“Why did GOUGH GO OFF like that?” the satirical OZ magazine asked in June 1966 after the Rt Rev. Hugh Rowland Gough had resigned as Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and Primate of Australia. The official statement had mentioned ill health.

Readers of the Sydney press discerned that more was afoot than Gough’s need for a good lie-down. “Mystery as Gough Quits” headlined the Daily Mirror. “Westminster Abbey Wants to Know WHERE IS DR GOUGH?”, charged the Sun; church authorities in London, it continued, had been trying to contact him since his arrival late in March.

The Archbishop had left Sydney on 20 February to attend a conference in Jerusalem. Reportedly suffering from overwork, he had sailed on the Oronsay. Rumours circulated about a letter of resignation dated the day of departure. On 26 March, the Diocesan commissary, Bishop Marcus Loane, received a letter of resignation to be put into effect two days later when the Synod’s Standing Committee met. At 9am on the 28th, Gough phoned Loane asking that the request be withheld.

Meanwhile, Gough had written to other clerics intimating his intention to withdraw. Those words were made flesh. On 12 April, Gough advised Loane that he would not be able to proceed to Jerusalem. By then, Mrs Gough had flown out to catch up with her errant spouse. Late in April, Loane received a cable and a letter expressing Gough’s hope of returning in June. On 19 May, a press interview from the United Kingdom also raised expectations that Gough would resume his place.

Then, on 24 May, Loane received a second letter of resignation which he put to an extraordinary meeting of the Standing Committee on the same day. Why had it been accepted with alacrity? Why did Loane not inform the acting Primate, Dr Woods of Melbourne? Suspicions were raised that, as an opponent of Gough’s, Loane had taken advantage of the situation for his personal and theological ends. The weekly Anglican noted that the “usual manoeuvering for succession started last February”.

A statement from Gough’s medical specialist London affirmed that the decision to stand down was the result of his “very low blood pressure”. In truth, the problem was that, low down in Gough’s anatomy, the pressure of blood had often been too high. His Grace was in danger of being cited as correspondent in a divorce case. No-fault divorce was then nine years away.

When Gough gave his first interview a fortnight after his resignation, he repeated his alarm about other people’s immorality, which he blamed on parents, whom he said should set an example to their children. The twice-divorced and adulterous proprietor the Sydney Morning Herald, Warwick Fairfax, compounded Gough’s hypocrisy by printing his denunciation of lustfulness on the front page while knowing the reason for the flight of his fellow Anglican.

Every journalist in Sydney and Fleet Street had heard the actual cause. Only OZ published it. With trademark cheekiness, its editors – Richard Walsh and Richard Neville – declared it “unthinkable” that an exponent of Christian morality “could allow his attention to wander from his lawfully wedded wife”. The magazine, which Gough had denounced as “dirty”, declared the allegation scotched, “Not by facts but by our knowledge of the man himself.”

The real story has circulated in diminishing circles but the infidelity has never since been spelt out in print. The academic authors of a 1987 history of the Sydney archdiocese treated OZ’s allegations as scuttlebutt, though they did include the offending article in their footnotes without specifying its charge. Reviewing that volume for the Sydney Morning Herald, its religious affairs writer, Alan Gill, acknowledged that Gough’s “final months in office were marred by problems in a personal relationship, which became the subject of gossip and innuendo”. The scholarly Anglicanism in Australia of 2002 went no further than to repeat the quip that Gough had “laced his orange juice with passion fruit”.

The version that Gough had been driven away by factional politics in the Sydney Archdiocese could convince because it conformed to what everyone knew about Church life there. Personal animosities were rife. Sydney was the poisoned chalice.

An appreciation of the erotic and ecclesiastical tangles that preceded Gough’s flight calls for biographical details. The sacramental squabbles have assumed greater significance now that the faction that Gough criticized as “parochial” is triumphant under the brothers Jensen.

Hugh Rowland Gough was born on 19 September 1905 in a village in the Himalaya, where his parents were missionaries. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, he earned a rugby blue and became a leading Evangelical before being ordained a priest in 1929, the year he married. During the war, he served as a chaplain in the Middle East, was wounded, and awarded an Order of the British Empire. Photographs show the hearty Gough as tall, dark and handsome into his sixties, in the mould of Louis Mountbatten,.

In 1948, Gough moved to East London, as Bishop of Barking. As the only bishop to support the 1954 Billy Graham Crusade, he was too Evangelical to gain preferment in England. However, he impressed the power-brokers of the Sydney Synod when he preached to a clergy school there in 1957. He was elected Archbishop, on a split vote among his fellow Evangelicals, in November 1958, to be enthroned with less than Papal splendour on 29 May 1959.

According to Gough’s successor, Dr Marcus Loane, Gough’s coming to Sydney was “like a strong, fresh breeze. It woke up the whole Church with a bracing touch of healthy vigour”. Gough described himself as one of nature’s conservatives. Yet, he feared that “well-worn tracks can become ruts, and ruts can become graves.” In his seven-year incumbency, he presided over a start in Ecumenism, and the adoption of a new constitution, acceptance of state aid for church schools, the professional approach to church finances. Essential as these changes were, each one alienated some entrenched interest. His supporters concede that his overbearing manner impeded the implementation of these reforms.

Pettinesses that would try the patience of an angel erupted at once. An English photograph showing Gough wearing a pectoral cross provoked one Sydney low churchman to denounce that symbol of the Resurrection as “idolatrous”. Anglo-Catholics responded by parodying the hymn: “Onward, Christian soldiers,/ Marching as to war,/ With the cross of Jesus/ Hid behind the door”. Gough assured his new flock that he would never, never wear a crucifix. Sydney was literally a poisoned chalice.

Gough was an Evangelical but a liberal one. In retirement, he accused some of his Sydney brethren of being Evangelical before they were Anglican. Their opponents characterized them as “Presbyterians in surpluses”, or even as Anglo-Baptists. Candles on the altar were “illegal”. The Low Church Party allowed no symbolism as an aid to devotion for the individual soul confronting the Almighty.

Against such Pietism, Gough proclaimed that “The Church that lives to itself will die by itself”. He encouraged missions among prisoners and for immigrants. He spoke from the back of trucks at factory gates. He got his friend and English Test cricketer, the Rev. David Shepherd, to stay on for three months after the 196 Ashes series to attract young men to a muscular Christianity. This willingness to engage with everyday life had to overcome what an Anglican academic referred to as his “irritating habit of talking to someone face-to-face and calling them by their surname, which was all right in England but did not go down well here”.

Although Gough was surprised by the overlap of politics and religion under the Catholic-dominated State Labor governments, he voiced opinions on most public questions. After visiting the troops in Vietnam late in 1965, he declared that the US would win as soon as the Viet Cong came out and fought. In a challenge to White Australia, he suggested that his successor could be an Indian.

On most matters, Gough remained the complete Evangelical. Gambling, for instance, was beyond the pale, whether as church raffles or poker machines. He held onto even stiffer attitudes towards sexual immorality, which he linked to Communism. In 1961, he accused the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney of promoting “soul-destroying philosophies which are breaking down the restrains of conscience, decrying the institution of marriage, urging our students to pre-marital sexual experience, advocating free love and the right of self-expression”.

His Grace was nauseated by the permeation of sex into every corner of life and feared that the contemporary world had “gone the whole hog”, which would lead to a reaction as lopsided as Victorianism had been. In 1964, he pictured the young “wallowing in the mire of sexual immorality”, a case of the preacher railing against the sins to which he was himself most tempted. “Australians are materialists and pleasure lovers because they have so many natural sources of enjoyment”, as he found to his cost.

Gough denied being unsympathetic to homosexuals. On the contrary, he pitied them because they were diseased. The danger was that toleration would discourage a lad from struggling “manfully with himself and guide his affections along normal channels”.

The Archbishop had shocked Low Churchmen by declaring that he did not “mind a glass of wine”, and that the Bible seemed to approve of moderate drinking. Dinner parties at Bishopscourt were remembered as “light-hearted affairs” after Mrs Gough installed a cocktail bar near the entrance to the chapel.

Gough’s relations with the Evangelicals were not smoothed by his wife, the Hon. Madeline Elizabeth Gough, daughter of the twelfth Lord Kinnaird and a cousin of the Governor-General, Lord De L’Isle. She preferred England to Australia. A year after her return there, she made it clear that she was missing her black pedigreed poodle, “Figaro”, at least as much any of her colonial acquaintances.

The doings of the Goughs during their seven years in Sydney contained the elements of Barchester Towers from a hundred years before, but with the beliefs and behaviour of Trollope’s characters distributed differently. Mrs Gough displayed Mrs Proudie’s overbearing but not her fierce Evangelicalism. The archbishop’s career, not that of his chaplain, the oleaginous Slope, was thwarted by a flirtation.

The Hon. Mrs Gough manifested her discontents on her official domicile, Bishopscourt, in Greenoaks avenue, Darling Point. The mansion had been built in the 1850s for the chilled meat king, Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, and its rooms were likened to a freezer. With the kitchen 100 metres from the lounge room and with a servant, Fernando, who could speak no English, the finest Gothic Revival house in the country was not a million miles from Fawlty Towers. Renovations costing £40,000 had been effected before the Goughs had moved in; a further $150,000 was spent on a facelift.

Among Gough’s trials in Sydney none was as fiendish as A. F. (Francis) L. James, Tory Radical, High Churchman and editor of the Anglican, an independent church paper with a circulation of 22,000. Gough and James had clashed over church politics and matters of state. James was a Balliol man who had served in Fighter Command when he was shot down to become a POW. Unable to cope with his antics, the Nazis repatriated him. As a result of burns received in his crash, he wore dark glasses and a broad-brimmed black felt hat, which added to his eccentricity. While Gough made do with a Bentley, James dispatched his copy on education and religious affairs for the Sydney Morning Herald from his 1928 Phantom II Rolls. For a few days in 1953, a segment of the carpet down which the Queen had just walked for her Coronation furnished James’s office inside the Herald building, before reaching its destination with the Archdiocese. After he masqueraded as a KGB general around Canton at the height of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese locked him up for four years as a British spy.

This flamboyant fabulist polished his account of Gough’s departure, which he had first supplied to OZ, which he printed at the Anglican.

After dinner one night in the mid-1980s, Francis entertained the company. He opened in the middle of the action by inviting the table to eavesdrop at a Sydney reception in late March 1966 for the coadjutor archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Felix Arnott. “What are you doing about Gough?”, demanded a pillar of the colonial establishment. When Arnott looked more befuddled than ever, she sighed: “I see you don’t know. I shall get Francis to explain”.

Having whetted our appetite, James allowed himself a rolling flash-back. “Word of Gough’s romance had spread after the pair was seen holding hands at Royal Sydney Golf Club, where Gough played tennis each week. A curate at Campbelltown had chanced upon the Diocesan Bentley, with its distinguishing number plate of ‘HS 1’, parked late one night in a country road. Supposing that his Archbishop had broken down, he tapped on the window before being assured that no help was required. When another cleric put up at a pub beyond the city’s outskirts, mine host remarked that he seemed to be getting a lot of clerical trade. Some bishop and his wife were frequent quests. At first, the Synod was abuzz. But neither aggrieved spouse took action. It suited the husband to let his wife stray. Eventually, the tittle-tattle went stale.”

Reverting to the moment when he had been summoned to inform Arnott about Gough’s doings, James recollected affecting reluctance. “You see, we were not on the best of the terms. I did not want to seem to be blackening him. Truth would out. When it had, Arnott needed another sherry. ‘What are we to do’, he implored. ‘Inform the acting primate’, I suggested.”

The acting primate was Dr Frank Woods of Melbourne who, on being told that he had to rush to Sydney, booked a sleeper on the overnight Southern Aurora. That method of travel presaged his reaction to the revelation of the affair. “He couldn’t stand up for a week”, James recalled. “So, we were still without a commander. Next in order of seniority was Perth. Something more expeditious than the transcontinental railway journey would be required if George Appleton were to reach Sydney in time to avert a scandal to the faithful. I knew that no domestic flight would be prompt enough. But QANTAS had an international route to Johannesburg, via Perth. Of course, it was not permitted to take internal passengers. So we sought approval from on high. A parishioner of Appleton’s, Hasluck, was by then Minister for External Affairs. Without explaining why, we prevailed on Hasluck and QANTAS to put Appleton on the next flight to Sydney.”

“On being apprised of the impending crisis, Appleton saw that the first step was to approach Mrs Gough. How much did she know? What would she do? Would she initiate divorce proceedings of her own? Despite Appleton’s good sense, he did not quite know how to put those questions. He was relieved mightily when she cut in: ‘I know what you have come about’. ‘What are we to do, Mrs Gough?’ ‘Do?’, she intoned. ‘You shall keep it out of the papers. That’s what you must do.’ And we did.”

“The married lady in question had left Sydney to meet up with her beloved in Madrid. It was a measure of the man’s intelligence,” Francis shook his head, “that His Grace had arranged his assignation in the capital of the only country in Europe where adultery was a criminal offence. Meanwhile, Mrs Gough had flown to Italy to intercept her husband when the Oronsay docked at Genoa. He eluded her and had to be apprehended in Rome by the Anglican Church police.”

“One can but imagine their respective reactions on their reunion. Both were of the type to face down criticism. Yet, she wanted to return to England. He feared being served with a writ should he return to Australia. To avoid the press, he was installed in a London private hospital where he was attended by the Queen’s Physician-in-Ordinary, who provides a medical certificate about exhaustion. When it arrived, I pointed out its want of credit. As an old journalist, I knew that my colleagues would never be fobbed off by so vague a condition as ‘exhaustion’ for so momentous a matter. The bishops saw wisdom in this contention and asked me, as a Director of the Church of England Information Trust, to supply a corroborative detail to this otherwise unconvincing narrative, as Pooh-Bah has it in The Mikado. ‘Very low blood pressure’ seemed apposite. I doubt that many of the clergy got my joke. The divorce was fixed by other means.”

James’s performance had sounded so authoritative, that we listeners could do other than admire its seamless web of corroborative detail. The exception was his wife, Joyce. “You left out the most important element”, she intervened.

“What is that, my dear?”

“The lady truly loved him”.

A hush fell.

“In those days”, Mrs James continued, “a woman risked access to her children if she were the guilty party. Mrs A-B had to return to Sydney where her circumstances were known, a subject of ridicule. After her divorce, she worked behind a counter. Gough enjoyed a permanent holiday in Bath, kept by his wife.”

Mrs James’s interpolation is why this account has not named the lady, even though she died of cancer many years ago. If not entirely innocent, she was a victim. We can but hope that she never knew that Gough’s infidelities were not confined to her for he had at least one other dalliance while in Australia.

Research for this article has indicated that certain Jamesian touches were as improbable as their propagator. His version has been recorded for what it indicates about the unworldliness of those charged with caring for a straying flock. The Anglican hierarchs could not bring themselves to think about sexual misbehaviour by one of their own. Their first and last reaction was to cover up, which proved a disaster for preventing child abuse.

Eighteen months after resigning, Gough declared himself “perfectly fit”. He had moved to the 14th century village of Fresh Ford, Somerset, in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, to serve as rector of St Peter’s. Its 1850 Rectory of four sitting rooms and five bedrooms with central heating had to be remodeled before Mrs Gough took possession. In 1971, the adjoining parish of Limpley Stoke passed to his care. The Goughs retired in 1972 to a converted forge at Over Wallop in Hampshire. He died in 1997, aged 92. The Sydney Morning Herald obituary noted that “some mystery” had attached to his departure.