By Joan Henson
When an Anglican priest with a social conscience becomes news, the public pays attention.
Father Rod Bower is the Anglican priest in Gosford whose church billboards first went viral on social media when he quoted God directly. God said that Christians should “get over” the fact that some people are gay, he had posted.
Since July last year, he has fielded a steady stream of interview requests. The Independent, Salon, and the ABC’s 7.30 have cast him as the popular, rebellious rector.
Bathed in the light of St Mary’s stained glass windows, Rod lets out a belly laugh. He isn’t the only priest who opposes the incarceration of kids in detention, or the only Christian advocate of marriage equality. The average Australian is politically moderate, so where’s the controversy?
Rod says he sometimes feels “a fake” compared to Christians being persecuted overseas as he works from the comparative luxury of his Gosford parish.
The recent media hype around Rod doesn’t begin to capture what would constitute the most courageous ideological fight of his life.
In 2002, then the youngest archdeacon of the Newcastle diocese, Rod was caught up in a church controversy over misappropriation of funds and sacked. The priest responsible was immediately sacked, but Rod’s determination to provide pastoral care to his colleague meant that he, too, had to go. Justice had to be seen to be done as the church rebuilt its reputation.
Back then Rod was a career priest who expected to continue climbing a ladder of progressively pointier hats. His sacking left him devastated, depressed, and suicidal. His recovery meant recalibrating his definition of personal success by asking, “What would Jesus have done?”
While it is hard to believe that a prestigious position in the church hierarchy could have ever meant very much to him, Rod says he had been “addicted” to the idea of identity for years.
“In a sense, the bishop did me a favour, although I didn’t see it that way at the time.”
At the time of Rod’s sacking it seemed clear to him that Jesus’ call to walk with the broken applied to his fallen colleague.
But during Rod’s own healing process, away from his role as a Gosford rector (a position that he retained), he came to accept that “perfection doesn’t mean an absence of brokenness”.
The Beatitudes, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which couple every condition of suffering with a blessing, were central to Rod’s ideological transformation. He wrote a guide (‘Plan B Attitudes’) about his personal application of the Beatitudes. It outlined how understanding one’s own suffering can lead to a solid foundation for happiness.
Rod’s car is a midnight blue 2002 Jaguar Sovereign; he refurbishes classic cars as a hobby. He has been fascinated by luxury cars since childhood, and while other teenage boys pined over Holdens and Falcons, he dreamt of owning a Mercedes Benz or a Jaguar.
“They speak to me of another kind of world, a world that isn’t accessible to most people. There’s a kind of mystery about it,” he says.
As a child, his adoptive parents would buy him Matchbox cars as a treat.
Rod spent school holidays at his grandmother’s Newcastle home and learnt from her what he calls an “early spirituality and ignited a curiosity in him about the mystery of nighttime prayer. Nevertheless, it was years before he set foot in a church.
On Christmas day 1982, at the age of 20, Rod went to church. At the time, it felt like the right place to be. Captured by “the liturgy, the movement, the colour and the transcendence of it”, he kept going back.
Parishioners started suggesting that he join the clergy. Thinking to prove them wrong, Rod approached the bishop on the matter, sure he’d be thrown out of the bishop’s office. But the bishop suggested he attend a selection conference. Before he knew it, he had joined the seminary. A warden once told him, “No matter how hard you try I’m not going to throw you out.”
Even while counting the bricks on the wall as he waited to be ordained a deacon, Rod wondered, “Why am I here?”
Despite his early uncertainty, priesthood seemed to answer the questions that an adopted child has about where he fits in. He had a “uniform and a title”.
Rod even met his wife Kerry at work. “I often say that our eyes met across the smoke-filled room of the crematorium,” he says with a laugh.
Rod’s social advocacy is a fitting symbol of the extent of his ideological transformation. A consummate speaker, Rod explains that when Moses announces to the pharaoh “I am sent”, he refers to God as an action, a verb. “You can’t use a verb to rally people around and create power structures,” he says.
He says that theologians have spent the last 3000 years not coping with this idea, while scientists show that “at the point of singularity there is an act. That is God”.
As a minor celebrity over multiple media platforms, Rod seems to move seamlessly from the Twittersphere, to the 7.30, to the Sydney Morning Herald.
A local reporter with the Central Coast Express Advocate, Terry Collins, has known Rod for years. “Father Rod is a journalist’s dream,” she says. “Where generations of church clergy have remained aloof to social issues. Rod is a voice representing the silent majority of the Central Coast.”
A chaplain to young offenders, Father Ramsay Nuthall grew to be Rod’s closest friend at seminary college. He praises Rod for openly expressing his opinions when questioning church doctrine can mean that “the narrow-minded jump up and down like their throat’s been cut”.
Meanwhile Rod admits he isn’t “a real tech head” and was shocked to see how his messages gained traction online. He still has the Sydney Morning Herald delivered to his door, and reads the Daily Telegraph “for balance” in his coffee break.
“What’s interesting me most at the moment is the conversation I’m having with Mr Abbott through social media. I’ve been told his office knows about my signs,” Rod says. ‘Team Humanity’ is Rod’s alternative to the Prime Minister’s ‘Team Australia’. The ‘Team Humanity’ hashtag went viral after Rod used it.
Rod expects that his “15 minutes of fame” will soon be up. “I’ll go back to feed my homeless mates on the steps. They sleep in the toilets. It’s a strange life, tomorrow morning I will be up to my elbows in shit.”