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Philip Nigel Strong (1899–1983)

by David Wetherell

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Philip Strong, by E. Sier, 1954

Philip Strong, by E. Sier, 1954

State Library of Queensland, 198040

Philip Nigel Warrington Strong (1899-1983), Anglican archbishop, was born on 11 July 1899 at Sutton-on-the-Hill, Derbyshire, England, third son of John Warrington Strong, Church of England clergyman, and his wife Rosamond Marian, daughter of John Wingfield Digby of Sherborne Castle, Dorset.  Philip’s childhood was spent between his father’s vicarage at Dodford, Northamptonshire, and John Wingfield Digby’s second family seat, Coleshill Park in Warwickshire.  He was educated at King’s School, Worcester.  Brought up at home in a devoutly evangelical tradition that emphasised preaching and the scriptures, he became accustomed to a more sacramental religion at Worcester Cathedral.  In 1917 he was awarded a Patteson studentship for prospective missionary candidates at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in 1918 and joined the 33rd Division under the command of his kinsman, Major-General Sir Reginald Pinney.  Returning to Cambridge in 1919 he graduated in the theological tripos (BA, 1921; MA, 1925).  In 1921 he attended Bishops’ College, Cheshunt.

On 21 December 1922 Strong was made deacon in the chapel of Auckland Castle, episcopal palace of Herbert Hensley Henson, bishop of Durham, and was ordained priest there exactly a year later.  He was assistant-curate (1922-26) at St Mary’s, Tyne Dock, South Shields, and vicar (1926-31) at Christ Church, Meadow Lane, Leeds, both in working-class areas.  In 1931 he became vicar of St Ignatius the Martyr Church, Sunderland.  Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury, was entrusted by the Australian bishops to nominate a bishop for Papua and the mandated province of New Guinea, then in the ecclesiastical province of Queensland.  He chose Strong, who was consecrated bishop on 28 October 1936 in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Strong was enthroned in the pro-cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Dogura, Papua, on 25 January 1937.  Immediately he embarked on a busy schedule of visits and services throughout the diocese, arduous because of its difficult terrain, setting the pattern he was to maintain during his energetic episcopate.  Despite the declaration of World War II, the new cathedral, begun in 1935 and built by voluntary Papuan labour, was consecrated by Archbishop John William Charles Wand of Brisbane on 29 October 1939 in the presence of the lieutenant-governor, Sir John Hubert Plunkett Murray.

News of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor reached Strong on 8 December 1941.  The New Guinea Diaries of Philip Strong 1936-1945 (1981) reveal the confusion which followed an unauthorised radio message on 25 January 1942 ordering the evacuation of non-indigenous personnel from eastern Papua.  Strong broadcast on 31 January urging his staff to stay.  All except one—a pregnant mission wife—elected to remain.  However, he later counselled young women missionaries to leave, if they wished.  During the Japanese invasion twelve Church of England missionaries in Papua and New Guinea were killed.  On board a mission ship off the north Papuan coast on 10 March 1942, Strong and his party were strafed and bombed from a Japanese plane but were not injured.  Strong suffered deeply from bitter personal criticism in Australia for not having insisted on the removal of his staff to safety.  His visits to Australia, as bishop of a diocese partly occupied by enemy forces, made him something of a national figure in 1942 and 1943.

Strong joined the Australian Imperial Force on 18 March 1943 as a chaplain, fourth class, attached to New Guinea Force, rising to the honorary rank of chaplain, second class (lieutenant colonel).  He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 1 September 1944 but continued to perform part-time duties until June 1945.  A further crippling blow was suffered in January 1951 when Mount Lamington volcano in northern coastal Papua erupted, killing more than 3000 people, including almost all Strong’s Papuan and expatriate staff.

During the war Strong had been nominated to the archbishopric of Brisbane but had declined.  In 1962 the archbishop election committee again nominated him.  He accepted and was enthroned on 28 March 1963.  Like other former missionary bishops accustomed to wielding supreme power, he found it hard to adjust to church government through a diocesan council, synod and committees.  Along with other conservative churchmen, Strong deprecated many liberal changes of the 1960s.  He opposed relaxation of six o’clock closing of hotels, believed all forms of gambling to be wrong, and resisted remarriage of divorcees.  Holding little sympathy with contemporary theological trends, he regarded Bishop John Robinson’s controversial book, Honest to God (1963), as an onslaught on the church’s traditional faith.  By theological conviction and social habit he tended towards an unquestioning support of government.  Strong saw little value in the Brisbane student street marches that broadened from opposition to the Vietnam War to resistance to the Queensland government’s constraints on civil liberties.  He was deferential towards people of rank and title.

Elected primate of the Church of England in Australia in September 1966, Strong presided over its general synods of 1966 and 1969.  In his presidential address as acting primate at the 1966 synod he depicted the 'new theology' as a symptom of defeatism and its advocates as a 'kind of fifth column' within the church, contributing to an undermining of faith in the Christian religion.  Many younger clergy regarded him as out of touch; but his inflexible stance on dogma and customs was accompanied by an intense personal humility.

Strong was appointed CMG in 1958 and KBE in 1970.  In December 1967 he delivered the panegyric at Harold Holt’s memorial service.  After resigning on 30 June 1970 he lived in the cathedral close at Wangaratta, Victoria, assisted by his long-time secretary Elsie Manley.  In retirement his preaching, although it continued to be criticised for its length, lost nothing of its punch and power.  Philip died, unmarried, on 6 July 1983 at Wangaratta and was buried in the local cemetery.  Significant though his work was in Australia, its greatest impact was felt in Papua New Guinea, where his influence persisted into the 1990s through the episcopates of his successors David Hand and George Ambo.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Chittleborough, A Short History of the Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea (1975)
  • D. Wetherell (ed), The New Guinea Diaries of Philip Strong, 1936-1945 (1981)
  • Church Chronicle (Brisbane), 1 April 1963-1 July 1970
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 29 March 1963, p 1
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 22 September 1966, p 3
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 July 1970, pp 14 and 21
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 7 July 1983, p 2
  • Australian Church Record, 6 October 1966, p 1
  • Times (London), 8 July 1983, p 14
  • J. C. Holland, The Past is a Foreign Country (PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 2006)
  • B. Thorn, interview with P. Strong (ts, 1973-74, National Library of Australia)
  • Strong papers (National Library of Australia)
  • B883, item VX91744 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Wetherell, 'Strong, Philip Nigel (1899–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Philip Strong, by E. Sier, 1954

Philip Strong, by E. Sier, 1954

State Library of Queensland, 198040

Life Summary [details]


11 July, 1899
Sutton-on-the-Hill, Derbyshire, England


6 July, 1983 (aged 83)
Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia

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