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Lancelot Rupert (Lance) Shilton (1921–1998)

by David Hilliard

This article was published online in 2023

Lancelot Rupert Shilton (1921–1998), Anglican clergyman, was born on 30 December 1921 at Caulfield, Victoria, second of three sons of Victorian-born parents Rupert Lancelot Shilton, railway clerk, and his wife Floriss Mary, née Fenton. Growing up in nearby Elsternwick, Lance attended Melbourne Boys’ High School until the age of fourteen, then joined a city firm as an office boy, studying accountancy by correspondence. His early experience with the local Anglican parish was ‘very formal’ (Shilton 1997, 15), but his faith was enlivened when as a teenager he joined the Church Missionary Society (CMS) League of Youth. This organisation sought to instil among young people an intense evangelical piety and an urge to evangelise. In August 1939 he underwent a conversion experience that shaped the direction of his life.

Mobilised for service in World War II, Shilton enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces in September 1941 and—having requested to serve in the Australian Army Medical Corps rather than in a combatant unit—began full-time duty on 5 November in the 2nd Field Ambulance. Five months later he was assessed as unfit for active service due to a heart condition. He performed clerical duties (1942–45) at the Royal Australian Engineers Training Centre, Kapooka, New South Wales, as an acting (1943) and substantive (1945) corporal, before being discharged from the CMF on 4 February 1946.

Entering Ridley College, Melbourne, to train for the Anglican ministry, Shilton also commenced a degree as a part-time student at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1954). He was made deacon in 1949 and ordained priest in 1950, serving a curacy at St Columb’s, Hawthorn. In 1951 he was appointed priest-in-charge of St Jude’s, Carlton, a decaying inner suburban parish. There he sought to engage with residents by open-air preaching, and began to minister to university students, nurses, and overseas students. His reputation as an efficient organiser led to his appointment in 1954 to lead an appeal to raise funds for renovations and new buildings at Ridley College. On 25 June 1955 at St Paul’s Cathedral he married Joan Isobel Smith, a nurse.

Visiting England from 1955 to 1957, Shilton studied at Tyndale House, Cambridge, an evangelical study centre, and completed, as an external student, a theology degree at the University of London (BD, 1956). During his return journey to Australia, while in East Africa to see the work of Australian CMS missionaries there, he was invited to be nominated as rector of Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide. Founded in 1836, it was the oldest Anglican church in the city and an evangelical stronghold in a diocese dominated by a moderate Anglo-Catholicism.

Shilton’s energy, innovative methods, and growing skill in using all forms of media to reach the community outside the church made him one of Adelaide’s best-known clergymen. From 1957 he had a daily program on commercial radio station 5DN. A selection of his radio meditations was published as Fifty Two Thoughts for Better Living (1961) and More Thoughts for Better Living (1973). Between 1969 and 1973 he contributed a twice-weekly column to the Adelaide Advertiser. His prominence, and his active involvement in the Billy Graham crusade in 1959, attracted a wave of members to Holy Trinity. Despite occasional tensions with Bishop Tom Reed, he avoided confrontation and maintained amicable relations with clergy who held differing theological convictions.

During the late 1960s Shilton became alarmed by growing permissiveness in South Australia and new challenges by secular humanists and liberal theologians to what he saw as ‘God’s absolute standards of morality’ (Shilton 1997, 103) as revealed in the Bible. A proposal in 1971 to stage in Adelaide the overseas revue Oh! Calcutta! caused him, with members of his congregation, to form the Moral Action Committee to oppose pornography and the relaxation of censorship. Having succeeded in stopping Oh! Calcutta!, the committee merged with the national Community Standards Organisation, with him as chairman of its South Australian branch. In 1973 he was a founder of the Australian Festival of Light, to fight ‘moral pollution’ and assert the value of ‘Christian moral standards’ (Hilliard and Warhurst 1974, 14–15) in national life.

Because of his success in city ministry, in 1973 Shilton was appointed dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. There he continued and expanded the methods he had developed in Adelaide to connect with people outside the church. He produced audio and video cassettes of Sunday services; published addresses, pamphlets, and popular religious books; and held special services for trade union leaders, Freemasons, and other organisations. Always keen to contribute a Christian viewpoint on topical issues and to defend his conception of traditional moral values in public debates, he wrote a monthly column in the Sun-Herald, had regular programs on commercial radio stations, and issued a stream of media releases—a total of around five hundred during his term of office. His public statements were often controversial. Faced with the emergence in Sydney of an increasingly visible and vocal gay community, for instance, he opposed the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour in New South Wales as a ‘dangerous concession’ to ‘gay activists’ (Shilton 1984). His short stature and ‘unremarkable …, even bland’ (Murray 1998, 15), appearance concealed a tough campaigner. He was courteous to his opponents but never backed down.

An outsider in the diocese of Sydney with its closely knit clerical culture, Shilton avoided its combative internal politics. On some issues his views did not fit with the conservative position of the diocesan leadership. For example, he supported evangelical participation in the ecumenical movement. Moreover, influenced by Joan’s sympathy for feminism, he advocated a wider role for women in the church and came to support the ordination of women to the priesthood. In a diocese where many younger clergy were unsympathetic to traditional Anglican liturgical worship and saw cathedrals as irrelevant to the local congregation, he emphasised the unique role of the cathedral: a church that was open to all, a base for evangelism in the inner city, and a centre for Christian music, drama, and the creative arts. Within the upper levels of the evangelical movement he was a prominent figure. In both Adelaide and Sydney he was active in the CMS, and he attended several major evangelical conferences, including the influential Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization in 1974.

In June 1980 Shilton was devastated by the sudden death of Joan. On 13 November 1982, at St Andrew’s Church, Brighton, Melbourne, he married Mary Eleanor Florence Powys, née Bolitho, widow of a CMS missionary doctor. In 1985 he was appointed AM. After his retirement as dean in 1989 he remained in Sydney and wrote an autobiography, Speaking Out (1997). He died on 13 March 1998 at Denistone East, survived by his wife and the two daughters of his first marriage, and was buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery; a memorial service took place at St Andrew’s Cathedral.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Dickey, Brian. Holy Trinity Adelaide 1836–2012: The History of a City Church. 2nd ed. Adelaide: Trinity Church Trust, 2013
  • Cable, Leonie. ‘Cable Clerical Index.’ Accessed 27 June 2023. http://anglicanhistory.org/aus/cci/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Hilliard, David, and John Warhurst. ‘Festival of Light.’ Current Affairs Bulletin 50, no. 9 (1974): 13–19
  • Kelly, Pauline. Personal communication
  • Loane, Edward. ‘Lance Rupert Shilton (1921–1998): The Eighth Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral.’ In Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City: Ministry at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, edited by Edward Loane, 127–66. Sydney: St Andrew’s Cathedral, 2019
  • Murray, James. ‘Dean’s Mission Was to Speak Out.’ Australian, 17 March 1998, 15
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V205107
  • Samuel Marsden Archives, Donald Robinson Library, Moore College. AU-MTC 190, Shilton Papers
  • Shilton, Lance. Speaking Out: A Life in Urban Mission: The Autobiography of Lance Shilton. Sydney: The Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1997
  • Shilton, Lance. ‘Why Decriminalization of Homosexual Behaviour Is Bad.’ Media Release, 13 May 1984. Shilton Papers, AU-MTC 190/8. Donald Robinson Library, Moore College
  • Smith, Peter. Personal communication
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 1139, Shilton Papers
  • Weaver, Ross. Personal communication
  • Willis, Elizabeth. People of the Risen King: A History of St Jude’s Carlton, 1866–2016. Carlton, Vic.: St Jude’s Anglican Church, 2017

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Hilliard, 'Shilton, Lancelot Rupert (Lance) (1921–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shilton-lancelot-rupert-lance-33181/text41397, published online 2023, accessed online 28 February 2024.

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