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Reginald Stephen (1860–1956)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

Reginald Stephen (1860-1956), Anglican bishop, was born on 9 December 1860 at Geelong, Victoria, seventh child of George Alexander Stephen, woolbroker, and his wife Emily, née Johnstone, both London born; he was a distant connexion of Sir Alfred Stephen. Educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School and at Trinity College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1882; M.A., 1884), he won exhibitions and graduated with first-class honours in history and political economy, the Cobden Club medal and the Bromby prize for biblical Greek. Inspired by Bishop James Moorhouse and Alexander Leeper at Trinity, Stephen and John Francis Stretch belonged to the first Victorian-born generation who were to make significant contributions to the Australian Church. Made deacon on 23 December 1883 and ordained priest on 21 December 1884 by Moorhouse, Stephen became curate of Christ Church, St Kilda. There, on 22 July 1885, he married Selina Emma Maude Low (d.1895), daughter of the vicar.

Gaining his own parish at Balwyn in 1889, Stephen moved in 1894 to the prosperous bayside church of St Andrew, Brighton. Already a university examiner in history, he moved back to Trinity College in 1899 as subwarden and chaplain. Returning briefly in 1904 to parish work at Holy Trinity Church, Balaclava, on 23 January he married Elsie Clarice (d.1936), daughter of Canon Horace Tucker, at Christ Church, South Yarra. A cathedral canon from 1903, Stephen was appointed in 1906 by Archbishop Henry Lowther Clarke to head the new St John's Theological College at St Kilda. In his 1908 Moorhouse lectures, Democracy and Character, Stephen tried to provide a theological perspective to current Australian political developments. Two years later, he also became dean of Melbourne.

Stephen was now at the height of his powers: tall and spare, with a cleft chin and classical profile, he preached thoughtful, astringent sermons and supervised non-graduate students. In a diocese where issues of churchmanship were unresolved, St John's became a centre of controversy and, amid some ill will, the Evangelicals set up Ridley College. Stephen was elected bishop of Tasmania on 17 February 1914 and consecrated in Sydney on 21 September.

At first, Stephen found Tasmania a challenge. His predecessor John Mercer, an outspoken Christian Socialist, had not impressed conservative Anglicans. Stephen had always advocated social reform, but was no crusader. His efforts to placate the people were aided by World War I; like most of his leading co-religionists, he took a strongly Imperial line. Nevertheless, he did not feel at ease in Tasmania which offered little scope for his talents and ambitions. With the support of Stretch, he was elected bishop of Newcastle, New South Wales, and was enthroned there on 15 July 1919.

After attending the 1920 Lambeth Conference in London, Stephen settled down to coping with the post-war problems of his part-rural, part-industrial, diocese. A careful and thorough administrator, he chose effective and popular assistants in Henry Woodd as archdeacon and Horace Crotty (later bishop of Bathurst) as dean. In C. A. Brown, he had a registrar who could manage the unusually centralized finances. Stephen's major coup, as befitted a theological teacher, was to arrange for the removal of the inter-diocesan St John's College from Armidale to Morpeth where it came within Newcastle's control. Under the dynamic Henry Burgmann, St John's developed into an important centre for the supply of clergy and Stephen went on to establish two grammar schools. He was less at home, however, with the industrial section of his diocese. Inexperienced with and uneasy about working-class religion, he lacked the 'common touch'. On another level, Stephen worked conscientiously on constitutional problems and prayer book revision for the Australian Church.

By the end of 1927 he had had enough; he resigned the see on 31 March 1928 and retired to Melbourne. He acted briefly as warden of Trinity College (1930), delivered many sermons and lectures—including the 1935 Moorhouse series, Ancient Laws and Modern Morals (1936)—and gave episcopal assistance to successive archbishops. Stephen died at Kew on 7 July 1956 and was cremated. He was survived by his daughter and a son; another son Reginald (1906-1943) had been a Bush Brother.

Select Bibliography

  • A. P. Elkin, The Diocese of Newcastle (Syd, 1955)
  • J. Handfield, Friends and Brothers (Melb, 1980)
  • Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Corian, Aug 1914, p 3, Aug 1956, p 161, Mar 1974, p 161
  • Geelong Advertiser, 19 Feb 1955
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 July 1956
  • Anglican, 13 July 1956
  • Australian Church Record, 2 Aug 1956
  • Stephen papers (Geelong Church of England Grammar School Archives).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Stephen, Reginald (1860–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 December, 1860
Geelong, Victoria, Australia


7 July, 1956 (aged 95)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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