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The Aboriginal people living in the area now known as Melbourne believed that human occupation resulted from an act of creation by Bunjil, who (wrote Richard Broome) 'carved several humans out of bark and breathed life into them'. Bunjil not only shaped the land and made it fruitful; he also equipped men with spears and women with digging sticks, showed them how to collect food and laid down the laws governing their social behaviour.

European interlopers brought their own religion: there was provision for a catechist in the establishment of the Port Phillip Association. The representatives of the various churches had little to say on the displacement of the indigenous people, at least until much nearer to our own times. In the mid-19th century, some may have believed that Aboriginal people were descendants of Ham and, as such, were cursed. Blind to the ancient and sophisticated civilisation of the indigenous inhabitants, virtually all the newcomers assumed that their religion would 'civilise' (that is Europeanise) the original inhabitants, but pastoralism was to make a mockery of such hopes.

Religious life in foundation and early Melbourne, which until Separation was governed from Sydney, benefited from State benevolence. Within three months of Melbourne's first act of Christian worship (24 April 1836), the Church Act became law, extending aid to 'the three grand divisions of Christianity' - Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics. Thus, in eastern Australia the Church of England lost its monopoly. Although minor denominations were at first excluded from the workings of the Act, all religious groups except the Jews were soon to be given small individual grants, which were used to establish churches and schools. The colony's first charitable organisations also operated under Church auspices. Separation coincided with the beginnings of a massive influx of gold-seekers, and the new colony's legislature, driven by fears of the consequent social disruption and by hopes that Christianity would be a rampart against a democratic onslaught, increased the amount of money granted to religion. That this generosity was the result of politics rather than piety was suggested by the fact that the Legislative Assembly, elected on a democratic franchise, tried several times (1857, 1860, 1861, 1865, 1869) to end this State aid, but until 1870 the Legislative Council - dominated by the colony's pastoral and mercantile elite - was not sufficiently persuaded by the abolitionists' arguments.

The Church Act had encouraged the growth of urban parishes; despite this, in 1853 even the Anglicans (whose nominal numerical predominance gave them an advantage in the distribution of funds) had but five churches in Melbourne and Brighton. To the faithful, given to nostalgia, the church architecture that the various denominations adopted was often a reminder of the Old World. Thus church buildings often exemplified the national origins of the people who attended them. The tower of the Presbyterians' College Church in Parkville was a replica of the Crown Tower of St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh; the clean, classical lines of the Baptist Church in Collins Street recalled the architecture of many a Baptist chapel across the length and breadth of England. But in other cases the nostalgia was vested in the name, the grand structures reflecting more the newfound affluence of the adherents. The Presbyterians' Scots' Church was a handsome sandstone structure in the Gothic style, while on the other side of the intersection between Collins and Russell streets the Congregationalists named their Italianate church the Independent, in the proud tradition of English dissent dating back to the civil wars of the 1640s.

Less characteristic of the old country, however, was the ecumenism that typified these transplanted Anglicans, Catholics and nonconformists in early Melbourne. Fr Geoghegan, who arrived in 1839, 'was popular with all classes and creeds', and the Anglican clergyman the Rev. Alexander Thomson (wrote the historian Paul de Serville) 'possessed suppleness of behaviour which may be interpreted either as laxity of principle or as an intelligent form of charity'. The enlightened spirit was shared by lay people. Protestants subscribed to the fund for the building of St Francis' Church, and Catholics reciprocated when the separated brethren opened their subscription lists.

The admirable amity was shattered beyond repair by the 1843 Legislative Council election, when Catholics reacted angrily to one of the candidates, the Rev. J.D. Lang, who had argued against Irish Catholic immigration in his pamphlet The question of questions, or, is this colony to be transformed into a province of popedom? Ancient religious feuds provided the weapons, and the occasion, for combatants motivated by social, political and personal antipathies rather than doctrinal and theological scruples. This was the pattern for subsequent outbursts of sectarianism in the ensuing 120 years of religious life in Melbourne. The main reason for the 'holy discord' was the Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance of society, politics and finance; confronting and resenting this establishment (albeit an unofficial one) was a numerically powerful Catholic body of Irish working-class immigrants and their descendants. Yet the town's elite was far from being exclusively Anglican: all denominations had a number of wealthy adherents, and Melbourne was noted for the powerful presence of wealthy Scots settlers and the consequent prestige of the city's Presbyterian community. In 1878 the Anglican bishop James Moorhouse lamented, 'Rich Melbourne is not so exclusively devoted to the Church of England as is rich London. A pair of horses can find their way to chapel, as well as to church'. Even this broader category of traditional denominationalism by no means encompassed all respectable religion. Many Melburnians, including some influential professional people, were involved with the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists (founded in 1870), with its monthly journal The harbinger of light and its bookshop selling Spiritualist and occult literature and herbal medicines. Older British groups such as the Quakers and the Christian Israelites were also represented in the city.

On Eastern Hill, opposite St Patrick's Cathedral, was the Unitarians' building - its spire of polychrome brick, its curved gallery, its pews, pulpit and pipe organ all manifesting, it seemed, the familiar traditions of 19th-century nonconformity. Yet this was the church known as the halfway house to infidelity. And infidelity, although always the movement of a small minority, was of greater moment to the citizens of Melbourne than it was to the people of any other Australian colonial city. In the 1860s, the publication of Charles Darwin's The origin of species provoked a lively debate over whether the account of creation in Genesis could be reconciled with scientific truth. In 1865 the autodidact Edward William Cole, having written a book that purported to expose religious belief as a delusion (and therefore finding himself boycotted by publisher and parson alike), published at his own expense his heterodox opinions - first in a series of pamphlets that he sold at his bookstall at the Eastern Market and then as a book. Likewise his market stall evolved into first a bookshop and then an emporium (Cole's Book Arcade). He founded, in 1867, the Liberal Debating Society, along with H.K. Rusden, a civil servant, a secularist and a prolific and forthright publicist who dedicated his various tracts to the proposition that 'we are all really atheists now, though only some of us are aware of it'. In the winter of 1869, in the Princess Theatre, Professor Frederick McCoy of the University of Melbourne, the Rev. Dr John Bromby, headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School, and the Anglican bishop Charles Perry debated, in front of large audiences, whether science and holy scripture were or were not in conflict with each other.

Melbourne's precociousness in discussing such matters was undoubtedly the result of the gold rushes, through which the new colony was introduced to liberal, secularist and voluntarist cosmopolitanism, which encountered at nearly every turn the embittered hostility of Anglican and Protestant evangelicals. The most obvious ways in which this austere and authoritarian regime impinged on Melbourne society were an almost fanatical Sabbatarianism (for example, forbidding the publication of newspapers and restricting the running of trains on Sunday) and wowserism - a crusade for total abstinence and for public decency (which prevented, for instance, the National Gallery from exhibiting the nude painting Chloe). The liberals rallied their forces and laid siege to evangelicalism's formidable fortress - but with indifferent success, at least in the short term. There was evidence of popular support for liberalising Sunday observance laws, but in Melbourne the evangelicals held sway for longer than they were able in any other Australian city: the museum and art gallery remained closed on Sundays until 1904. Nevertheless colonial liberalism had some achievements to its credit. In February 1858, in the Legislative Assembly, James Service successfully moved that State aid be extended to Melbourne's synagogue. By the 1880s there were approximately 3000 Jews in Melbourne, many of whom were prominent in the city's public and financial life. The Christian majority usually eschewed anti-Semitism and refrained, it seems, from proselytising. The Chinese were less fortunate. Although the See Yup Temple is testament to the transplantation of local religious traditions, several Protestant missions in Little Bourke Street strove to convert the 'heathen'.

To a person standing in Bourke Street and looking east, St Patrick's Cathedral appeared - at least since the completion of its spires - to loom over the parliament; that visual impression, many of the censorious non-popish majority feared, was an accurate reflection of social and political realities. They believed that the Irish working classes, having been given the vote by the Constitution of 1856, submitted themselves to sacerdotal influence at election time. Such fears were particularly evident in the controversies over education in the early 1870s. Determined, as faithful adherents of the frugal creed of 19th-century secular liberalism, to reduce public spending on duplicated school systems, and inspired by the ideal of accommodating, in each locality, children of all creeds (and none) in the same schoolroom, the non-Catholic majority in the colonial parliament brought an end to the public financing of denominational schools, a provision that had been central to education prior to 1872. The Catholic bishop (Goold) called the compulsory aspect of the new schooling regime tyrannous, the secular aspect godless, and the free aspect a bribe to the indigent members of his flock (to whom, for good measure, he described the state schools as sinks of immorality in order to strengthen their resolve to spurn the proffered boon). None of this criticism of the new government schools, particularly the last, was calculated to improve relations between the triumphalist non-Catholic majority and the embittered minority, who established a separate Catholic education system, which in effect intensified existing sectarian divisions.

These divisions were grounded in class and locality. The inner suburbs, increasingly, became Catholic enclaves, as Anglicans and Protestants established themselves on the other side of the Yarra. Social mobility, particularly among the self-improving Methodists, saw churches and independent schools established in such suburbs as Camberwell, Kew and Hawthorn, while inner-city congregations declined, some surviving only by being transformed into missions, which became important welfare-providers in their local areas. While some successful Catholics followed, establishing elite colleges such as Xavier and Genazzano in the eastern suburbs, in the inner areas the parish church and school, staffed by members of one of the religious orders, remained an important centre of community life. Fearful of proselytism in the existing charitable organisations, the Church also distributed local relief and established orphanages, female rescue homes, aged care facilities and hospitals.

After attending matins at St Philip's, Collingwood, one Sunday in the 1850s, an English Anglican clergyman, James Mereweather, commented in his diary that the service and the demeanour of the worshippers reminded him so much of home that he could almost have forgotten that he was attending a church in the Antipodes. Could this have been said later in the 19th century? Until the land boom faltered in the late 1880s and then broke in the 1890s, Melbourne - brash, hedonistic, arrogant and vulgar - would perhaps not appear to have been a very hospitable dwelling-place for the spirit. Yet when the doctrinally liberal Rev. Charles Strong, minister of Scots Church, Collins Street, came into conflict with his more conservative clerical brethren in the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1883, the city's daily papers published detailed reports of the assembly debates, and one even printed the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith so that its readers could judge for themselves whether Strong had breached the doctrinal standard of his church. The Assembly majority - convinced that Strong was a liberal, even an infidel, cuckoo in the Presbyterian nest - forced him out, and he eventually resigned from the Presbyterian ministry, taking a large section of the Scots congregation with him. Thus the theologically liberal Australian Church was begun. In tune with the times financially as much as it must have thought it was intellectually, it erected for itself a commodious, even lavish, church building in Flinders Street, but in doing so burdened the steadily dwindling congregation with a debt from which it was never to recover, even after it moved to smaller premises in the new century. Strong was as liberal, even radical, in politics as he was in theology; his tragedy was that a number of his wealthy supporters dropped away from the Australian Church when, in the depressed 1890s, he joined other social reformers such as Congregationalist Dr Llewellyn Bevan and Wesleyan Rev. A.R. Edgar in criticising the Melbourne social, economic and political establishment. Such clergymen were in a minority. The land boomers - whose overreaching and overconfidence (and, in some cases, sharp financial practices) precipitated Melbourne's spectacular crash in 1889-92 - tended to be youthful, and were mostly outside the old pastoral and mercantile elite. Nearly all, moreover, were nonconformist or Anglican. Was this an example of the celebrated link between Calvinism and capitalism? 'Perhaps', wrote Geoffrey Serle, 'the incitement to hard work and the austerity of a standard Calvinist upbringing induced capitalist zeal more than any specifically doctrinal teaching.' Certainly the fact that many boomers occupied pews in Melbourne's major churches was reason enough for most preachers to speak tactfully only of generalities when they denounced the godlessness, the greed, the dishonesty and the recklessness that had brought the city and colony to disaster. The Anglican bishop, Field Flowers Goe, called a national day of contrition.

Yet the pulpit orators had a point: Melbourne's grievous fault was, to some extent, a general failure of will, because the sapping of the public's confidence in the city's banks and building societies, and the fact that the colonial parliament failed to rise to the occasion 'amidst the mounting evidence of chicanery, fraud and deception', hastened the city's fall from its proud position as financial leader in Australia. Conservative (mainly Anglican) moralists, contemplating Antipodean society overall, had been complaining for decades that there was no established class (for example, a landed gentry) that had a sense of social obligation. The churches (particularly the Methodists) attempted to relieve distress, but few clergymen went as far as Charles Strong in his strictures on a society that had permitted widespread and heart-breaking privation.

This determination to offer critique did not desert him when, during World War I, Strong was one of a small band of liberal Protestant ministers who publicly advocated a 'No' vote in the conscription plebiscites. On the other hand, most of the spokesmen of the Anglican and Protestant churches in Melbourne, in the century between 1860 and 1960, acted as celebrants of Empire and of the British connection. Accordingly, when Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne (1917-62), made a very public stand against conscription during World War I and, later, against the British policy in Ireland, sectarian passions were unleashed once again, and more vociferously than ever.

For much of the first half of the 20th century, complications arising from British rule in Ireland, and the sociological fact that many Catholics' origins were in the lower stratum of society, combined to forge a strong link between Catholic political action and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). For the young Melbourne Catholic B.A. Santamaria, Labor's attractiveness was increased between 1929 and 1932 because the federal Labor Government tried to combat the depression by the relatively unorthodox policy of monetary expansion. This expedient was roundly condemned by classical economists (and by most Protestant and Anglican moralists), but it was consistent with Santamaria's own social and economic philosophy. As it was evolving in the 1930s, this philosophy was fiercely opposed to finance capitalism; Santamaria's ideal society was based on peasant smallholdings along the lines of Catholic social thinking in the interwar period.

Labor's sectarian warfare of the 1950s realigned the politics of Melbourne Catholicism. Resisting Catholic Action's anti-communist crusade, agnostics and atheists on the political Left found themselves on the same side as liberal Protestants; ranged against them, opposing communism, were conservative Protestants allied with the Catholic Right. Most poignant was the disruption within the Catholic Church itself. Families and parishes were divided for a generation or longer, some priests and parishioners believing that the threat of communism dissolved the allegiance, forged in the conscription controversies 40 years before, between Church and Labor; others, however, stayed true to what by then was a traditional association with the ALP. The split was Australia-wide but most intense in Melbourne, which, once again, asserted its claim to be the nation's ideological capital.

This was in the 1950s, a decade that saw the peak of what could be called the old regime in Melbourne church life. In these years of social and political conservatism, suburbs expanded rapidly as a result of high wages, low unemployment and a booming economy. While cavernous church buildings in the inner city continued to empty, in the new areas, multi-purpose church halls - often of relatively unpretentious design and construction - were barely able to accommodate growing numbers of young families. The mainline Christian churches provided the inhabitants of the expanding suburbs with a sense of security and purpose; institutional Christianity, moreover, was seen as a safe stronghold of traditional morality in an age when standards appeared to be declining.

When pondering the next appointment to the Anglican see of Melbourne in 1957, the Archbishop of Canterbury was told that this city was pivotal in the Anglican communion. The Catholic Family Rosary rally in 1953 drew 150 000; the Protestants flocked in their thousands to the Billy Graham Crusade in 1959; the Belgrave Heights Convention drew large crowds, and the Australian Student Christian Movement had a strong following. In 1956, thanks largely to the evangelicals' 'vote no' campaign, a referendum to extend (from 6 to 10 p.m.) the hours that hotels could serve liquor was defeated, and the fabled six o'clock swill continued to bemuse visitors to the city. In these years Melbourne religion was as demonstrative as it was confident.

The sequel, however, was less than exhilarating for the Christian faithful. Since the early 1960s, growth has slowed. The congregations of the mainline denominations are ageing, although charismatic, evangelical and Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God are experiencing rapid growth. Also successful are the Mormons (who own several commodious buildings in suburban Melbourne), the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists, whose adherents doorknock across the suburbs, tirelessly disseminating literature and trying to convert the faithless and the sceptical. Immigration has been the main agent of change, and Melbourne was more frequently than not chosen for the place of settlement. With the waves of newcomers from continental Europe, some denominations quickly adapted to the extent of establishing specialist congregations for ethnic minorities: notably (among Protestants) the Baptists, who have more than 20 centres ministering to as many minority communities from Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Anglicanism has lost its numerical supremacy, and the once-predominant Irish element of Catholicism was diluted first by Italians and then by the Vietnamese. Orthodox denominations, whose buildings were initially to be found mainly close to the city in East Melbourne and North Melbourne, grew prodigiously, often taking over churches erected by earlier generations of Anglicans and Protestants. In 1977 Methodists, Congregationalists and a majority of Presbyterians came together in a national body called the Uniting Church (the name deliberately implying that this was merely one stage in the process of a wider union). The new denomination, inaugurated in a ceremony in the Melbourne Town Hall, had as its first president J. Davis McCaughey, the former master of Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and future governor of Victoria. That same year Frank Woods, for twenty years Anglican archbishop, retired; his appointment was the last from a field limited to English prelates.

These two events symbolised the ways in which the city's religious scene changed in the last twenty years of the 20th century. Old denominational ties have crumbled, and the churches, as institutions, have reinvented themselves. Anglicanism has shed much of its English identity, and in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism has been altered almost beyond recognition. The traditional Latin liturgy and much of the customary sacerdotalism have been replaced by a religious practice that sees lay people actively participating in many aspects of church life.

The increasing involvement of the laity has been a major aspect of the new identity of other mainline churches as well. Social issues have replaced theological questions on centre stage. Agitation against the war in Vietnam (1967-75) meant that left-of-centre political activism in religious bodies was, and is, no longer confined to a small, if highly articulate, minority of Protestant and Anglican clergy. Issues of race, gender, world peace, Aboriginal land rights and the environment have been involving the laity, at least as spectators. All denominations lobbied - although unsuccessfully - against the introduction of poker machines. The characteristic evils of the 1990s - drug use and abuse and addictive gambling - have made the social work of the churches (and especially of the Salvation Army and such agencies as the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the St Vincent de Paul Society and Wesley Central Mission) more pertinent than ever. From children's services through to aged care, the churches continue to be the major providers of welfare services in the city.

Probably the only generalisation one can make about religion in modern Melbourne is in relation to its diversity, measured by the number of different faiths and by the representation of a variety of traditions. In Victoria more Presbyterians stayed out of the Uniting Church than in any other State, leaving a large number of continuing Presbyterian parishes, mainly in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs. Since the 1970s the public face of Melbourne's religion has changed dramatically as the result of immigration from Asia and the Middle East: for the first time since the mid-19th century there have been communities outside the Jewish and Christian traditions. There are more than a dozen Islamic mosques, mainly in the northern and western suburbs, with some representation in the outer suburbs to the south-east. Scientology and a range of New Age religions, to which many young people are strongly attracted, have also made their appearance. All of this is evidenced by bearded and turbaned bus-drivers, groups of veiled women on public transport, serpentine lines of young people who, robed in saffron, weave through crowds of city shoppers, the occasional brick-veneer suburban villa that has assumed a new life as a Buddhist temple, Hindu and Sikh centres in the outer suburbs and a minaret peeping demurely over rows of Victorian terraces in North Carlton. And in 2002, a 25-metre high statue of Bunjil, creator spirit of the Kulin nation, was unveiled overlooking Wurundjeri Way at the southern entry to Docklands.

Paul Nicholls