Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Barber, George Calvert (1893–1967)

by E. F. Osborn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

George Calvert Barber (1893-1967), theologian and Methodist Church leader, was born on 24 January 1893 at Bendigo, Victoria, son of Henry Bride Barber, Primitive Methodist minister, and his wife Laura Elizabeth, née Pickett, both English born. Four of Calvert's uncles were Methodist ministers in Britain and his mother was a well-known local preacher. Educated at Wesley College, Melbourne, where he won an exhibition in the senior year, he took a job with the Union Bank of Australia and qualified as an accountant. While working in Sydney, he became convinced of his vocation to the ministry.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 10 February 1916, Barber served on the Western Front as a stretcher-bearer with the 5th Field Ambulance. After being wounded in the left leg on 2 November 1917, he was hospitalized in England. On 20 November 1918 he sailed for Australia. In 1919 Barber entered Queen's College, University of Melbourne, and graduated (B.A., 1922) with first-class honours in philosophy and the Laurie prize. Sturdy in build, he was a member of the college football team.

In 1922 Barber began his ministry at Nyah and later served at Toorak, in Hobart and at Geelong. On 24 March 1926 he married Mavis Gertrude Bond in the Methodist Church, Gordon, Sydney. At the University of London he completed a Ph.D. (1938) in comparative religion with a thesis on 'The concept of sin in the great religions of the East'. He entered enthusiastically into the life of the English Methodist Church and subsequently maintained contact with many of its leaders.

Succeeding A. E. Albiston in 1937 as professor of theology at Queen's College, Melbourne, Barber was to hold the position until his retirement in 1959 and to have a profound influence on men preparing for the Methodist ministry. During this period he held numerous offices in the church and community. He was president of Wesley College's council (1939-58), the Melbourne College of Divinity (1946) and the Victoria and Tasmania Conference of the Methodist Church. As registrar of the Melbourne College of Divinity from 1947, he improved its academic standards and extended its range of operations. In 1951-54 he was president-general of the Methodist Church of Australasia. With Rev. Dr A. H. Wood, he was prominent in the Methodist Church's movement towards union with the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches: because of frequent delays, chiefly over the short-lived proposal for an episcopacy, Barber did not see his hope fulfilled.

His period of leadership coincided with the rapid growth of churches in the 1940s and 1950s. Skilful in debate, he was one of the last, great, church statesmen before the secular 1960s and the age of consensus in all things. Apart from his teaching, Barber's most valuable gift to the church was his leadership and administration; behind that lay a theological understanding which gave depth and substance to his public preaching and shaped the Australian Church in two decisive decades. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1958 and became a fellow of Queen's College.

As a theologian, Barber rejected the liberalism of the early decades of the twentieth century and declared—in the Reformed tradition—the dominance of the word of God. While sharing the insights of such continental thinkers as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, he modified their theology along British lines. His work made Neo-orthodoxy, as it was called, more acceptable and influential in Australia than its European expression could have been. Because the study of comparative religion suffered serious neglect after the 1930s, Barber's special interest in that area was never fully developed. While chairman (1939-49) of the Australian Student Christian Movement and president (1952-53) of the Australian council of the World Council of Churches, he formed close friendships with theologians from other denominations. He died on 31 July 1967 at Heidelberg and was cremated; his wife, two daughters and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Minutes of the Victoria and Tasmania Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia, 1919-67
  • Minutes of the General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia, 1951-54
  • Spectator (Melbourne), 9 Aug 1967
  • Barber papers and sermons (privately held).

Citation details

E. F. Osborn, 'Barber, George Calvert (1893–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barber-george-calvert-9423/text16565, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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