Page 1: Biography
Perry, Charles Elliott
This biography, written by Marie Peters, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Charles Elliott Perry was born in Melbourne, Australia, on 19 May 1871 to Charles Stuart Perry, an Anglican clergyman, and his second wife, Esther Walker. After attending schools in Melbourne, he gained second-class honours in history at St John's College, Oxford, in 1894. He was made deacon that year and was ordained priest in Melbourne in 1895. At first he was 'an evangelical, with broad church leanings', like his father, but in 1897 he was influenced by reading The Catholic religion: a manual of instruction for members of the English church (1893) by Vernon Staley, and began 'to preach the Catholic faith according to the Church of England with great enthusiasm'. His enthusiasm led him into contention almost wherever he went in Melbourne, and hindered his career. With both relief and reluctance he accepted charge of St Michael and All Angels, 'a beautiful church with all the proper ritual and a very good stipend' (£300) in Christchurch in 1916. He came to New Zealand with his wife, Dorothy Frances McCrae, whom he had married in Melbourne on 6 April 1907, and their family.
At St Michael's, a leading parish recently turned Anglo-Catholic, Perry immediately began to emphasise the discipline of confession. Early in 1918 Archdeacon C. H. Gosset laid complaints about practices at St Michael's. He was driven chiefly, it seems, by dissatisfaction with the measure of support given by the bishop of Christchurch, Churchill Julius, to Perry and his predecessor, H. D. Burton. Eventually he took his case to the church's court of appeal, consisting of all the New Zealand bishops. Until October 1919 Perry's future at St Michael's was in doubt.
The most important of Gosset's many charges concerned Perry's teaching on confession and the need to fast before receiving communion. Gosset also questioned the practice of reserving consecrated communion bread, begun before Perry's arrival and approved within certain limits by Bishop Julius. The court of appeal's judgement, released in July 1919, condemned the mandatory tone of Perry's teachings but not the substance of them. Only relatively minor practices were forbidden and reservation of communion bread within the bounds originally imposed by Julius was allowed. Perry's retraction on all matters disputed by the court was accepted and in October 1919 he was merely admonished by Julius. Perry was jubilant, with good reason. The landmark decision, in close accord with developments in England, vindicated Julius's authority as bishop to allow increased diversity in his diocese. Perry could stay at St Michael's and establish it as the first fully Anglo-Catholic parish in New Zealand.
Perry's characteristic rigidity in matters of faith was unshaken, and although he accepted the judgement he modified his approach very little. He was always less interested in the ceremonial aspects of Anglo-Catholicism that proliferated at St Michael's in his time than in encouraging disciplined spirituality. An eloquent preacher on a wide range of topics, including the social gospel, he acquired an Australasian reputation among Anglo-Catholics. He wrote two books, The religion beautiful and The Christian's native air. Wider recognition in Christchurch was evidenced by his election as canon of Christchurch cathedral in 1934. Although vehement in faith he was gentle, widely read and warmly human in interests: he loved 'literature and tobacco and picture theatres'. He exercised some influence beyond religious matters through regular newspaper articles on a variety of topics and for a time lectured in history at Canterbury College.
Perry's wife, Dorothy McCrae, came from a family distinguished in the arts and was herself a poet. She produced several collections of poetry after her marriage. Vicarage life was not easy, especially in the depression of the 1930s, but the marriage was happy. There were three sons and one daughter. Dogged by illness in his later years, Charles Perry retired in October 1936 and returned to Australia. He died in Sydney on 8 January 1937; Dorothy died there three months later. A man of deep and unwavering convictions, Charles Elliott Perry made a distinctive contribution to New Zealand Anglicanism.