WASPS, Tykes and Ecumaniacs: Aspects of Australian Sectarianism 1945-1981

Benjamin Edwards

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Sectarianism has always been a significant force in Australian socio-cultural life and during 1945-81, intense changes in society and religion in Australia and overseas brought many contentious issues to the fore. Some of the changes in Australian society were brought about by the religious revival of the 1950s, the rise of ecumenism and the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, postwar mass-immigration, the politics of education, and increasing secularism. This book offers a contribution to the historical understanding of sectarianism in Australian society of this period. It also records the lingering significance of sectarianism in Australian society through to the early twenty-first century using oral history and memoir.


Dr Benjamin Edwards is an Anglican priest and academic. A graduate in Theology and History from St Mark’s National Theological College, Canberra, Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales, in 2006 he was the Priddle Scholar at St Paul’s College, University of Sydney. Edwards has held parish appointments at St Luke’s Mosman and St Alban’s Epping in Sydney. Currently, he is an Academic Associate of the School of Theology, St Mark’s College Canberra / Charles Sturt University, and ministers in the parish of Orange in the NSW Central Tablelands. He is married to Kate who teaches Latin and Music.

Volume 20. Number 1. – 6 March 2010 Christian Research Association Bulletin.

Historical Perspectives

A new book by the Anglican priest Dr. Benjamin Edwards, WASPS, Tykes and Ecumaniacs, sketchesthe long history of sectarianism in the Australian cultural scene. A brief survey of 1788 to 1947 notes the deep cleavage in colonial society between the Irish Catholic community and the mainstream British Protestant and Anglican society. This cleavage, as Edwards amply illustrates, lies deep in the memories of many older Australians (ch.1). Edwards also points out that it has been the theme of many novels, films, comedy sketches and television sitcoms, ensuring its enduring place in popular culture (ch.2).

Focusing more on the period 1945 to 1981, Edwards documents some of the points of the sectarian conflict in the 1950s (although largely focusing on Sydney). The Billy Graham crusades brought together many Protestants and Anglicans, but the Catholic Church made it clear that Catholics should not attend the meetings (pp.85-88). Protestants felt uneasy about the National Eucharistic Congress and Family Rosary Crusade of the Catholics in 1953 (pp.98-104). Many Protestants and Anglicans felt uneasy about Catholic opposition to communism, believing that the Catholic Church was really seeking world domination (p.91).

Edwards notes a variety of other conflict points such as the proposal to form a Catholic university (pp.93-98). State aid to non-government schools was also opposed on similar grounds by Protestants who felt that it would give Catholics more resources for indoctrinating children and contributing to social division (pp.162-173).

In 1964, Vatican II opened the gates of dialogue when the Council endorsed the participation of Catholics in ecumenical endeavours and suggested that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren (p.197). Many ecumenical bodies in which Catholics participated began to emerge. At the theological level, the joint Australia and New Zealand Society for Theological Studies was formed in 1966. In 1972, the Jesuits became part of the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. Joint theological colleges were created in most parts of Australia (p.205). At local levels, there were many cooperative ventures. Conservative Christians, including many Baptists and Sydney Anglicans, continued opposition to Catholicism, for example, in State aid to Catholic schools (pp.221-229). However, the sectarian divide has increasingly become a fringe issue, of little interest to mainstream Australian Society (p.229).

Edwards’ careful analysis of Protestant / Catholic sectarianism largely focuses on New South Wales. While stating that sectarianism is a ‘complex socio-cultural phenomenon’, it is portrayed largely through a theological lens and in terms of conflict between organizations arising from the Reformation (p.52). The issues of power and identity, of national and ethnic identities, play no part in his analysis.

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