Western heritage, Asian destiny: the Australian Council of Churches’ activity in Asia, 1950-1965

Western heritage, Asian destiny:

the Australian Council of Churches’ activity in Asia, 1950 – 1965.

Meredith Lake

(Department of History, University of Sydney)


In May 1950, in the immediate aftermath of the second Dutch military action, a young and seemingly indefatigable Congregational minister from Sydney travelled to Indonesia. John Garrett’s mission was to convey the goodwill of the Australian Council of Churches (ACC), of which he was then General Secretary, to the newly formed Council of Indonesian Churches. The trip was the first undertaken by a leader of the ACC to one of the ‘new nations of Asia’ and marked the beginning of a period of substantial interaction between the ACC and Asian Christians and church councils.

The history of the ACC’s involvement with Asian churches during the 1950s and early 1960s can be understood in terms of Australia’s changing place in the Asia region. Between the late 1940s and the 1960s, as David Walker has outlined, the ‘cultivation of goodwill’ with Asia became ‘something of a mantra’ among white Australian journalists, intellectuals and politicians.[1] Although the stereotyping of Asians as criminally motivated, devious and destructive persisted in popular literature, the Columbo Plan, which brought many Asian students to Australia during the 1950s, positively influenced people’s perceptions on a community level. And although Australia’s immigration policy was administered in a manner that largely excluded Asian migrants, White Australia remaining official until the early 1970s, policy makers and commentators began exchanging the notion of ‘yellow peril’ for that of ‘neighbour’.[2] Asian decolonisation was one of the primary reasons for this shift and confronted the Australian Government with the necessity of negotiating new relationships with its newly independent counterparts. During the same period, the ACC was prompted to rethink its religious vocation in terms of both its responsibilities to the Asian churches and its approach to Australia’s political activities in the region.

The ACC in the region and the world

The Australian Council of Churches was formed in 1946 as the Australian Council for the World Council of Churches. Its first President was Howard Mowll, the Anglican Archbishop of the conservative evangelical Diocese of Sydney. Among the others deeply involved in the ACC’s formative years were: Alan Walker, the charismatic Sydney Methodist minister and evangelist; F. H. Farrar, the unordained Secretary of the Baptist National Service Auxiliary; Rev. Dr A. C. Hill, the South Australian President-General of the Baptist Union of Australia; Congregational clergyman C. Denis Ryan; the Methodist B. R. Wyllie; and Presbyterian Rev. Thomas McDougall.

By 1950, when Garrett made his trip to Indonesia, the ACC was the most ecumenical organisation in the country, involving all the major and several of the minor protestant denominations. It embraced Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches during the 1960s and 1970s and officially enfolded the Catholic Church in 1994. From its foundation, the ACC’s primary goal was to develop the ecumenical movement in Australia and build the international fellowship of Christian churches.[3] It sought to do this first by demonstrating the nature and value of ecumenical activity in areas including evangelism, inter-church aid, education, and immigration.[4] Mission was also recognised as central to the churches’ vocation and hence to ecumenical activity, though it was not until 1965, when the National Missionary Council of Australia (NMCA) integrated with the ACC, that it had a Department of Mission. Throughout the period covered by this paper, though, the ACC and many of its member churches were prompted to re-evaluate the idea of mission and its nature and place in the life of the church.

Secondly, the ACC sought to develop Australian and international ecumenicalism by actively supporting and participating in the World Council of Churches (WCC), formed in 1948. Its leaders hoped to see the ‘lofty ideals … and dreams’ of the World Council practically expressed in the ‘local sphere.’[5]In the years immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War, though, there was uncertainty surrounding just what ‘local sphere’ meant.

At the time of the ACC’s formation, Australia’s political relations with other nations were undergoing significant change. It seemed to the ACC’s leaders, as it did to an increasing number of Australians generally, that Europe was no longer the primary place where Australia ‘s interests were defined and defended. They recognised the ‘necessity’ of ‘initiating and maintaining relations with Churches and Councils in other countries such as the Pacific areas, China , USA.’[6]

For the Australian Council of Churches, the changes in national relationships occasioned by the Second World War were accompanied by a changing frame of reference for defining Australia’s place in the world. This is clearest in the ACC’s response to the need for post-war reconstruction. As Thomas McDougall put it, the ACC agreed to support and contribute to the process of reconstruction in Europe, but expressed the desire ‘to see [the] relief and reconstruction programme extended to Asia and the Pacific.’ After all, the ACC explained to the World Council of Churches, ‘we in Australia look more towards the Pacific and the East.’[7] In the immediate post-war context of its formation then, the ACC acknowledged Asia as an important reference point. However, there remained a considerable degree of ambiguity about Australia’s location in relation to the region. Even as the ACC expressed the importance of Asia, its leaders persisted in referring to it as ‘the East’ – a term only sensible when applied from a European perspective. It would be several years yet before Australian Christians exchanged notions of ‘the Far East ‘ for the geographically more appropriate ‘near north.’[8]

John Garrett in Indonesia, 1950

It was in this context of uncertain politics and ambiguous identities that the ACC’s General Secretary, John Garrett, went to Indonesia in mid-May 1950. Garrett travelled on the invitation of the Council of Indonesian Churches, a body comprised almost entirely – though not exclusively – of churches which had grown up under the wing of the Dutch Protestants. These churches, according to Garrett, were seeking to ‘diversify their contacts’ in the wake of the collapse of the colonial government.[9]

During his month in Indonesia, Garrett travelled throughout Java, Borneo and northern Sulawesi. He spoke with theological students, attended a variety of church services and met with ‘representatives of all the various Christian congregations.’ On each of these occasions he most typically ‘sat around in a circle’ with people and discussed ‘the World Council [of Churches] and the Australian and Indonesian churches.’[10]

John Garrett’s trip had several important consequences. First, it enabled the kind of mutually supportive relationships upon which the ACC’s increasing involvement in Asia was built. On an organisational level, the friendship between the Australian Council and its Indonesian counterpart was strengthened by the former’s enthusiasm in taking up the latter’s invitation. Personal exchanges also pointed to the potential for deep empathy between Australian and Asian Christians. After visiting a congregation in Medarie one day, Garrett made a point of sharing his impressions with the minister: ‘[I said that] their problem was essentially the same as ours [in Australia] – how to be living, witnessing congregations among people who cared nothing for the Lord Jesus Christ or else openly attacked him.’ To this, the Indonesian minister replied ‘yes’, adding that ‘he felt strengthened in his work by the visit and interest of another Christian from another country.’ [11] The two men then prayed the Lord’s Prayer, expressing their fellowship in the spiritually intimate act of kneeling together before their God. Through such experiences, the trip laid a relational foundation for future interaction and co-operation between Australian and Asian Christians.

Garrett’s comments at Medarie hint at the second consequence of his trip to Indonesia: the beginning of a re-interpretation of Australia’s spiritual condition in terms of the issues exercising Asia. Garrett’s description of the problems facing the Indonesian congregations as ‘essentially the same’ as those facing the Australian churches, indicates that by the middle of his trip, he had begun to think of the two countries in comparative terms. His interaction with Indonesian Christians had given birth to a realisation of the common challenges to, and shared purposes of, the Australian and Asian churches. One early result was that Garrett used his experiences in Indonesia to inform his assessment of the situation of the church – and even the spiritual characteristics of the general population – in his own country. The trip prompted him to rethink the challenges facing Christians in Australia.

Thirdly, Garrett’s trip turned the Council’s eyes to the reality of decolonisation and the challenges to the church of new-found national independence. This is not to say that the leaders of the Australian Council of Churches were previously unaware of the social and political changes taking place in Asia. John Garrett, like many other ACC members who had come from the ranks of the Student Christian Movement, had been affected by ‘the process of decolonisation in Asia’ years before his Indonesia trip. Through the World Student Christian Federation, with which he had been involved as a university student, he had become friends with people of his own age who were ‘involved in the independence of India’ and had developed a general ‘concern’ for the independence of colonised peoples across Asia.[12] His trip was significant not only because it raised the general question of decolonisation, but also because it provoked the ACC to consider how the Australian churches should respond to the rapid social change specifically taking place in Indonesia.

Garrett’s experiences prompted the emergence of a sense of proximity – indeed a feeling of neighbourliness and shared purpose – between Australian Christians and those in Indonesia. This new relationship had important results: it laid the foundation for the re-interpretation of Australia’s spiritual state and it directed the attention of the Australian church to the struggle for independence in Asia. In combination, these developments provoked the question of vocation for the Australian churches, at home and in the Asian region. As the ACC found, answering that question would involve defining and conducting its activities in a manner that was socially and politically appropriate to its context.

As soon as Garrett arrived home, the great discussion began. Garrett told the ACC that ‘ Indonesia needs Australian capital, engineers, businessmen, administrative helpers, doctors [and] Christian workers for the churches.’ ‘Above all, she needs practical sympathy’ in the form of ‘disinterested aid.’[13] Garrett envisioned that the Australian churches would play a central role in the provision of such aid: ‘We must learn to understand the joy of liberation and the hope of social justice these millions of people to our north have found in the last few years. I hope the Christian churches will lead the way.’[14]

Although the ACC generally responded ‘favourably’ to Garrett when he shared his experiences with them, members of the executive were uneasy at the direction he seemed to be indicating. They considered enthusiasm for Indonesian independence outside the limits of the ACC’s interests and responsibilities. ‘This is politics, not the church,’ they told him after his first public statement on the subject. ‘You have to keep faith separate from political judgement.’[15]

Garrett remained convinced that politics and Christian action could be mixed successfully. By the time of the ACC’s annual meeting eight months later, his ideas about the contribution Australians could make in Indonesia had crystallised into a plea for Christian leadership in a time of substantial social and political change: ‘The churches have a very important part to play in promoting objective understanding of the complex cultures, political aspirations and religions to our north.’ He told the meeting that ‘the door is wide open for churches and mission boards to send people and supplies, and to receive students and others as special missions to this country.’[16]

As a result of his Indonesia trip, Garrett had begun to associate the church’s missionary responsibility with the provision of leadership in sympathising with liberation movements. Mission, he was quickly convinced, must be tied up with attention to social justice. In this respect, his response prefigured the effects of the Australian Council of Churches’ increasing participation in the Asian region throughout the following decade and a half.

The East Asian Christian Conference, Prapat 1957

In the ten to fifteen years after Garrett’s trip to Indonesia, peoples in Asia experienced upheavals including the consolidation of communism in China, the outbreak of war in Korea, the Malayan Emergency and the eruption of the Vietnam conflict. Throughout this period, the Australian Council of Churches committed an increasing amount of its attention and energies to the region. Prominent individuals continued to make good will trips. Groups identified and discussed the issues raised by the instability of surrounding countries. In 1951, a conference of Christian youth was convened to deal with the subject of ‘Australia ‘s responsibilities towards Asia, with special emphasis on the Church.’ In 1956, during the visit of the World Council of Churches executive, the Victorian Branch of the ACC held a day seminar on ‘Australia and the new nations of Asia.’ These events suggest that the 1950s were busy with activities related to understanding and fulfilling that responsibility. Among those who moved in ecumenical circles at the time, it was widely recognised that Australians had ‘a special responsibility to our near north.’[17] The heart of that responsibility, as John Garrett put it, was ‘to be effective partners of new nation[s] and [particularly of] the emerging churches.’[18]

By 1957, enthusiasm for Australian involvement with the churches of Asia had focused on what was perhaps the decade’s most important ecumenical event in the area: the inaugural assembly of the East Asian Christian Conference (EACC). Held at Prapat, Indonesia, the EACC was the first occasion on which a group of WCC member churches assembled to form a regional organisation, a development which, in the words of one excited delegate, ‘usher[ed] in a completely new ecumenical era.’[19] As an assembly convened to consider the common evangelistic task of the participating churches, national councils and missionary organisations, and to establish ‘an ecumenical missionary council for all Asia,’ it was ‘of tremendous missionary significance.’[20] As an event held at the heart of a decade of social and political disruption, it also provoked challenging questions about the role and responsibility of the Christian churches in situations of rapid and even revolutionary change.

The nature of the ACC’s involvement in the Conference reflects several of the issues to which Garrett’s trip had drawn attention seven years earlier: Australia ‘s relationship with Asia and the relevance of political liberation to the church’s missionary task. It exposes not only the point to which the ACC’s thinking on those subjects had developed by 1957, but also the ways in which the ACC continued to define its own position and identity in the region, and to work through changes in its own international relationships and responsibilities.

Australia’s place in Asia

When the plans for the Conference were announced in Australia, they ignited much interest. ACC President C. Denis Ryan declared that involvement in the EACC would be of great importance to ‘the increasing contacts being established between Australia and Asia.’ The executive promptly requested that the World Council include Australians among its appointed representatives, clearly assuming that it would participate as part of the World Council delegation rather than as an Asian council in its own right.[21] This response reflected their view of the ACC as ‘a Christian council in a western nation close to Asia,’ whose task was to play a ‘special part in the integration of Asia to the west and vice versa.’[22] It both affirmed the ACC’s interest in and support for the Asian churches and expressed its sense of being at the same time distinct from them.

When the churches in East Asia issued an invitation to Australia and New Zealand to join the EACC, the ACC’s understanding of Australia as a country merely ‘close to Asia ‘ began to change. The Asian churches ‘recognised that geographically [Australia and New Zealand] belong to Asia and that differences of race and colour do not matter in Christ’s church.’[23] Their leaders considered it appropriate for the ACC to take its own place in the Conference and, rather than attend as an observer, participate as a member. The ACC’s acceptance of the invitation marked a significant development in its understanding of its place in the region.

During and after the Conference, the ACC persisted in describing its role as one of mediation between Asia and the west. However, this language acquired fresh inflexions that suggest the ACC’s awareness of both its new-found partnership in the Asian ecumenical movement and the post-colonial context in which that movement pursued its goals. As the returned Australian delegates put it, the ACC must ‘serve as the link between … churches [in Asia ] and the Christian churches of the west’, – but not merely because of the accident of geography. They must do so because the western churches ‘can no longer hold their paternal relationships with these rapidly growing [Asian] churches.’[24]The Australian Council of Churches could play a role that European councils, tainted by their imperial associations, could not. After Prapat, its leaders reformulated the ACC’s relationship with Asia in terms of a shared post-colonial context. By the late 1950s, they articulated their task of mediation from the position of a participating member of the EACC, as a council that, despite its western cultural tradition, was moving into closer alignment with Asia.

In 1950, John Garrett’s interaction with Indonesian Christians had caused him to recognise the common challenges and shared purposes of the Australian and Indonesian churches. By 1957, the degree of interaction between Asian and Australian Christians had risen from one man’s goodwill visit to the level of a major international conference. With this increase in interaction, deep recognition and mutual empathy also blossomed. By the end of the conference at Prapat, the ACC’s primary point of reference was no longer its ‘western heritage’ but its ‘Asian destiny.’[25]

Christian responsibility

The first East Asian Christian Conference was held in a general situation of disruption that provoked developments in its participants’ understanding of their Christian responsibilities in the world. The concept of ‘Christian responsibility’ was fundamental to the theology and program of the World Council of Churches and its national affiliates during the 1950s. It was informed in the first place by the WCC’s founding value for ‘practical Christian action’, which in the post-war context of its formation involved ‘work for prisoners of war, refugees, and displaced persons … Christian reconstruction and inter-church aid.’[26] From the early 1950s, the WCC’s developing theology of the church’s vocation in a world undergoing rapid change – substantially a response to the upheavals accompanying the rise of nationalist movements across Africa and Asia – was also increasingly important. The effect of this developing theology on the notion of ‘Christian responsibility’ was a radicalising one: the concept of ‘social service’ which had underpinned the WCC’s post-war relief programs, had, by the 1970s, been largely replaced by a highly political idea of ‘social action’ which encompassed ‘denouncing enslaving systems’ and ‘announcing the liberation of humanity’.[27]

The Prapat Conference was held in the midst of this transformation of meaning. Though liberation theology was still emerging, the political context of the conference raised, in a very immediate manner, the issue of common Christian action towards areas of rapid social change. For the Australian delegates to the Conference, this complicated their missionary goals and ambitions with respect to Asia. As a prominent member of the National Missionary Council and the ACC, Cecil Gribble, put it, ‘the most significant emphasis in the missionary thinking of Australians’ had long been ‘upon South East Asia’.[28]At the time of the Prapat conference, however, ‘mission’ was something of a dirty word. It conjured up an image of western Christians whose work in Asia was for decades tainted by the imperialist enterprises of their countries of origin. For many of the Asian participants at Prapat, the International Missionary Council, one of the convening bodies of the EACC,’symbolise[d] … an era of missions which suggest[ed] inequality and with which they [were] very impatient.’[29] The ‘younger churches of Asia ‘ gathered at the conference – themselves often products of that very era of mission – were ‘restive about ecclesiastical colonialism’ and sought ‘equality of relations with the older churches.’[30]If the language of mission and the involvement of the International Missionary Council were to be retained, then it had to be in a manner which ‘acknowledged Asian feeling’ in this respect. [31]

These issues placed the Australian delegates to the EACC in a complicated position. Like the delegates from European nations, they were keen to maintain an overtly missionary character for the ecumenical evangelism council proposed to the Conference. They did not want to see ‘the language and concept of mission’ simply replaced by ‘the lesser language and concept of inter-church aid’.[32] Like their Asian partners, though, they were also keen to separate the activity of ‘mission’ from its previous colonial overtones and bring it into line with the WCC’s value for liberation. In recognising that the political conditions of the time intruded into the very heart of ecumenical Christian mission in the Asia region, they faced afresh the issue of the church’s vocation in a situation of rapid change. Their involvement with Asian churches at Prapat, Indonesia – as did John Garrett’s in the same country seven years before – infused their missionary concern for the spread of the gospel in the region with a ‘strong feeling of urgent Christian responsibility towards the people [in South East Asia]’.[33] The ACC’s leaders’ realisation of the significance of decolonisation for the people and churches in the region was one of the most important results of its involvement in the first EACC.

The impact of the East Asian Christian Conference in Australia

Upon the return of the Australian delegates from Prapat, the ACC convened a provisional Division of Studies membership with the task of preparing a report on ‘common Christian responsibility towards areas of Rapid Social Change’. The investigation was particularly designed with ‘our responsibility towards our Asian neighbours’ in mind and comprised an enquiry into ‘the real nature of the problems confronting Asia’ and the scope of legitimate Christian responses to them.[34] The issues encompassed by the study included the impact of the west, problems of village and rural life, problems of industrialisation and urbanisation and the question of responsible citizenship. These issues were considered relevant not only to the ACC’s post-Prapat involvement in Asia, but also to the ACC’s own domestic context. Analytical categories applied to Asia were also applied to Australia.


Just as John Garrett’s sense of shared purpose with Indonesian church leaders prompted him to re-conceptualise the spiritual condition of Australia’s population, the ACC’s identification with the Asian participants in the East Asian Christian Conference led it to re-conceptualise the need to evangelise Australian society. The Reverend Harry Daniel, one of the leaders of the Indian National Council of Churches, recognised this development when he visited Australia in 1959. In a speech to the ACC Annual Meeting, he said: ‘I am quite convinced that it is as we discern our mission in each of our particular countries and try to fulfil them [that] there will be … real co-operation between the countries of Asia, Australia and New Zealand’.[35] His words were a declaration that the ACC’s relationship with the Asian churches was inseparably linked to and informed by its domestic strategy for evangelism. Remarkably, co-operation with Asian Christians involved presenting ‘Jesus Christ as the only truth and hope’ to Australians.[36]

As the 1950s unravelled into the 1960s, presenting Australians with Jesus proved an increasingly difficult task. As David Hilliard has shown, the prevailing mood in the Australian churches up to and including the ‘long 1950s’, was one of ‘confidence gained from the knowledge that clergy and religious institutions had a respected position in society.’[37] Stuart Piggin has suggested that the 1950s, climaxing in the Billy Graham Crusades of 1959, was ‘the most successful decade’ in the history of evangelical Protestantism in Australia.[38] In the 1960s though, the high tide of post-war Protestantism began to recede. Wider social upheaval coincided with a substantial decline in the membership of the mainstream protestant churches. Support for missionary work dropped, young people abandoned Christian youth organisations and church leaders were divided over the value of secularist theology and situation ethics.[39]

In this context, the perceived relatedness between the ACC’s Asian context and its domestic missionary task has some important implications. First, it meant that the question that dominated the East Asian Christian Conference – that of the church’s missionary vocation in situations of rapid social change – was similarly asked in the Australian context. Methodist leader Alan Walker, a heavily involved member of the ACC, was quick to recognise the need of Australian Christians to adapt their evangelistic strategies to the times, just as Asian Christians had. In 1961 Walker explained simply that ‘the Churches must come to grips with the changing social patterns [in Australia] and find a way to keep the primary purpose of Sunday – worship – relevant to Australian people’.[40]

The connectedness between the ACC’s Asian context and domestic missionary task also meant that the EACC’s approach to mission in the region – embedded as it was in the World Council of Churches’ radicalising notion of Christian responsibility – decisively influenced the ACC’s approach to mission in its immediate domestic context. This was particularly pronounced after the second East Asian Christian Conference assembly, held in Bangkok, 1964. The ACC sent more delegates than it had to Prapat, eagerly anticipating the second EACC as an opportunity to continue working through the twin issues of Christian responsibility and Christian mission. As the ACC saw it, ‘one of the major emphases of EACC work after the Bangkok Assembly will be on the responsibility of the Christian community within the total human community. This includes questions of the Christian style of life and Christian presence in the world, preparing people for the world and equipping them for ministry in local congregations’. [41]

The ACC’s participation at the Bangkok conference, like its more enduring relationship with the EACC through the Rev. Harvey Perkins’ involvement as an EACC staff member during the late 1960s and 1970s, prompted it to ask these questions of itself. In 1965, for example, the ACC devoted three days of its annual meeting to the discussion of a national Christian strategy concerning ‘the mission of the church in Australia’.[42] In 1966, Harvey Perkins, then ACC General Secretary, identified the ‘major issue’ confronting Christians in Australia as ‘the need for more Christian presence beyond the institutional structures of the Churches’. He considered it essential for the Australian churches to find new ways of both communicating the gospel and living a life that authenticated its message.[43] The ACC’s recognition of the importance of developing a model of mission appropriate to the society in which it operated certainly mirrored the EACC’s emphasis on developing a missionary strategy resonant with responsible Christian living in a context of rapid social change.[44] This suggests that by the mid 1960s, after fifteen years of interaction with the churches of Asia, the ACC had begun to think about its task in Australia in similar terms to its task in Asia .

Political action

The Australian Council of Churches’ changing perception of its place in and responsibility towards Asia, in addition to shaping its approach to its missionary task, impacted upon the Council’s view of Australia’s political position in the region. ACC leaders, like ‘many’ in the Asian churches, grew hopeful that Australia would recognise its unique relationship to Asia and its degree of distinction from the west by taking ‘its own line in international affairs’.[45]

The ACC’s thinking on Australia’s political position in the Asian region was informed by concerns similar to those which shaped its approach to mission. The region’s ‘general state … of political and military change’ from the mid 1950s and well into the 1960s, ensured that the notion of Christian responsibility in areas of rapid change remained in the foreground. In the early 1960s, the Australian government’s response to ‘hot spots’ in Laos, South Vietnam and Malaysia provoked the ACC to state its preferred policy. It acknowledged that ‘for Christians, committed to honesty in dealings and loyalty to commitments, it would be a difficult thing to adopt [isolationism] as a real alternative’. The ACC considered it better to adopt a policy of ‘friendship with everyone … which involves treading a difficult path when different friends want different things’. [46] The ACC’s political gaze was refracted through a commitment to pursuing its mission by living and acting Christianly.

The general political circumstances of the period and especially the collapse of colonialism also shaped the ACC’s views. As a basic principle of Australia’s involvement in the region, the ACC was keen to avoid ‘anything that suggests colonialism and Asian inferiority’. It was in this respect that, following the Menzies’ Government’s commitment of troops to Malaysia (1964) and Borneo (1965) the ACC emphasised the need ‘to make a greater effort to understand the peoples of South East Asia, to stand with them in working for peace, stability, welfare and justice in our area of the world, and to avoid language which inflames emotions and develops attitudes of hostility’. The respect and good opinion that the ACC considered fundamental to Australia ‘s relationship with its Asian neighbours, should, in the ACC’s view, underpin all aspects of Australia’s international dealings.[47]

By the middle of the 1960s, Australia’s relationship with Indonesia had declined to the point of hot conflict between the two.[48] The Australian Council of Churches’ relationship with Indonesian Christians, though, was striking in its difference: in 1962, a small ACC group visited Indonesia , preparing the way for the visit of a 45-member work team the following June. In February 1964, ACC President Bert Wyllie and two senior staff members made a goodwill trip to the archipelago and invited the leaders of the Indonesian National Council of Churches to make a return visit to Australia. In each of these activities, as well as its consistent provision of practical aid, the ACC demonstrated a concern to maintain an open dialogue with the Indonesian churches and to develop the friendship that already existed between them.[49] The Australian Council of Churches’ continuing efforts to work with and for the Christians of Indonesia – despite the general climate of hostility between the two nations – is evidence of the significant degree to which the ACC’s developing partnership with the Asian churches over the preceding decade and a half had infused it with a sense of unity with its Asian co-religionists, which in turn shaped its international outlook and relationships. The ACC’s approach to politics, as to mission, reflected its belief that Australia’s interests were affected by and bound up with what happened in Asia.


In 1998, Stuart Piggin suggested that the history of Christianity in Australia can be usefully studied in terms of the ‘reflexive impact’ of Australians’ overseas missionary activity.[50] Although he described several of the consequences of involvement in foreign missions for the character of Christianity in Australia, he did not include among them the effect of such involvement on the very notions of ‘Australian’ and ‘foreign’.

From the activity of the Australian Council of Churches in Asia during the 1950s and early 1960s, it is apparent that overseas involvement deeply impacted upon the Council’s perception of its place in the region. Interaction with Asian Christians and church councils caused the ACC to exchange notions of the ‘Far East ‘ for those of ‘the near north’. Its participation in the East Asian Christian Conference, in particular, provoked a shift in its self-perception. The ACC came to see itself less as a western council in geographical proximity to Asia, than as a council with Asian concerns and an Asian destiny.

These changes in the ACC’s identity and outlook had profound effects. They caused the ACC to reconsider the meaning of mission in situations of decolonisation and to refashion its conception of, and approach to, its domestic missionary task. Particularly through the importation of concepts such as ‘Christian responsibility’ and ‘rapid social change’, it further caused the ACC to pursue a view of politics in substantial disagreement with the prevailing policies of the time. By engendering new notions of what it meant to be Australian, the ACC’s involvement with the Christians and churches of Asia during the 1950s and early 1960s went beyond ‘impacting’ upon Australian Christianity: for the ACC it redefined it.

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This paper was researched with the assistance of a National Library of Australia Norman McCann Summer Scholarship. An earlier version was presented at the First Biennial Trans Tasman Missionary Conference: ANZ Missions at Home and Abroad, Australian National University, October 2004, and made available on the conference website: http://rspas.anu.edu.au/pah/TransTasman/papers.

[1] David Walker, ‘Australia’s Asian Futures’, in Martyn Lyons and Penny Russell (eds), Australia’s History: Themes and DebatesUNSW Press, Sydney, 2005, 63-80. Back

[2] David Walker, ‘Australia’s Asian Futures’, in Martyn Lyons and Penny Russell (eds), Australia’s History: Themes and Debates , UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005, 63-80. Back

[3] Report of the meeting held 11 July 1944, series 7 folder 11, Frank Engel Papers (FEP), manuscript 9073 (hereafter NLA ms 9073), National Library of Australia, Canberra . Back

[4] Report of the Executive of the Australian Section of the World Council of Churches, 1950-51, box 1, Australian Council of Churches (ACC), manuscript 7645 (hereafter NLA ms 7645), National Library of Australia, Canberra. Back

[5] Report of the Executive of the Australian Section of the World Council of Churches, 1947-1948, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[6] Report of the meeting held 11 July 1944 , series 7 folder 11, FEP, NLA ms 9073. Back

[7] ‘At Amsterdam, 1 September 1948 ,’ notes by Thomas McDougall, box 32, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[8] South East Asia and the Pacific: address by C F Gribble to the Plenary session of the World Council of Churches Consultative Committee, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[9] John Garrett, interviewed by Meredith Lake, 28 June 2004 , tape in possession of interviewer. Back

[10] Travel diary by John Garrett, Sunday 4 June 1950, NLA ms 7645 box 32. Back

[11] Travel diary by John Garrett, Thursday 18 May 1950, NLA ms 7645 box 32. Back

[12] John Garrett, interviewed by Meredith Lake, 28 June 2004. Back

[13] Statement by John Garrett on his return to Australia after a month’s goodwill visit to Indonesia, c. June 1950, box 32, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[14] Statement by John Garrett on his return to Australia after a month’s goodwill visit to Indonesia, c. June 1950, box 32, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[15] John Garrett, interviewed by Meredith Lake, 28 June 2004. Back

[16] Report of the executive committee of the Australian Council for the World Council of Churches, February 1951, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[17] Minutes of the 10th Annual Meeting of the Australian Council for the World Council of Churches, July 31 – August 3, 1956, box 1 , ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[18] John Garrett, interviewed by Meredith Lake, 28 June 2004. Back

[19] Minutes of the 12th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 10-14 February 1958, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[20] Minutes of the 12th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 10-14 February 1958, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[21] Minutes of the 10th Annual Meeting of the Australian Council for the World Council of Churches, July 31 – August 3, 1956, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[22] Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Australian Council for the World Council of Churches, 12-15 February 1951, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[23] Message to the churches from the Annual Meeting of the Australian Council, c. February 1958, box 67, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[24] Report on the Prapat conference, 18-27 March 1957, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[25] A message from the Annual Meeting, minutes of the 12th Annual Meeting, 10-14 February 1958, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[26] Report on Amsterdam by T McDougall, delivered to a meeting at the Sydney Town Hall, 2 December 1948, box 32, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[27] Message to the Churches, World Council of Churches Christian Education assembly, 14-21 July 1971, box 35, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[28] South East Asia and the Pacific: address by C. F. Gribble to the Plenary session of the World Council of Churches Consultative Committee, n.d., box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[29] Report of the Prapat conference, 18-27 March 1957, box 1 , ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[30] Minutes of the 12 th Annual Meeting, 10-14 February 1958, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[31] Report of the Prapat conference, 18-27 March 1957, box 1 , ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[32] Report of the Prapat conference, 18-27 March 1957, box 1 , ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[33] South East Asia and the Pacific: address by C. F. Gribble to the Plenary session of the World Council of Churches Consultative Committee, n.d., box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[34] Report of the Provisional committee for the Division of Studies, February 1957, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645.Back

[35] Rev. Harry Daniel, speech to the Annual Meeting of the ACC, 1959, box 67, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[36] ‘Asia Today’ paper presented to the ACC Annual Meeting, 8 February 1959, box 67, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[37] David Hilliard, ‘Church, Family and Sexuality in Australia in the 1950s’, in John Murphy and Judith Smart (eds),The Forgotten Fifties: Australian Historical Studies, no. 109 (1997), p. 136 and David Hilliard, ‘Popular Religion in Australia in the 1950s: A Study of Adelaide and Brisbane’, Journal of Religious History, vol. 16, no. 2 (1988), pp. 219-235. Back

[38] Stuart Piggin, Evangelical Christianity in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996, 125f. See further S. Barton Babbage and Ian Siggins, Light Beneath the Cross: The Story of Billy Graham’s Crusade in Australia, Kingswood, Melbourne, 1960. Back

[39] David Hilliard, ‘The Religious Crisis of the 1960s: the Experience of the Australian Churches’, Journal of Religious History , vol. 21, no. 2, (1997) pp. 209-227; Ian Breward, A History of the Australian Churches , Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993, chapter 12; Bruce Wilson, Can God Survive in Australia? Albatross Books, Sydney, 1983, chapter 1; Roger C. Thompson, Religion in Australia: A History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, chapter 6. Back

[40] Press release, 1 March 1961, box 67, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[41] Executive committee report, 18th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 6 -11 February 1964, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. The Australian representatives to the EACC assembly in Bangkok were G. T. Sanbell, B. R. Wyllie, Harvey L. Perkins, Frank G. Engel, Lillian Wells, Wendy Dowch-g and Vaughan Hinton: Report of the executive committee, 19th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 11-16 February 1965, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[42] Report of the executive committee to the 19th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 11-16 February 1965, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[43] General Secretary’s report to the ACC, 20th Annual Meeting, 24-27 January 1966, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645.Back

[44] General Secretary’s report to the ACC, 20th Annual Meeting, 24-27 January 1966, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645.Back

[45] ‘Message to the churches from the Annual Meeting of the Australian Council,’ c. February 1958, box 67, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[46] Report on national and international affairs, 19th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 11-16 February 1965, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[47] Report on national and international affairs, 19 th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 11-16 February 1965, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645. Back

[48] Australia’s uneasy relationship with post-colonial Indonesia had been strained by the latter’s expulsion of westernised organisations such as Rotary and the Masonic lodges, as well its billion-dollar arms deal with the Soviet Union. In October 1964, Australian troops were sent to Malaysia to combat Indonesian soldiers who had infiltrated Malaysia’s borders. Back

[49] Throughout 1965, the Commission of Inter-church aid supported financially a social worker and an engineer in Indonesia, in addition to dispatching material aid. Inter-Church Aid report, 19th Annual Meeting of the ACC, 11-16 February 1965, box 1, ACC, NLA ms 7645.Back

[50] Stuart Piggin, ‘The reflexive impact of missions on Australian Christianity’, in Mark Hutchinson and Geoff Treloar (eds), This Gospel Shall be Preached: Essays on the Australian Contribution to World Mission, Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, Sydney, 1998. Back