The Most Rev Frank Woods

The Times 30th November 1992

The Most Rev Frank Woods, KBE, Archbishop of Melbourne, 1957-77, and Primate of Australia 1971-77, died in Melbourne yesterday aged 85. He was born in Davos, Switzerland, on April 16, 1907.

For Frank Woods, the Primacy of Australia was not a glittering prize attained by a self-made man. For him high office was an entrustment for which his whole earlier life had been a guided and conscious preparation.

Born at Davos, where his father Edward, recovering from illness, was chaplain, he was educated at Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge. Ordained from Westcott House, he spent two years at St. Mary’s, Portsea, then returned to Trinity as chaplain, finally leaving Cambridge, his home and college base for 17 years, to go as vice-principal to Wells Theological College, 1936-39.

As a Royal Artillery chaplain he was at Dunkirk in 1940 and he was later brought back from the Middle East to run a centre at Tidworth for chaplains’ preliminary and refesher courses. A similar house was opened two years later at Assisi for the Mediterranean forces by his younger brother, Robin, who later as Dean of Windsor developed the idea at St. George’s House in the Castle.

Woods finished the war as senior chaplain in Northern Ireland, then went as vicar to Huddersfield, where he was a Proctor in Convocation and Chaplain to the King. In 1952 he followed his uncle Theodore as Suffragan Bishop of Middleton (Manchester). In 1957 he was elected Archbishop of Melbourne.

High office in another country always has pitfalls, as he discovered more than once. The layman’s part in a non-established church was new to him, and this was complicated by the grant in 1962 – by the state legislatures but, by a curious oversight, not by the federal parliament – of a constitution conferring independence from Canterbury and judicial powers.

The new church courts’ first case concerned one of Woods’s own clergy, and the handling of it, marred by over-confidence in legal advisers untrained in church law, was flayed by the media (including the London New Statesman).

Archbishop Woods was the last Englishman to be brought out to an Australian see. But he was not an ambassador of Canterbury, and did not seek to be one; nevertheless he thought in the Mother Church’s mental language.

Hs fitness to meet the challenge of a large and expanding city was quickly shown by his appointment of a task force – of future bishops and other distinguished clergy – for housing estates too new to have self-supporting parishes; and by his establishing in 1961 a permanent Inter-Church Trade and Industry Mission.

His experience of preparing clergy in peace and war served him in good stead and he raised the standard of training. Following the London example, he divided his jurisdiction into regions, each semi-autonomous under a bishop-coadjutor.

From 1968 to 1976 Woods was on the World Council of Churches central committee, and with considerable courage he supported its controversial programme to combat racism. Committee meetings took him periodically overseas, a sign of his deep conviction that the place of the Australian Church lay in its being part of something bigger. Thus, at the WCC New Delhi Assembly in 1968 he travelled unexpected distances to address services and meetings. A WCC resolution on the Jews in Russia, passed at a meeting in Crete, was endorsed at the Melbourne Synod and set a precedent by being discussed in the United Nations Third Committee at New York.

As Metropolitan of Victoria Woods brought to his see a new sense of responsibility for the much smaller country dioceses, offering exchange appointments and participation in Melbourne’s selection system for ordinands, in-service training and the annual theology school. He had a similar outreach to the other denominations, as president of the Australian Council of Churches, 1965-6, in his leading role in that council’s working group with the Roman Catholics and in his Ecumenical Affairs Committee to assess the different heritages of the Anglican and Protestant Churches. The Religious Centre at Monash University developed from this committee.

It was largely due to Woods that for the 1973 Eucharistic Congress at Melbourne Anglicans helped to accommodate the visitors, and that over 150 church leaders joined in a seminar on ecumenism. At a meeting in the town hall, after a cardinal from the Vatican had droned for an hour about the time not being ripe to move towards inter-communion, he replied that on the contrary “we are yearning for a catholicity greater and richer than any we have known so far” – and got an ovation. That catholicity was never far from his thinking, as witness the non-Anglican preachers and speakers in his cathedral, and an agreed liturgy for Holy Communion between the denominational colleges at Melbourne University.

For his last six years as archbishop he was Primate of Australia, an appointment that is sometimes little more than a badge of seniority; but not in his case. During those years he of course represented the church overseas – perhaps most strikingly at the dedication of the new cathedral at Honiara, where in his sermon he recalled and confessed Australian guilt for the blackbirding of fathers, husbands and sons from the Melanesian islands to work, virtually as slaves, in the Queensland sugar plantations.

To the General Synod, which met only once (1973) during his Prmacy, he delivered a memorable charge outlining five hopes: Anglican unity; wider unity; doctrinal revision and unity; development of the ministry and the mission of the church. It was thanks to other men’s speeches at that Synod that he changed his, till then, rigorist attitude towards remarriage of divorcees in church. After retiring he had a number of medical setbacks, but he surmounted them with courage and went on (to quote a tribute of 1977) as a man “deeply responsible and responsive, to the books he reads, the people he meets, the situations he enters, and the occasions in which he is called to participate”.

He married, in 1936, an Oxford graduate, Jean Sprules. She survives him with their two sons and two daughters.