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Howard West Mowll (1890–1958)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

Howard West Kilvinton Mowll (1890-1958), Anglican archbishop, was born on 2 February 1890 at Chaldercot, near Dover, Kent, England, eldest son of Henry Martyn Mowll, solicitor and later mayor of Dover, and his wife Gertrude Emily, née Worsfold. Howard attended Dover College junior school and, from 1903, King's School, Canterbury. He was an earnest boy, uninterested in games, but an industrious scholar and a keen debater. From childhood, he had learned from his parents a deep and abiding evangelical faith. In 1909 he entered King's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1912; M.A., 1916) to read history, in which subject he kept a lifelong interest. Much of his thought was to be couched in historical terms. As president (1911-12) of the Cambridge Inter-collegiate Christian Union, he battled the liberal Student Christian Movement, emerging as a doughty leader and controversialist.

After theological training (though he was never a systematic theologian) at Ridley Hall in 1913-14, Mowll was made deacon for colonial service on 21 September 1913 by the evangelical Bishop E. A. Knox of Manchester, and appointed to the theological staff at Wycliffe College, Toronto, Canada. As a tutor (1913-16) and professor of history (1916-22) at Wycliffe, he acquired a lasting interest in Canada and a passion for travel. Mowll visited England to be ordained priest on 7 June 1914 by the archbishop of Canterbury, on the putative title of curate of Dover. He served (1918-19) as an army chaplain on the Western Front. His work in Canada and his reputation in England led to an invitation to become assistant-bishop of West China. He was consecrated on 24 June 1922 in Westminster Abbey, London.

Civil disorder in his western Szechwan (Sichuan) province of China made mission work hard to sustain: on one occasion Mowll and his party were taken hostage by bandits. There were policy differences between the support organizations—the Church Missionary Society and the China Inland Mission—over the degree of leadership to be given to native Christians. Mowll championed local autonomy and it was with C.M.S. support (which he was to repay by his patronage in later years) that he became diocesan bishop in 1928. He soon appointed two Chinese assistant-bishops.

Mowll had married Dorothy Anne Martin on 23 October 1924 with Anglican rites at Mienchu Sze, and on 17 December that year at the British Consulate General, Chengtu (Chengdu). She had worked in the mission field at Sintu (Xindu) and supplied the linguistic skill that Mowll lacked. The marriage was childless, but they were a devoted couple, united in a strong sense of Christian purpose and complementing each other in personality and bearing. The towering Howard was stately, measured and reserved; Dorothy was sprightly and vivacious, and more practical. In 1930-32 they made journeys to India, Europe, North America and Australasia. Mowll's extensive travels widened his reputation as a mission bishop. Although, as he said, he would always think of himself as an Englishman, in March 1933 he agreed to consider election to the see of Sydney, following the death of Archbishop John Wright. He was elected next month and arrived in Sydney on 1 March 1934.

Determined to galvanize his diocese, still suffering from the Depression and (as he believed) weakened by a lack of clear evangelical purpose in the 1920s, Mowll worked prodigiously and expected others to do likewise. His clergy did not always take kindly to telephone calls in the very early hours. He visited every parish, using his remarkable memory for names and faces to good effect. His sermons, delivered with grave emphasis, but always simple and direct, were heard by many. The Home Mission Society was overhauled and Moore Theological College (under a new principal, Thomas Hammond) expanded. Missions to the beaches and to children and youth were initiated. Money was sought for new churches. In 1936 Mowll presided at the centenary of William Grant Broughton's consecration as bishop of Australia, using it as a means to increase an appreciation of Australian Church history. Not all his initiatives succeeded. He could never wholly persuade his diocese that a new cathedral should be built on the George Street site, even though the government's wish to resume the land had been deflected. But the young archbishop did much to make Sydney an efficient diocese and a leader among the evangelical dioceses in the Anglican communion.

Mowll's activity was prompted, in part, by the urge to vindicate himself and his school of churchmanship. Archbishop Lang of Canterbury had told him that he possessed neither the gifts nor the training for Sydney. Governor Sir Philip Game complained to Lang that Mowll seemed averse to giving his Church high social prominence. The Australian bishops, by a single vote, declined to elect him primate, an office held by all his predecessors since Frederic Barker. It was Mowll's churchmanship rather than his inexperience which decided the issue. The rebuff strengthened his determination to consolidate Sydney's evangelical character. Some influential liberal clerics had already broken with the dominant Anglican Church League to form the Anglican Fellowship. In 1938 Arthur Garnsey and others presented the 'Memorial', a protest to Mowll, complaining of a conservative evangelical monopoly of key diocesan positions. Mowll was badly advised and did not handle the occasion well, thus causing public controversy. It did not, however, shake his spirit of determination.

World War II changed the atmosphere, holding Sydney Anglicans together and offering Mowll, newly returned from a visit to Britain, the chance to prove his leadership on a broader front. He set up the Church of England National Emergency Fund, which ran clubs for servicemen. The Anglican Building Crusade planned new churches and there was encouragement for those involved in postwar reconstruction schemes for social betterment. It was significant that one of Mowll's first actions when hostilities ceased was to visit war-torn China. In 1948 he was elected, without opposition, as primate. He had come to be acknowledged by his fellow bishops as the natural leader of the Church in Australia.

In 1947 Mowll had delivered the Moorhouse lectures on 'Seeing all the World' which stressed the need for Australia's involvement in worldwide mission. A seasoned traveller, he had been to International Missionary Council conferences in India (1938) and Canada (1947). As president (1946-51, 1954-55 and 1957-58), he was the leading figure in the Australian council of the World Council of Churches, and attended meetings of the world body in the Netherlands (1948) and the United States of America (1954), serving on its central committee. This ecumenism was not without its conservative critics in his own diocese. His duties as primate took him far and wide, in Australia and New Guinea and beyond. He attended the Lambeth Conference in 1948, Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953 and the Anglican Congress at Minneapolis, U.S.A., in 1954. He had long sought modification of the immigration regulations in the interests of Asian students in Australia; the Colombo Plan of 1951 allowed him to give substance to his policy with an international friendship centre in Sydney.

As an unswerving upholder of evangelicalism, Mowll revived the local Church Missionary Society and forwarded its work in Africa and India. He was a consistent patron of the minority Church of England in South Africa, world president of the Scripture Union and a vice-president of the Evangelical Alliance. In 1957 he invited Billy Graham to conduct a long crusade in Australia. Mowll inherited, and maintained, Sydney's policy of caution towards the creation of a constitution for the Australian Church, fearful of consequent theological and liturgical change. He gave tacit support to Hammond in the famous 'Red Book' case before the Supreme and High courts. The triumphal Australian visit of Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury in 1950 led to Mowll's recognition that there was a way forward. He and Hammond became supporters of a modified constitution which, despite opposition, was accepted by the general and Sydney synods and took effect in 1962.

Mowll's commitments allowed him less time with his own diocese in the 1950s. In a period of large-scale material expansion he promoted extensive church-building and encouraged lay action for church growth. Imperial immigration found in him a ready supporter. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1954 and his wife O.B.E. in 1956. They made an official visit (1956) to China, a memorable occasion for them both. Dorothy Mowll was responsible for the genesis of the 'retirement village' plan which eventually became the Mowll Memorial Village, Castle Hill. She died on 23 December 1957. Howard became ill from overwork and strain. He died of myocardial infarction on 24 October 1958 at St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. His ashes, mingled with those of his wife, were placed beside the episcopal throne in St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney. The cathedral holds his portrait by F. O. Salisbury.

Select Bibliography

  • M. L. Loane, Archbishop Mowll (Lond, 1960)
  • S. Judd and K. Cable, Sydney Anglicans (Syd, 1987)
  • Sydney Diocesan Synod Reports, Yearbook, 1933-58
  • Church of England (New South Wales), Proceedings of General Synod, 1935-55
  • Times (London), 25 Oct 1958
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Oct 1958
  • Lang and Fisher papers (Lambeth Palace Library, London).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Mowll, Howard West (1890–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1890
Chaldercot, Kent, England


24 October, 1958 (aged 68)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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