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Penman, David John (1936–1989)

by Colin Holden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

David Penman, by Tony Miller, 1985

David Penman, by Tony Miller, 1985

Monash University, 1817

David John Penman (1936-1989), Anglican archbishop, was born on 8 August 1936 in Wellington, New Zealand, son of New Zealand-born parents John James Penman, civil servant, and his wife Irene May, née Foreman.  The family were nominal Anglicans, and David’s exposure to the church was initially limited to Sunday school attendance.  Educated at Hutt Valley High School, in 1955 he attended Wellington Teachers’ Training College, where he majored in physical education.  He taught in primary and secondary schools in 1957-58 and completed an arts degree part time at the University of Canterbury (BA, 1962).

Following an intense conversion experience at a university mission, Penman offered for the Anglican ministry in 1957.  He studied at Christchurch College (LTh, 1961), was made deacon (1961) and ordained priest (1962), serving a curacy (1961-64) at Christ Church, Wanganui.  Involvement with the Church Missionary Society League of Youth fostered his sense of missionary vocation.  On 12 May 1962 at St David’s Anglican Church, Naenae, he married Jean Frances Newson, a schoolteacher, who was also committed to missionary service.

Travelling to Melbourne in 1965, the Penmans prepared for missionary work at St Andrew’s Hall, the CMS training college.  They were posted to Pakistan at the end of the year.  Learning Urdu and presenting theses on the sociology of religious minorities in Islamic societies at the University of Karachi (MA, 1969; PhD, 1977), Penman undertook pastoral work among students.  In 1972 they moved to Beirut where he ministered to university students from many countries.  Both situations encouraged him to cultivate an ecumenical approach.

Appointed principal of St Andrew’s Hall, Penman was back in Melbourne in 1976, but returned to New Zealand in 1979 to become vicar of All Saints’ Church, Palmerston North.  His global, inter-faith perspective meant that All Saints’ became a major centre for anti-apartheid protest during the 1981 tour of the South African rugby union football team, the 'Springboks'.  Encouraging liturgical change, he also devoted long-accumulated financial resources to improving the church buildings.

In 1981 Archbishop Robert Dann of Melbourne nominated Penman as an assistant bishop with responsibility for the western region of the diocese.  Consecrated at St Paul’s Cathedral on 30 April 1982, Penman quickly captured public attention with statements on poverty, aid and refugees, unemployment, multiculturalism and the environment.  His profile as a community leader was heightened by his work in the wake of the 'Ash Wednesday' bushfires in 1983.  On Dann’s retirement in 1983, the board appointed by the diocesan synod to elect his successor became deadlocked between two local candidates.  Penman was then nominated and elected.  Describing himself on his late emergence as a candidate as 'the last wombat to come in from the field', he subsequently took to collecting wombat memorabilia.  On 28 July 1984 he was enthroned as Melbourne’s seventh Anglican archbishop.

Gracious, lean, energetic and efficient, Penman quickly instituted major reforms, creating new departments of evangelism and church growth, multicultural ministry and youth affairs.  Some Anglicans grumbled about centralisation, expensive new projects and the church’s importation of secular management models.  Yet he was driven by his vision of Anglicanism as leading a Christian engagement with contemporary debates.  This commitment was recognised in his appointment as chairman (1985) of the Australian Institute for Multicultural Affairs, and his roles in undertaking high-level talks in Tehran in 1988 concerning the British envoy, Terry Waite, who was held in Lebanon as a hostage, and as a confidential adviser on Iran to the minister for foreign affairs, Gareth Evans.  The Roman Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little, was a good friend, and in 1986 Penman welcomed Pope John Paul II to St Paul’s Cathedral.  In 1988 he was elected president of the Australian Council of Churches.

With an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of the media, Penman secured largely positive coverage of his strong support for the ordination of women.  On 9 February 1986 he ordained the first women deacons in Australia, and then announced his intention to ordain women to the priesthood by 1990.  As legal challenges mounted against this move, he was sometimes portrayed as an iconoclast and defined as a 'liberal evangelical'.  Yet while he had a tense relationship with the Sydney diocese’s more conservative elements, his liberalism had definite limits.  Although he was appointed a trustee (1987) of the AIDS Trust of Australia, and refused to invoke the 'wrath of God' in response to that condition, he declined to ordain openly gay men and held a moderate position on abortion.  Ultimately, his theological stance reflected the mainstream of Anglicanism in New Zealand, rather than the established divisions of the Australian Church.

A deft negotiator and shrewd tactician, Penman also had a deeply emotional and intuitive character:  several situations involving disadvantaged people, particularly in third-world societies, moved him literally to tears.  His affinity with Australian popular culture was clearly expressed in his support for Carlton Football Club and love of cricket.  On 24 July 1989 a previously undiagnosed heart condition led to a major heart attack; he died on 1 October in St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, as arrangements were being made for a heart transplant.  Survived by his wife and their four children, he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Nichols, David Penman (1991)
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 October 1989, p 6
  • private information

Citation details

Colin Holden, 'Penman, David John (1936–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/penman-david-john-15060/text26259, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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