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Ernest Henry Burgmann (1885–1967)

by Peter Hempenstall

This article was published:

Ernest Henry Burgmann (1885-1967), Anglican bishop and social critic, was born on 9 May 1885 at Lansdowne, near Taree, New South Wales, third child of Henry Burgman(n), bushman, and his wife Mary Ann Philomena, née Flick, both native-born. The son of a German-immigrant cooper, Henry worked a small selection in the district's heavily timbered country. Ernest remembered an adventurous childhood within a close and secure family atmosphere. He was educated at Koppin Yarratt Public School (to 1898) and for a year at Cleveland Street Superior Public School, Sydney.

The Church of England offered Burgmann a way out of the narrow world of timber-getting and dairying. His Christian faith developed in an untroubled fashion, nurtured by his parents and by the muscular example of pioneer Anglican clergy. Studying part time and cutting logs for a living, he gained his licentiate (1907) from the Australian College of Theology. In 1908 he went back to school at Taree to matriculate and next year entered St Paul's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1912; M.A., 1914). He was ordained priest on 18 October 1912. A short stay in London in 1914-15 as curate at South Wimbledon confronted him with conflicting attitudes towards war and brought him into contact with schools of Anglican theology that ranged from tractarianism to modernism. Burgmann returned to a rectorship at Wyong on the central coast of New South Wales. On 8 February 1916 in the Church of St Peter, Neutral Bay, Sydney, he married 20-year-old Edna Carey Crowhurst whom he had prepared for confirmation.

After twelve months as travelling secretary for the Australian Board of Missions, in 1918 Burgmann was appointed warden of St John's College, Armidale. He soon established a reputation as an inspiring director of ordinands, a witty teacher and a wide-ranging thinker. G. V. Portus secured Burgmann's services for the Workers' Educational Association where he became a successful instructor in psychology and social issues. Largely at his instigation, St John's was transferred to Morpeth, near Newcastle. There, from 1925, he filled a niche as a social activist. During the Depression he supported the unemployed and the evicted, and wrote for newspapers and magazines on the Church's responsibility for the welfare of the nation. He tried to rouse Anglicans to ally themselves with the working class in a peaceful effort to transform the capitalist system and to be in a position to mediate in the event of revolution.

With Roy Lee, his vice-warden at St John's, Burgmann endeavoured to sharpen pastoral training by imbuing priests with a sense of national vision and by adding an intellectual edge to their capacities. He was a major and continuing influence on a generation of clergymen who passed through the college. Burgmann, Lee and A. P. Elkin founded the Morpeth Review, a quarterly designed for those 'on the borderland of institutional religion'; it featured articles by prominent commentators on economics, anthropology, religion and current affairs. Described as 'one of the most interesting might-have-beens' in Australian periodical literature, the Review ceased in 1934 when Burgmann was called to be bishop of Goulburn (Canberra and Goulburn from 1950). He was consecrated in Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, on 1 May and enthroned in St Saviour's Cathedral, Goulburn, three days later.

Burgmann's appointment surprised many, himself included, and quickly became part of the growing mythology that he was a prophetic figure who was destined to be at the centre of religious and secular life. Although incorporating the fledgling national capital, Goulburn was a conservative country diocese. Burgmann was obliged to spend most of his time in rehabilitating it from the effects of the Depression. Yet, he refused to abdicate the role of social and church critic. He maintained his interest in working-class struggles and took up rural issues, such as soil erosion and hydro-electric power. His monthly letters to the diocesan paper, Southern Churchman, became national news. Energetically improving his 'team', he promoted university and continuing education for the clergy, and sought well-trained men and women for posts in the diocese: his episcopal colleagues accused him of 'sheep-stealing'.

World War II catapulted Burgmann into new prominence as president of the Australia-Soviet Friendship League. He was criticized by conservatives for his support of the Russian alliance and for his endorsement of the Federal Labor government's reconstruction strategies. Though he never joined a political party, his heart and head were always with Labor. He admired John Curtin and J. B. Chifley, and forged a mutually respectful friendship with H. V. Evatt who appointed him to the Australian delegation at the 1948 United Nations Assembly in Paris. Burgmann was active in the campaign against (Sir) Robert Menzies' attempt in 1951 to ban the Communist Party of Australia. In 1956 Burgmann was again dogged by controversy when he and the Catholic archbishop Eris O'Brien accepted the Commonwealth's offer to subsidize interest payments on loans raised to erect church schools in Canberra.

Burgmann's great obsession was the building of a collegiate library in Canberra—founded on the lines of that in Westminster Abbey, London—to stimulate advanced theological research by postgraduates. He aimed to provide a setting wherein a distinctive Australian theology might develop. St Mark's Anglican Memorial Library opened in 1957, but insufficient funds prevented it from developing beyond a useful addition to the Church's scholarly resources. Burgmann's own theology and churchmanship were in the broad tradition of Anglicanism, although his emphasis on the church as a goad of the state in the pursuit of social justice remained a minority view. Admitting to being comfortable within the boundaries set by the London symposium on liberal Catholicism (Essays Catholic and Critical, 1926), he was a sacramentalist who acknowledged the power of God in creation, while also being committed to the pursuit of a truth 'no longer fenced on any side'. He steered a middle way for his varied clergy and lay adherents, and provided refuge for some who had experienced religious intolerance.

From about the age of 30 Burgmann wrote prolifically, mainly essays and booklets on social reform, together with interpretations of scripture which were informed by imaginative historical insight. His scholarship was broad rather than deep, and was conveyed in sharp, intelligible prose. A gifted story-teller, he regretted that he did not have time to develop his academic leanings. In 1944 he published his autobiographical tract, The Education of an Australian (Sydney), which celebrated his bush upbringing and explored his drive for learning. Burgmann retired in 1960. Awarded an honorary Th.D. by the Australian College of Theology, he was appointed C.M.G. in 1961. For three years as warden he nursed St Mark's until compelled by ill health to stop. He died on 14 March 1967 in Canberra and was cremated; his wife, two sons and three daughters survived him. Burgmann's many admirers tenaciously cling to the legend of the 'bushman bishop'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. T. Wyatt, The History of the Diocese of Goulburn (Syd, 1937)
  • A. P. Elkin, The Diocese of Newcastle (Syd, 1955)
  • St Mark's Review (Canberra), no 50, Nov 1967
  • Colloquium, 9, no 1, Oct 1976, p 36, no 2, May 1977, p 7
  • P. J. Hempenstall, '''This Turbulent Priest": E. H. Burgmann During the Great Depression', Australian Journal of Politics and History, 27, no 3, 1981, p 330
  • Burgmann papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter Hempenstall, 'Burgmann, Ernest Henry (1885–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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