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Sambell, Geoffrey Tremayne (1914–1980)

by Colin Holden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Geoffrey Tremayne Sambell (1914-1980), by unknown photographer, 1944

Geoffrey Tremayne Sambell (1914-1980), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 074344

Geoffrey Tremayne Sambell (1914-1980), Anglican archbishop, was born on 28 October 1914 at Broadford, Victoria, fourth of seven children of Edgar Shadforth Sambell, butcher, and his wife Barbara Katherine, née McPhee, both Victorian born. The family moved to Glen Iris and Geoff attended Melbourne High School. While working as a commercial traveller (1931-34) for R. H. Mytton & Co. Pty Ltd, a South Melbourne cutlery firm, he developed his organizing abilities, established a network of contacts with business people, and revealed the strong commitment to social justice that was to characterize his later career. The experience of attending Lord Somers' Camp in 1932 led him to open a club for unemployed youths in South Melbourne.

Called to the Anglican priesthood, Sambell entered Ridley College in 1935, gained his licentiate (1939) from the Australian College of Theology and began studying at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1947). He was made deacon in 1940 and ordained priest on 9 February 1941. Following a term (1940-41) as curate at St John's, Malvern, he was appointed chaplain, Citizen Military Forces, on 8 January 1942. In August he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. He served in New Guinea with the 57th-60th Battalion (1943-44) and the 2nd/11th Battalion (1944-45), performing the duties of canteen officer, arranging competitions and sporting events, and demonstrating a capacity for openness in his relations with servicemen of varying backgrounds. Although he relinquished his A.I.F. appointment on 19 March 1946, he continued to be active in the C.M.F. in 1949-51 and 1958-60.

Sambell's first post on returning to Melbourne in 1946 was a curacy at St Mark's, Camberwell. Archbishop Joseph Booth responded to his war record and increasing assertiveness by appointing him director of the newly created Melbourne Diocesan Centre on 24 April 1947. Charged with revitalizing four inner-city parishes, and helped by a team of parish clergy, chaplains and lay people, Sambell was assisted by people working in factories, hospitals and law courts. The centre grew under his leadership and took control of many aspects of non-parochial ministry. In 1961 he became director of the newly created Home Mission Board: it incorporated the centre and other diocesan departments that provided services such as counselling and chaplaincy.

Having been appointed to the board of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in 1947, Sambell insisted on sound management. His careful scrutiny of the community's finances stabilized the more erratic approach of its founder G. K. Tucker. Sambell played a major role in reshaping the brotherhood as director of its social services (from 1949), and as executive-director and deputy-chairman of its board (from 1956). Among measures to make its operations more professional, he began employing trained social workers in 1953, a step which promoted co-operation with government welfare agencies. In 1957, following a study tour of the United States of America, he introduced a salvage division which became a significant source of funds.

Sambell revived the Victorian Council of Social Service as its president (1956-58) and joined the national organization, the Australian Council of Social Service. His increasing prominence was reflected in his appointment as archdeacon of Essendon (1955) and of Melbourne (1961), and his consecration on 24 February 1962 as a coadjutor bishop. In 1964 he attended the meeting of the East Asia Christian Conference, held in Bangkok. Hugh Gough, the Anglican primate in Australia, appointed him local director of Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ. Sambell was later made a delegate to the Anglican Consultative Council.

Elected archbishop of Perth, Sambell was enthroned in St George's Cathedral on 24 October 1969, thereby becoming Perth's first Australian-born Anglican prelate. He rapidly restored the morale of his clergy and increased their stipends. Characteristically, he streamlined diocesan administration, developed new parishes, strengthened the position of religious education and broadened chaplaincy services. In 1974 he established the Anglican Health and Welfare Services Board. Projects initiated under his direction included a recycling operation, housing for single-parent families, an Asian Community Centre, and a marriage and family counselling service.

Eager to eradicate the sense of Western Australia's regional isolation, Sambell sent theological students to be trained at colleges in the other States and allowed some to be placed in Asian countries. His initiative for a diocesan programme, Celebration '75, included an Easter Day eucharist to which major prelates from developing nations were invited. Due to the links he forged, Australia was granted full membership in 1976 of the Christian Conference of Asia.

In 1976-80 Sambell chaired the Federal government's National Consultative Council on Social Welfare. His experiences in Western Australia transformed his understanding of Aboriginal communities and their needs. After a magistrate fined the diocesan trustees in 1977 for allowing fringe-dwelling Aborigines to camp in the grounds of a suburban parish church, Sambell publicly criticized Sir Charles Court's government in 1980 over its handling of the Noonkanbah affair. Although gravely ill, he visited England later in the year, assisted by Tao Tong, a Laotian student whose guardian he had become in 1968. He died of cancer on 19 December 1980 in Perth and was cremated. On 31 December he was posthumously appointed C.M.G.

Five ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall and heavily built, Sambell was at once lonely and gregarious, brusque and welcoming, and often revealed his emotions more tellingly in body language than in words. He was driven both by a vision of the future and by an element of insecurity. Early in his appointment to the Melbourne Diocesan Centre he was nicknamed 'the Boss'. He maintained control by his mastery of financial information, which exceeded that of accountants on his staff. His strategies were sometimes the product of sleepless nights. Convinced that the Church should minister on the basis of need rather than the availability of funds, he pushed for the creation of new positions and roles, and for the appointment of young clergy. Among the junior priests he encouraged were the future bishops Peter Hollingworth, Michael Challen and James Grant.

Sambell's belief in the importance of co-operating with government organizations made him an intelligent pioneer of social-service work. His nationalism—tinged with a sense of alienation from the English expression of Anglicanism—and his growing sympathy with Anglicans from developing nations and the United States were significant in countering provincialism in Western Australia and prophetic in a national context.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Handfield, Friends and Brothers (Melb, 1980)
  • J. Tonkin (ed), Religion and Society in Western Australia (Perth, 1987)
  • Church of England, Diocese of Perth Year Book, 1970-81
  • A. Porter, Biography of Geoffrey Tremayne Sambell, 1914-1980: Archbishop of Perth, 1969-1980 (M.Phil. thesis, Murdoch University, 1990)
  • private information.

Citation details

Colin Holden, 'Sambell, Geoffrey Tremayne (1914–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sambell-geoffrey-tremayne-11606/text20723, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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