As a local pastor in Gosford, a regional city on the New South Wales Central Coast, Father Rod Bower might administer last rites three times a week. He might do this in hospitals, hospices or nursing homes. Sometimes he might visit the dying at home, as he did one day in July 2013. On this day the sick man was in bed, surrounded by family. Cancer would soon claim him. “Does he have a partner?” Bower asked.
His question was met with strained silence and the shuffling of feet. The dying man did have a partner, who, anxious to avoid the church’s disapproval, had at this moment discreetly condemned himself to another room. The dying man was gay. “I worked it out,” Bower tells me. “So we got the partner around the bedside. I don’t blame the family one little bit. This is what the system had led them to believe.”
The dying man’s partner stood bedside as his loved one was anointed with holy oil. He was commended to God’s mercy. “Go forth from this world, O Christian soul: in the love of God the Father who created you, in the mercy of Jesus Christ who redeemed you, in the power of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you.”
Deeply frustrated, Bower drove back to St Mary’s Anglican Church at Gosford. He had something in mind, a kind of public reassurance. At the front of the church stood a humble billboard, its announcements made by the placement of removable plastic letters. Until now, its use had been strictly orthodox: to communicate service times, or the dates of special sermons. But not today. Limited to 50 characters, Bower drafted a message in his office. There were no phone calls up the church hierarchy. No permission was sought. Satisfied with his message, he grabbed the box of plastic tiles and a stepladder and walked out to the billboard to write: “Dear Christians. Some ppl are gay. Get over it. Love, God.”
Photos were taken and published on the church’s Facebook page.
“I did it out of frustration, but out of that frustration I wanted to communicate a very clear welcome,” he tells me. “I was very moved by that event to be clear that not all Christians are anti-gay. We wanted to be a welcoming place for LGBT people.”
Images of the sign went viral. “There was a media frenzy,” Bower remembers. “I had no training in media. It was a crazy week or so. It went international. I realised at that time that we had a platform on which we could speak on issues of social justice. [The church] has always used technology. We were the first to use the printing press. This is the latest version of that, and very effective. Without social media, I’d just be a poor old parson in a regional town.”
Some of his congregation left, but Father Bower continues to enjoy the Anglican Church’s support – he was promoted to archdeacon of the Central Coast the following year – and he tells me that the sum of his church has grown. Its devoted have, on average, become younger.
Since 2013, the billboard has been enthusiastically used to sermonise, in its restricted fashion, on refugees, racism and same-sex marriage. It is avowedly, unapologetically political – a vision made by Bower in the style of the prophets of the Old Testament. His church, he says, is a prophetic ministry – one that compels his spiritual exhortations to be braided with social commentary, however unpopular. He is especially fond of Micah, a minor prophet of the Old Testament, who, in relaying God’s word, condemned the rich and powerful who abused the poor.
For Bower, a prophetic ministry means aligning his church with outsiders. “I’m an adopted person,” he says. “And like all adopted people, I see everything from the perspective of an outsider. I was very lucky to be brought up in a privileged family. But there’s always the sneaking suspicion that you don’t really belong. That’s something that’s defined me. Even now, as an archdeacon in the Anglican Church, where I am at the centre of authority and status, that’s not how I perceive it. I perceive it as being on the outside looking in. That’s why I relate to outsiders: the homeless to the refugee. I’ve always called myself the Archdeacon of the Edges.”
Bower’s signs have declared the US a “Dying empire”, blessed the burqa, likened offshore camps to hell, and scorned the practice of fracking. “Peter Dutton is a Sodomite,” read one message, cheekily, or offensively, indulging a biblical double entendre. The signs have, at least within the peculiar confines of social media, become iconic. They are, naturally, deeply provocative.
Last weekend, a small group of Melburnian ultra-nationalists made the drive north to Gosford. Calling themselves Cook’s Convicts, the group of five were led by Neil Erikson, a man who last year, along with two others, became the first to be convicted under Victoria’s recently revised racial vilification laws. Erikson is a former neo-Nazi, has a conviction for menacing a rabbi, and was one of the men who filmed themselves ambushing then senator Sam Dastyari in a pub last year. In ensuing litigation, Erikson was found in contempt of court.
Last Saturday night, the group filmed themselves storming a prayer meeting in the Gosford church. Erikson was dressed as Jesus, and carried a whip and megaphone. One of his cohort was dressed as a Roman soldier, and carried a plastic sword. When the men entered the church, a woman could be heard screaming. “That first moment when they came through the door, all I saw was the whip and sword,” Father Bower says. “And I thought, ‘We’re in trouble here.’ It took a few seconds for me to guess what they were doing, because we’ve been through this before. It was incredibly violent in nature. Not physically violent, but it was traumatic for the congregation. It was deeply triggering for one person, who had survived the hijacking of an aircraft. It took them back into that.”
Assuming the role of Jesus, Erikson bellows into his megaphone: “You’ve desecrated my Father’s house.” Members of the small congregation pleaded with the men not to be filmed, while Bower counselled against any physical remonstration and led his group in prayer. Erikson’s group was gone after a few minutes. Police are investigating.
“Not one politician has come out and condemned that act on Saturday night,” Bower says. “Not one so far. If those five men had been Muslims, then it would’ve been characterised as an act of terror.”
The following day, Bower again took out the box of letters and a stepladder. This time the billboard said: “We’re into Hail Marys, not Heil Hitlers.”
Later that day, he gave a sermon addressing the intimidation. At one point, he said: “If it’s not just a little bit dangerous going to church, then you’re not going to church.”
This prompts a number of questions, among them: Who is Bower to determine how much danger is soulful for his congregation, and does he consider faith without risk to be impoverished?
“I would say underdeveloped,” Bower answers. “When you worship a God who was executed for sedition, then it poses the question: Do you genuinely worship a Christian God and embody his life and teachings, or are you just part of a religious club?
“The congregation chooses whether they are part of what goes on here or not. We’re not a cult. They’re free to come and go as they please. While we take security precautions – more so now than we did Saturday – generally I don’t think it’s any more dangerous being in church than it is driving to church. But certainly there are people in our community who oppose our message and seem, at least potentially, to be willing to do that violently.”
One criticism of Father Bower is less of his politics and more of the ego involved in broadcasting them. The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, himself a passionate and ever evolving social reformer, recognised the spiritual danger of “the subtler form of egoistic corruption” within “even the highest forms of Christian prophetism”.
I put this to Bower, and he responds with a brief reflection. “There was a rabbi by the name of Feldman,” he says, “who characterised the Hebrew prophets as having three characteristics of their ministry. One was that they were very clear in what they said. Secondly, they were willing to live on the outskirts of their society, and [third], that they were willing to be outrageous. That well describes the prophetic ministry.
“Now, I recognise that in a celebrity-obsessed world, where you gain some notoriety or attention, it plays into the ego. And I know, from time to time, that this happened to me. This is why we have a regime of spiritual direction and professional supervision. But I think what’s not immediately obvious to people who see me is that 99 per cent of my time is spent as a parish priest. I visit the sick, I’m a pastor, I go to frustrating parish council meetings, I work with homeless people who sleep on my verandah, and I clean toilets – it’s one of my rules. Clean the toilets. You live a regime of reality, you know?”
In the next few weeks, Bower says, he plans to conduct a service “of healing and reclaiming sacred space that’s been defiled and desecrated by that act of violence”. For now, he says, it’s business as usual.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "One billboard outside Gosford, amusing".
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