influence of Liberal Evangelicalism in the Church of England.



Anglican Church League Council Meeting Minutes. A.C.L. Archives, Moore College Library. 

The English Churchman and St James Chronicle (London: English Churchman Trust). Cambridge University Library. 

The Guardian (London: Martin Richard Sharp). Cambridge University Library.