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Woods, Frank (1907–1992)

by Brian Porter

This article was published online in 2016

Frank Woods (1907–1992), Anglican archbishop, was born on 6 April 1907 at Davos, Switzerland, second of six children of Edward Sydney Woods, Church of England chaplain, and his wife Rachael Clemence, née Barclay, of the English banking family. Through both parents he had Quaker forebears, including the prison reformer and philanthropist Elizabeth Fry. The family returned to England in 1914, where Edward was an army chaplain and vicar before his consecration as bishop suffragan of Croydon (1930–37) and bishop of Lichfield (1937–53). Edward’s elder brother Theodore was also a bishop in the Church of England. Frank belonged, therefore, to a particularly clerical establishment family, which endowed him with an entirely unaffected patrician demeanour that was to characterise him throughout his life.

Woods was educated at Marlborough College (1920–25) and Trinity College, Cambridge (BA, 1930; MA, 1933). In 1929 he was elected president of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) at Cambridge. Graduating with second class honours in history and theology, he proceeded to Westcott House, Cambridge. Ordained in 1932, he served his curacy at the training parish of Portsea, before Trinity College called him back as chaplain (1933–36). At Cambridge he began a lifelong friendship with Davis McCaughey, later a master of Ormond College and governor of Victoria, who, like Woods, was a dedicated ecumenist.

On 9 June 1936 at St Alban’s Abbey, with his father presiding, Woods married Jean Margaret Sprules (1910–1995). Born on 15 April 1910 at Limpsfield, Surrey, daughter of Robert George Wallbutton Sprules, property owner and retired army officer, and his wife Edith Charlotte, née Adams, Jean studied modern languages at St Hugh’s College, Oxford (BA, 1932; MA, 1964), before meeting Frank on an SCM trip to Bavaria in 1934. Their first years of marriage were spent at Wells Theological College where Frank was vice-principal (1936–39). Jean became a Girl Guide leader and psychiatric nurse helper until the birth of their first child in 1937. When World War II began Frank joined the British Army as a chaplain, serving in France and the Middle East; as commandant (1942–45) of the Army Chaplains’ School at Tidworth and Chester; and as deputy chaplain-general (1945) in Northern Ireland, where he renewed his friendship with McCaughey.

After the war, Woods served as vicar of Huddersfield, canon of Wakefield, and chaplain to King George VI. In 1952 he was consecrated bishop suffragan of Middleton in the diocese of Manchester. He declined the dual appointment as bishop of Maidstone and bishop to the forces in 1956 out of consideration for Jean and the family, because of the frequent separation the position would have involved.

In April 1957 the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, suggested Woods’s name to the Archbishopric of Melbourne Electoral Board. There was a measure of Anglophilia still at work in the Australian church, where between 1941 and 1973 fifteen Englishmen became bishops. In due course, Woods secured the board’s unanimous endorsement and received the offer in July while visiting his brother Robin, archdeacon of Singapore. An anguished correspondence ensued between Frank and Jean, who was in Manchester, written in Quaker mode addressing each other as ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou.’ Eventually, after much prayer, they decided in faith to embark on a new life on the other side of the world. In the same year, Woods was awarded an honorary doctorate of divinity (Lambeth).

The new archbishop was tall, handsome, and dignified; he made an unforgettable impression with his enthronement sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 December 1957 and thereafter as an uplifting preacher. His voice exemplified his upper-class English background, which to some Melburnians was almost overwhelming, but he soon acquired great affection for Australia and felt entirely at home. A charming man, he easily made friends and had a comfortable rapport with all sections of society. A general secretary of the General Synod, John Denton, later recalled ‘we would have walked over hot coals for Frank’ (Porter, pers. comm.).

Woods faced great challenges during his two decades as archbishop, to which he responded with vision and inspirational leadership. His major challenge was demographic, as Melbourne’s population doubled during his episcopate. Reorganising the diocese into three regions of episcopal care, each with its own bishop, he planned new parishes as Melbourne expanded. His priorities included education of the clergy, especially the training of ordinands, and theological and spiritual stimulation of the laity, with programs such as ‘Forward in Depth’ and ‘Let’s Pray Better.’

A flexible administrator, Woods liberalised his position on the remarriage of divorcees and increased the involvement of the laity at every level. He led a church that was at the forefront of progressive public opinion on issues including capital punishment, poverty, and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. From the outset he was a supporter of women in the ordained ministry. In 1968 he took a more conservative approach to a doctrinal controversy sparked by John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), publicly condemning the views of two priests who had questioned Christ’s divinity. He later observed that he had mishandled the affair.

Beyond the diocese of Melbourne, Woods served on the doctrine commission of the General Synod and took a keen interest in the liturgical commission preparing An Australian Prayer Book. He attended regular meetings of the Australian bishops and helped consolidate the governance of the Church of England in Australia after the achievement of its constitution in 1962. He also attended Lambeth conferences of Anglican bishops. In forums such as these he was an impressive contributor and probing questioner. Elected primate of the Church of England in Australia in 1971, he and Jean visited dioceses throughout the region, acquiring a love of the outback and the Pacific islands. He was less enthusiastic about his role as president of General Synod: although less Anglo-Catholic than his predecessor as primate, Philip Strong, Woods was wary of evangelicals from the diocese of Sydney.

Woods modestly claimed that he was not a scholar, but he was abreast of current theological and sociological thinking, reading widely, conversing, and corresponding with leading international thinkers. He was particularly interested in ecumenism, serving as chairman (1960–64) of the Victorian Council of Churches, president (1965–66) of the Australian Council of Churches, and a central committee member (1968–76) of the World Council of Churches. Having pioneered an ecumenical industrial mission (1960), it grew to become the Inter-Church Trade and Industry Mission. He was a prime mover in the establishment in 1964 of an ecumenical religious centre at Monash University, which awarded him an honorary LLD (1979). In 1969 he helped establish the United Faculty of Theology, which brought together ordinands in the Anglican, Jesuit, and Uniting Church traditions. His close friendship with Melbourne’s other ‘Archbishop Frank,’ the Catholic Sir Frank Little, was precious to him. When introducing Woods to Pope John Paul II in 1986, Little said, ‘Holy Father, here is our Abraham’ (Porter, pers. comm.).

Appointed KBE in 1972, Woods retired in 1977, but continued an active ministry as guest preacher and pastoral carer. Survived by his wife, two sons, and two daughters, he died on 29 November 1992 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His funeral was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, followed soon after by a memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Noting his English origins, an obituary in the Times observed ‘he was not an ambassador of Canterbury and did not seek to be one; nevertheless he thought in the Mother Church’s mental language’ (1992, 19). A portrait by Sir William Dargie hangs in the Anglican Centre, Melbourne. Jean’s life of prayer and her devotion to Frank had always been evident, no more so than at the end. She died on 3 September 1995 at Camberwell.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Grant, James. Episcopally Led and Synodically Governed, Anglicans in Victoria 18031997. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010
  • Porter, Brian. Frank Woods, Archbishop of Melbourne 195777. Parkville: Trinity College, 2007
  • Porter, Muriel. Personal communication
  • Times (London). ‘The Most Rev Frank Woods.’ 30 November 1992, 19
  • Trinity College archives, University of Melbourne. Frank Woods, Personal Papers
  • Woods, Frank. Sermons and Addresses, Forward in Depth. Melbourne: Joint Board of Christian Education, 1987.

Citation details

Brian Porter, 'Woods, Frank (1907–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/woods-frank-16264/text28200, published online 2016, accessed online 20 November 2019.

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