More self-deprecating than most great churchmen, John Bede Polding (1794-1877) died without a Boswell to immortalise him, for the smoke of sectarian animosities, national bias, and corporate self-interest obscured his true dimensions from the men of his time. With the smoke by now almost dispersed, he can stand in the pool of light and shadows cast by his own achievements and failures. An Englishman who became one of Australia's most distinguished pioneers, his personality and situation are of compelling interest, all the more so because of the triple paradox which he set out to resolve.
The first was that a contemplative monk from rural Somerset undertook the gigantic task of creating a Christian country out of a prison settlement set up to receive the rejected felons of the old world, with vowed monks as the most effective antidote for moral numbness.
Secondly, if the means proved striking, the method was nothing short of stunning. Commanding a territory roughly as large as the United States of America, which, newly discovered, lacked roads, railways and waterways, the abbot-bishop planned to evangelize his jurisdiction, comprising white Europeans and black natives, from the capital, Sydney, the focus of Benedictine monastic life. Amplitude of vision combined with absence of resources might seem the ultimate paradox.
Nevertheless it was outmatched by the third, namely that the zealous, laborious and gifted abbot-bishop set out on his odyssey with a compulsive energy and charming arrogance which blinded him to the awkward questions inherent in his scheme. Brimming with ambivalence, and displaying to critics an almost Manichean duality, the man himself proved the most fascinating paradox of all.
Polding's attempt to resolve these paradoxes forms the substance of my study, which thus falls naturally into three parts.
Part I shows how an orphaned boy became crucially dependent on the Benedictine Order, and from a reclusive monk was transformed into a missionary archbishop with' a powerful sense of election to New Holland, where Benedictinism was to be the star of hope. But then came three factors which tended to obscure the luminescence of that star: for first Polding's English brethren, too few to meet even home needs, resisted having their life-blood siphoned off to the colonies; next, the texture of life in New Holland proved harder than Polding had foreseen; and finally, the Roman Catholic church in the colony had assumed over the fifty years or so of its bishop-less existence a largely lay and wholly Irish configuration. Logic thus demanded a change in Polding's plan, but he could not rise to meet this challenge, because he required his Benedictine framework just as the deep sea diver needs his survival equipment.
Part II introduces further complexities: the moral quandary of a churchman who is also an officer of the Crown, and thereby harnessed to the established order; the puzzle of how education might combine wisdom and godliness when tied to state decrees; the challenge of maintaining centralised control in the face of population growth, increased self-government, and questioning suffragan bishops. Curbing Erastianism, disowning secularism, and preserving internal church unity were balancing skills which Polding as metropolitan practised with a fair measure of success.
In Part III the man himself steps to the fore, grappling with his personal problems and those of his church. At first he had Ullathorne to rely on to help right public wrongs, preferring himself to exude only benevolence from the episcopal throne. Later, he was served as vicar by a lesser man, Gregory, who could support him in private with his friendship, but was unable to bolster his public authority. It was then that Polding's image became troubled with a Manichean duality, and Benedictine centralisation came in for severest criticism as an anachronism. Polding's response was to modify his plans. This unwilling compromise and the recall to England of his misguided vicar enabled him to move into the relative calm of a synthesising vision.
Though there exists no full-scale study of Polding, conflicting estimates of his life and work have emerged in histories and journal articles published in the last decade or so. The Suttor-O'Farrell school make him a saint and hero. A brace of younger writers, including Hosie and Southerwood, see Polding as too jealous of Benedictine prerogative to be just. This work attempts to show Polding, while confessing his frailty and fallibility, engaged in a worthwhile effort to find God and serve man.