Alpha and omega: A history of the University Ecclesiarchy

If one believes university is a public and secular affair, they might occasionally observe a few anomalies on campus

Artwork by Angela Zha

If one believes university is a public and secular affair, they might occasionally observe a few anomalies on campus. The first time I was inside the Catholic Society’s Clubhouse was on a cold Winter morning after a lecture. The Centre, underneath the Urbanest in Jane Foss Russell Plaza, is modern, clean, and in a better condition than the University of Sydney Union’s (USU) buildings. Wooden panelling adorns its interior. Free printing and wifi is provided. There’s a chapel and a common room with a pool table. It’s a relaxing scene. The chapel was built and owned by the Archdiocese of Sydney. The construction was approved by the then Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell.

The Catholic Society’s Clubhouse — one of many links between the University and established religion —sits at the terminus of the historical evolution of religious appeasement and secularity in Australia, all dating back to the beginnings of colonial New South Wales (NSW) and this very university.

Land rights

The year is 1788 and the First Fleet has just arrived. Eucalyptus trees dominate Port Jackson where small shelters litter the cove in a makeshift clearing. The terrain is rough and the soil is in an even poorer condition. The days are long under the threat of starvation. The distribution of land after its theft from traditional Indigenous owners would become the key means of financing the colony, typically through lease agreements and as an incentive for convicts. Land was distributed throughout NSW in a grid with private lots bordered by Crown reserve. The grid gradually faded away as the State leased and sold its’ reserve land. William Bligh, the fourth Governor of NSW, was granted 240 acres for “private residence” in late 1806. The acreage encompassed the present suburb of Camperdown and the entirety of Newtown. Directly east of Bligh’s private residence was Crown land leased to Major Grose who used it for agriculture. It was Grose’s farm that would eventually turn into the University of Sydney (USyd) in 1850. Today, the only remnants of Grose’s Farm live on through Grose Farm Lane on Western campus.

Two years after the establishment of the penal colony, the Lady Juliana arrived in Port Jackson. New orders were dispatched to Governor Phillip from Lord Sydney “that a particular spot in or as near each town as possible be set apart for the building of a church, and 400 acres adjacent thereto allotted for the maintenance of a minister and 200 for a school master”. These letters were recorded in Hermes, archived by assistant Fisher librarian, J. A. Tunnicliffe. The orders went on to majorly influence education in NSW.

For the University, the orders meant the land directly under City Road was reserved for schools, a fact which can still be seen today. In 1958, the Cumberland County Council Plan defined that land under ‘special uses – educational and medical’. The old Darlington School used to inhabit this area until the end of 1975 when the land was purchased by the University. The only surviving building is the ‘Old School Building’ in the middle of the Cadigal Green oval. It was on this ‘special uses’ land that the Catholic Chaplaincy now resides.

Church and State

The year is 1534 and the Act of Supremacy has just been passed; Catholicism has been rejected. King Henry VIII has founded a new state religion in the Church of England. The implications for English history are obvious but its consequences are wide reaching, explaining birth of USyd, the colleges, private universities like Notre Dame in Broadway, and private schools like the King’s School.

The Church of England would be codified in England’s premier universities, Oxford and Cambridge. As Turney, Bygott and Chippendale, authors of A History of the University of Sydney Volume I explain, “a university education, or at least a university degree was the prerogative of those, and only those, who subscribed to the established religion”. Both Oxford and Cambridge students had to prove their adherence to the Church of England, which was also supplemented by compulsory attendance at daily chapel. This tradition, though more relaxed, continues with St. Paul’s and St. John’s offering weekly chapel. The ruling councils of Cambridge and Oxford, the Caput and Hebdomadal Board respectively, were “clerical oligarchies” with members ordained ministers of the Church.

Today, links between religious bodies and  senior management of Sydney University remain. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence’s ordination as an Anglican priest is well known, and he remains a volunteer member of the Anglican Diocese. At least seven current members of the University Executive have religious ties. External Senate Committee member Vincent Graham is a non-executive director of NSW Catholic Schools. Terry Williamson is a member of the Finance Committee of the Society of the Divine Word, a Catholic missionary congregation. Prominent Undergraduate Senate Fellow Francis Tamer is a former president of the Catholic Society. At least five other present and past Senate Fellows have been affiliated with St Paul’s College, either through familial ties or having studied there themselves. These links are not solely to the Christian Church – Senate Fellow Ilana Atlas is a non-executive director of the JewishCare Charity.

It is now rare to have ordained clergy belonging to the University Executive, unlike the age of “compulsory chapel”. Instead, even as far back as 1939, the undergraduate Donald Horne identified that “[The University’s] governing body was largely controlled by important judges and doctors from downtown”.

The old education system of the 1500s was challenged in the late 19th century by an emerging middle class less interested in religious liberal arts teaching and more concerned with a secular and professional education. The Scottish poet, Thomas Campbell addressed this issue, writing to The Times in February 1825 proposing the establishment of a new university in London. Turney, Bygott and Chippendale enlighten the context, writing that “indirectly, Campbell’s initiative also gave rise to the foundation of King’s College, chartered in 1829 as the Anglican counterpart in the metropolis of the ‘godless’ college in Gower Street”.

These issues in England were transplanted to Australia as the USyd’s very own motto foreshadows “Sidere mens eadem mutato” (the stars change, the mind remains the same). Vice-Chancellor Spence explained that the motto’s direct implication continues to mean that “our University can do it as well here as anywhere else in the world. In 1850, when the University of Sydney was founded, this was a bold, even radical, thing to say… [because it took] a commitment to excellence in everything”.

Spence’s answer reflects the University’s foundations on the backdrop of religious diversity at a time when it was radical for a university to be secular, or make concessions to a religion other than the Anglican Church. The various Christian denominations of the settlers and convicts complicated initial attempts at establishing a primary church. The powerful Anglican (Church of England), Presbyterian (a Scottish reformation denomination), Wesleyan (an off branch from Anglicanism) and Roman Catholic lobbies ultimately led early colonist William Wentworth to create a secular university.

The founding

The year is 1850, 62 years after the arrival of the First Fleet and Sydney is a bustling hub of trade, supported by 187,000 residents. With a large portion of the eucalyptus forest removed, great plains spread from Farm Cove to Grose Farm littered with houses and infrastructure. In Grose Farm, fields of barley cover what is now St. John’s College, whilst a small military barracks surrounded by stockades stands where Sancta Sophia College now sits. Parramatta Road is a 3-horse carriage wide thoroughfare from Botany Bay to Parramatta.

From this prosperity, multiple religious denominations attempted to create their own college to provide a traditional education in preparation for the ecclesiastical profession. The Roman Catholic Archbishop, John Bede Polding developed St Mary’s Seminary in Sydney whilst the Anglican Archdeacon Thomas Scott, under endorsement from the English government, helped coordinate the Church and School Corporation. That corporation attempted to supply the Anglican Church an estate “comprising one-seventh part in extent and value of all lands in each county”. Unsurprisingly, the corporation failed to obtain popular support. Curiously, The King’s School in Parramatta was founded partly in response to this failure, perhaps explaining the size of its’ 365-acre campus.

Wentworth pushed to establish a secular learning institution called Sydney College, now Sydney Grammar School. The College, the predecessor to USyd, was only secular in the sense that students and administration would not have to prove their loyalty to a religion. However, it would still teach religious subjects in providing a liberal education. For it’s time, the College’s secularity was contentious and the Archdeacon of the Anglican Church was not in attendance at the College’s opening ceremony”.

As historian Manning Clark argued, “this liberalism would have said a loud Amen, [however] the founding on [secular] liberalism prompted only indifference and unbelief towards religion”.

Wentworth’s push for secularity met strong opposition from the major religious groups of NSW. As a Sydney Morning Herald editorial from 12 October 1849 titled, The fate of the University Bill argues, “in his inordinate anxiety to make his university comprehensive and liberal, he hit upon an expedient that would make it ultra-exclusive and intolerant”. A letter published in the same newspaper by an anonymous writer, argued, “the express exclusion of no other portion of the community than that class whose office is to uphold the interests and teach the principles and practice of religion, prove beyond question to every reasoning mind that the Sydney University is intended to be an infidel institution”.  To break the deadlock on the University Bill, Governor Richard Bourke allowed each of the four major religious groups to build their own colleges to administer their own education. These four colleges St. Paul’s (Anglican), St. John’s (Roman Catholic), Wesley College (Methodist), St. Andrew’s (Presbyterian) would have subgrants of 20 acres of land in the USyd campus. The funding of these colleges was split between the Church and State with the State matching all money raised by the Churches. This would be formalised on the 18th January 1855, with a deed of grant by the State where no less than 18 acres would be given to each college. These grants would be owned by a trust with USyd given responsibility as the main overseer. This appeasement worked and the University Bill passed. Religious tensions ultimately heralded the origins of a secular university. “It was the first time that the Catholics as a body had been recognised officially as on a footing of perfect equality with the Protestants” recorded a historian of the Benedictine Pioneers.

Schisms over the University’s secularity have not disappeared since 1855. In 2016, the USU attempted to deregister the Evangelical Union (EU) and Catholic Society over faith-based requirements for membership. The USU argued these requirements were discriminatory and limited accessibility to all USU members, before backflipping on deregistration threats after public pressure from the mainstream press. The result is faith-based requirements continue today, with clause 3.2 of the EU Constitution requiring ordinary members to “confess their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Despite the rigorous debate surrounding Sydney University’s establishment, relationships between the University and Churches remained cordial. After the founding, the Churches focussed resources on developing their own religious institutions of higher education, including Notre Dame University (Catholic) and  Moore College (Anglican), both in Sydney University’s vicinity. However, tensions lingered on an individual level.  As described in A History of the University of Sydney Volume II, Professor of Philosophy from 1927 to 1958, John Anderson criticised the role of religion in public education as a limit on enquiry. Anderson’s speech in April 1943 before the New Education Fellowship was heavily criticised by both Church and State. In the Legislative Assembly of the NSW parliament, a motion was passed stating that Anderson’s “comments were unjustified and calculated to undermine the principles which constitute a Christian State”. Sir Henry Manning, representative of the Legislative Council on the University Senate was more zealous in his criticism, attempting to pass a Senate motion “designed to remind the Senate that the reason for the foundation of the university was the advancement of the Christian religion and to assert than no university teacher could attack that purpose”.

This Senate motion was ultimately amended to avoid directly attacking Anderson, instead re-affirming the University’s purpose of free intellectual enquiry.

The university today

The year is 2019, 169 years since the founding of USyd. The landscape is hardly recognisable from its natural setting. Asphalt and concrete cover the environment turning Grose Farm into an urban jungle. What was a eucalyptus forest is now one of the most heavily developed suburbs in Sydney.

These changes are also represented in the student body where the students come from over 140 countries, a far more multicultural and diverse array than the 19th century colony. Likewise, the religious landscape has changed too. As of the 2016 census, 52.2% of the population identify as a Christian, 2.6% as Muslims, 0.4% as Jews and 30.1% as having no religion. Resulting student societies have sprung up to represent and practice their faith. Besides the Catholic Society, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, EU, and Sydney University Muslim Student Association maintain high membership year-to-year. The University has accommodated different faiths by constructing a multi-faith chapel and providing religious services through liaison church representatives. Specific needs have also been addressed such as the dedication of rooms in Old Teacher’s College for Islamic prayer.

In spite of it all, the University’s connections to organised religion have come at a cost. Since the first fleet, First Nations’ cultures have been erased from learning institutions. Indigenous songlines, and stories of the Dreamtime, have been cast away from campus’ museums, whilst colleges, and the University’s settler-religious connections, remain deeply rooted in their place.  Tensions between religion and a secular education have long shaped the University’s changing history. Yet the University ovals have remained the same since the construction of the colleges. Parramatta Road remains a 3-car wide thoroughfare (albeit now with cars instead of carriages). Even the concerns of the student body remain the same. An Honi Soit editorial in 1939 published survey results indicating that most student complaints were about compulsory lectures. Some things never change.