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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Appleton, George Frederick (1902–1993)

by Rowan Strong

This article was published online in 2020

George Appleton, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1968

George Appleton, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1968

State Library of Victoria, 49344862

George Frederick Appleton (1902–1993), Anglican archbishop, was born on 20 February 1902 at Windsor, England, eldest of five children of Thomas Appleton and his wife Lily, née Cock. His parents worked at a small estate in Berkshire, his father as a gardener and his mother as a cook. As a child of domestic servants, George grew up in modest circumstances. The parish choir and the church became a focus of his boyhood. Scholarships and bursaries enabled his parents to keep him at school and for him to attend Selwyn College, Cambridge (BA, 1924; MA, 1929).

Ordained as a deacon in the Anglican ministry in 1925, Appleton was made a priest the next year. After serving a two-year curacy at Stepney, East London, he went to Burma (Myanmar) in 1927 as a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. On 3 October 1929 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Rangoon (Yangon), he married Marjorie Alice Barrett, a teacher; they had met as parish Sunday School teachers. His work in Burma was predominantly among poor Karen village people, and later as warden of the College of the Holy Cross (1934–42). Evacuated in 1942 to India, he spent the rest of World War II as archdeacon of Rangoon, visiting displaced Burmese Anglicans. After the war he worked for the Burmese government-in-exile as director of public relations (1945–47). He returned to Burma in 1946, but amoebic dysentery led to his resignation and return to England.

In 1947 Appleton became vicar of Headstone, London. From 1950 to 1957 he was associate secretary, later general secretary, of the Conference of British Missionary Societies. He was appointed rector of St Botolph’s, Aldgate, in 1957, and archdeacon of London and canon of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1962. By then he had come to international Anglican prominence through his anthologies of prayers and other devotional writings. During this last appointment he was approached by the electors of the diocese of Perth, Western Australia, to be their next archbishop. He initially refused on the grounds that he had just begun at St Paul’s and was an Englishman with no experience of Australia; but, encouraged by Bishop William Wand of London, who had been archbishop of Brisbane, he enquired further. On being told that the diocese wanted someone with ministry experience in Asia to help its members connect better with that part of the world, he accepted.

Yet Appleton found little sign of this interest in Asia among his episcopate. Instead, it was the English connection that appeared most prominent, as the diocese insisted that he be consecrated in England, rather than Perth, and arrive as an archbishop ordained with authority from Canterbury. Duly consecrated in London on 24 June 1963, he was installed as the sixth archbishop of Perth and Metropolitan of Western Australia on 12 August. He brought considerable experience in ecumenical and interfaith engagement. His years in Burma, in particular his observation of the integration of life and religion that permeated Burmese Theravada Buddhism, had initiated a lifelong reconsideration of Christianity as the only engagement God has in this world. By the time of his Australian appointment he had relinquished as triumphalist the usual Anglican theology of interfaith engagement, known as fulfilment theology, which understood Christianity as the complete realisation of the partial truths of other religions. An early exponent among Australian Anglican leaders of interfaith dialogue, he believed that religious teaching in secondary schools should include lessons on the founders, scriptures, and ways of worship of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, among ‘other great religions’ (Canberra Times 1964, 3).

As archbishop, Appleton maintained an effective consultative relationship with the dean of Perth, Rev. James Payne, but they disagreed over Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. While Appleton did not openly identify as a pacifist, he supported pacifists ‘because they helped to keep the rest of us up to scratch’ (Tribune 28 April 1965, 9). He also took part in peace vigils and opposed Australia’s intervention in the Vietnam War. In March 1965, with ten Anglican bishops from around Australia, he signed a public letter to Prime Minster Sir Robert Menzies calling for Australia to take a positive role in settling the Vietnam dispute without an extension of hostilities. He also took part in public discussions with the Western Australian branch of the Communist Party of Australia on the issue of world hunger. As there were ‘more Communists than Christians in the world,’ he wanted Christians to ‘take communism seriously and examine it with open and yet critical minds’ (Tribune 24 November 1965, 5).

Appleton was in the minority among Anglican bishops in supporting both remarriage in the church for divorced persons, and the ordination of women. After attending the 1968 Lambeth Conference that decided that existing deaconesses were deacons of the church, he licensed three Perth deaconesses to administer the chalice at the administration of Holy Communion, causing disquiet and anger among conservative Anglicans. Later, drawing on his experience of village priests in Burma, he attempted to address the paucity of clergy in rural communities by enrolling local Anglican men in a program for auxiliary priests. The plan was halted by his successor, Geoffrey Sambell. His increasingly broad sense of spirituality made him impatient with the fussiness of the ritualism of his original Anglo-Catholicism.

In 1969, at the urging of Archbishop Michael Ramsay of Canterbury, Appleton was appointed the ninth Anglican bishop in Jerusalem. The following year he established a special committee to consider the future of Anglicanism in the region. This resulted in the creation, in 1976, of the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, one of the largest and most diverse provinces within the denomination’s communion. He had retired in 1974 and returned to London. That year he published Jerusalem Prayers for the World Today. In 1975 the German Coordinating Council of Societies for Christian–Jewish Cooperation awarded him its Buber-Rosenzweig medal in recognition of his contribution to Christian–Jewish understanding. He continued writing in retirement, publishing a study of the French Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin; a memoir; and other works. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1980) and survived by their three daughters, he died on 28 August 1993 at Oxford.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Appleton, George. Unfinished: George Appleton Remembers and Reflects. London, Collins, 1990
  • Canberra Times. ‘World Faith not for Youngsters.’ 27 August 1964, 3
  • Garnsey, George. ‘Farewell to Archbishop Appleton.’ St Mark’s Review, February 1969, 1–3
  • Tonkin, John. Cathedral and Community: A History of St George’s Cathedral. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Press, 2001
  • Tribune (Sydney). ‘Bishop’s Strong Call for Peace.’ 28 April 1965, 9
  • Tribune (Sydney). ‘Must Examine Communism Seriously, Says WA Archbishop.’ 24 November 1965, 5

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Rowan Strong, 'Appleton, George Frederick (1902–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/appleton-george-frederick-30114/text37381, published online 2020, accessed online 13 August 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

George Appleton, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1968

George Appleton, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1968

State Library of Victoria, 49344862

Life Summary [details]

Birth

20 February 1902
Windsor, Berkshire, England

Death

28 August 1993

Cause of Death

unknown

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation
Political Activism