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Ernest Henry Burgmann (1885–1967)

by Anne Sanders

Ernest Henry Burgmann was born into a farming family at Lansdowne near Taree on the north coast of New South Wales in 1885. He was educated at Koppin Yarratt Public School, then at Cleveland Superior Public School in Sydney, but left after a year to set up a timber-getting business with his cousin. It was while he was working as a timber getter that he undertook a Diploma of Theology and gained his licentiate from the Australian College of Theology in 1907. Having been accepted as a candidate for ordination by the Bishop of Newcastle, he completed his matriculation in 12 months and was offered a scholarship to St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney to undertake a Bachelor of Arts (1909–11). He was awarded three further scholarships, which enabled him to complete his studies. In 1912 he graduated with second-class honours in logic and mental philosophy and was also ordained a priest in the Anglican church. He went on to complete his Masters degree in 1914. While at university, he met Tasman Lovell, appointed as a Reader in Psychology within the Department of Philosophy, who was fully acquainted with Freud’s theories. They would meet again throughout the 1920s and exchange ideas about the ‘new psychology’ (as Freud’s psychoanalytic theories were referred to), through the Workers Education Association (WEA) lectures and summer schools.

After a brief country posting Burgmann spent a year as a curate in Wimbledon, and was in London as World War I erupted, a tumultuous time that also exposed him to conflicting attitudes to the war and different schools of Anglican thought. He returned to Australia in 1916, firstly as rector of Wyong on the central New South Wales coast, and then for a year as travelling secretary for the Australian Board of Missions. At 33 years of age, his next appointment in 1918 provided a major challenge, as Warden of St John’s Theological College, Armidale, the Anglican seminary for the northern tablelands diocese. Here he would have a significant influence on the preparation of future Australian Anglican priests who could be 'trained as experts in analytic and medical psychology as well as in moral theology'.

In 1921, in an article entitled ‘The place of psychology in religion’, Burgmann wrote that psychoanalysis was 'no enemy to religion and philosophy but a distinct gain like all new revelations and facts it tended to broaden and deepen philosophy and religion…the gain to the individual Christian psychologist is very great. An instrument for self-examination is placed in his power such as he never before possessed.' As his biographer Peter Hempenstall observed: 'Burgmann’s attraction to Freud and abnormal psychology was a hint that he harboured a wider vision of the church’s role in society, a vision which he began to articulate during his nine years at Morpeth.'

Relocating the theological college to Morpeth was part of Burgmann’s strategic vision. He had approached the various bishops in New South Wales about expanding the college’s remit to cover the seminary needs of the nation (and not just the diocese of Armidale) and a central location, near the rapidly expanding city of Newcastle, provided both city and country pastoral experiences for the students. Following the move to Morpeth in 1925 Burgmann extended his audience and influence by giving tutorial classes on the 'new psychology' in Newcastle, under the auspices of the WEA. Although his lectures drew record attendances, both with his seminary students and WEA participants, many of his Anglican colleagues regarded his views with suspicion.

In 1927 Burgmann instigated the publication of a quarterly journal, the Morpeth Review, with co-editors Roy Lee (Vice-Warden of St John’s) and anthropologist A. P. Elkin (rector at Morpeth). Contributors included liberal Anglican intellectuals addressing secular subjects such as economics, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology and psychology. Many of the contributors were also closely associated with the WEA and the University of Sydney’s tertiary education extension programs. The Morpeth Review ceased publication in 1934 when Burgmann moved to Goulburn.

The Great Depression had a serious impact on Hunter Valley miners and the Newcastle steel workers. Burgmann’s social activism became more radical and public in response to perceived injustices towards the powerless and poverty stricken workers and their families. He spoke at public meetings and wrote regular newspaper columns in the Newcastle Morning Herald. Combined with his growing reputation as a social reformer he was also regarded as holding left-wing political sympathies, which sometimes ran contrary to the more traditional individualist ethic of the Anglican church.

Nevertheless, in 1934, much to his surprise, Burgmann was appointed Bishop of Goulburn (incorporating Canberra). Bishop Burgmann remained an avid reader of Freud’s works and an eclectic promoter of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. He was one of a number of prominent Australians who offered strong support, along with doctors Paul Dane, Reginald Ellery, Roy Winn and Bill (M.D.) Silberberg, to the proposal made through the International Psychoanalytic Congress in Paris in 1938 to bring European psychoanalysts, fleeing the Nazi regime, to Australia. This combined pressure resulted in the emigration of Hungarian training analyst Dr Clara Lazar Geroe, who arrived in Melbourne in 1940.

In 1948 the Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, appointed the 'Red Bishop' (as the media referred to Burgmann) as an adviser to Australia’s representative at the UN General Assembly, Dr H. V. Evatt. The Bishop’s political links with communist affiliated organisations, such as his presidency of the Australia-Soviet Friendship League, were questioned in parliament. He remained committed to social justice and the church’s role as advocate.

In 1946 Bishop Burgmann relocated to Canberra, the national capital, as the centre of his diocese, and in 1950 the Anglican synod recognised his claim as Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. In 1957 he established St Mark’s National Anglican Memorial Library in Canberra as part of his commitment to promoting continuing education within the clergy. Although initially hampered by insufficient funds, it was nevertheless his intention that such a library would encourage advanced theological research that would lead to the development of a distinctive Australian theology. He retired as Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn in 1960, but continued for a further three years as Warden of St Mark’s Library. He was awarded an honorary ThD by the Australian College of Theology, and in 1961 was appointed a CMG (Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George), an honour bestowed on individuals of the British Commonwealth who have rendered important service.

Bishop Burgmann died on 14 March 1967 of pneumonia and congestive heart failure in Canberra and was survived by his wife, Edna and children: two sons; Victor and Alan and three daughters; Joyce, Betty and Dorothy.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Sanders, 'Burgmann, Ernest Henry (1885–1967)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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