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John Charles Wright (1861–1933)

by Stephen E. Judd

This article was published:

John Charles Wright (1861-1933), Anglican archbishop, was born on 19 August 1861 at Bolton, Lancashire, England, son of Rev. Joseph Farrall Wright, vicar of Christ Church, Bolton, and his wife Harriet, née Swallow. John was educated at Manchester Grammar School before proceeding as a scholar to Merton College, Oxford (B.A., 1884; M.A., 1887; D.D., 1909). Made deacon on 31 May 1885, he was ordained priest on 20 June 1886.

His tutor at Merton was E. A. Knox, a leading conservative Evangelical. Wright exhibited loyalty to his mentor at Merton and as Knox's curate (1885-88) at the Leicestershire parish of Kibworth Beauchamp. He strongly supported Knox's enforcement of ecclesiastical law and order, a characteristic that was to be shown later in his own career. After a curacy (1888-93) in the parish of Bradford, Wright was incumbent (1893-95) of Ulverston, Lancashire. On 5 October 1893 in St Peter's Church, Bournemouth, Hampshire, he married Dorothy Margaret Isabel, daughter of Colonel the Honourable Ivo de Vesci Fiennes and granddaughter of the 16th Baron Saye and Sele.

As an able Evangelical, Wright served at St George's Church, Leeds, from 1895 until Knox (then bishop of Manchester) appointed him in 1904 residentiary canon of Manchester, his personal chaplain and rector of St George's, Hulme. Promoted archdeacon early in 1909, he endorsed Knox's theological conservatism, but shared with other younger Evangelicals a wish to embrace modern scholarship. He chaired the 'Group Brotherhood' (later Anglican Evangelical Group Movement) which had been founded in 1906 to establish prayer and study groups for considering pressing social and theological issues. Wright published Thoughts on Modern Church Life and Work (London, 1909).

Impressed by Wright's acquaintance with the needs of a large city, by his progressive outlook and by his strong Evangelical connexions, in 1909 the synod of the diocese of Sydney elected him to succeed Archbishop William Saumarez Smith. Wright promptly accepted, was consecrated bishop in St Paul's Cathedral, London, on 24 August and reached Sydney on 13 November. He immediately impressed people with his dignity. Encountering him in episcopal garb, the poet Kenneth Slessor described Wright: 'his face had a rosy Friesian serenity, his hair was a nimbus of saintly silver and his voice was as rich as pomegranates'.

Soon demonstrating that, while a convinced Evangelical, he believed in a much wider spectrum of opinion in the Anglican Church, Wright showed that he would be a bishop of all. In 1910 he appointed men who endorsed his own moderate views as dean of Sydney (Albert Talbot) and as principal of Moore Theological College (David Davies). Wright's pluralism was no invitation to license. He was foremost a constitutional administrator who saw his role as being to administer and enforce the laws of the Church, not to make them. That year he refused to licence a clergyman to the vacant rectorship of St James's, King Street, unless he agreed not to wear the chasuble. To many, this was an issue of doctrine, not dress; to Wright, it was a question of church law. Amid much acrimony, he prevailed and the chasuble disappeared from St James's. His stance changed the churchmanship of Sydney diocese by scuttling the influence of Anglo-Catholicism. From 1910 he required all clergy licensed in Sydney to agree not to wear the chasuble; only one clergyman in Sydney was later to wear it. Wright had ensured an Evangelical future for his diocese.

His style was to oversee rather than direct the rapidly expanding diocese; he sought to be chief pastor, not the Church's managing director, and to make churchmen individually, and the diocese as a whole, assume responsibility for their own situations. Not all appreciated the wisdom of such leadership.

Wright's widespread pastoral care was most evident during World War I when, without fanfare, he made pre-dawn walks to the wharfs to farewell every troop-ship; he wrote letters of welcome to all soldiers who returned. Regarding the war as holy, he spoke out in favour of conscription during the referenda, seeing it as a moral rather than a political issue. He contracted pneumonic influenza in 1919 and suffered bouts of respiratory illness for the rest of his life which often forced him to retreat from Sydney's humidity.

Renowned for his even temper, kindness, tolerance and charitable tongue, Wright was provoked to passionate anger by the Royal Easter Show opening on Good Friday; he conducted annual public protests to (Sir) Samuel Hordern, chairman of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. The show continued to open on that day.

Having been elected primate of Australia in 1910 by his fellow bishops, Wright demonstrated his capacity for holding together people of diverse views and persuading them to co-operate as the Australian Church earnestly sought a new constitution that would bring with it autonomy from England. Twice, in 1926 and 1932, it seemed that agreement had been reached, but to no avail. After the 1932 constitutional convention of the Church, a 'dead-tired' Wright believed that a new constitution was only months away. Now, he told Archbishop Lang of Canterbury, 'I can sing my Nunc Dimittis'. On 24 February 1933 Wright died while visiting his daughter at Christchurch, New Zealand; survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he was buried in South Head cemetery, Sydney. His portrait by Charles Gundall is in St Andrew's Cathedral chapter house and another by Ethel Stephens at Bishopscourt, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • E. A. Knox, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Lond, 1934)
  • K. Slessor, Bread and Wine (Syd, 1970)
  • S. Judd and K. Cable, Sydney Anglicans (Syd, 1987)
  • Sydney Diocesan Magazine, 1 Apr 1933, p 11
  • Australian Church Record, 2, 16 Mar 1933
  • Church Standard (Sydney), 3 Mar 1933
  • Church Times (London), 3 Mar 1933
  • Church Record (England), 3 Mar 1933
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 May 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Oct 1916, 25 Feb 1933
  • S. Judd, Defenders of Their Faith: Power and Party in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, 1909-1938 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1984)
  • Davidson and Lang papers (Lambeth Palace Library, London).

Citation details

Stephen E. Judd, 'Wright, John Charles (1861–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 July 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]


19 August, 1861
Bolton, Lancashire, England


24 February, 1933 (aged 71)
Christchurch, New Zealand

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