According to Father Rod Bower, the hardest part of being a priest isn’t performing the last rites or consoling the bereaved.
“I was called to a hospital to do a wedding last Saturday for a woman who planned their wedding in late September but it became clear she wasn’t going to live that long,” he told Crikey. “So, we did a wedding at the hospital bedside. That kind of stuff takes an emotional toll when you do a lot of it.”
And then there’s the challenge of defending the Anglican Church from preconceived notions. A prevailing view is that a Church is a conservative body, resistant to progressive causes. But, as history has shown, the Church is capable of change.
The Archdeacon of the Central Coast has gained popularity among progressive camps for his public stances on marriage equality and asylum seekers — much to the dissonance of his church. Despite Bower’s growing popularity and newly found media attention, he doesn’t always remain in the good books. His colleagues within the Church admire his charisma though they don’t necessarily agree with it.
“I’m answerable to the Bishop of Newcastle. Over this period of time we’ve had successive bishops who are also very passionate about human rights and so while my bishops might not always agree with me … they’ve always been very supportive.”
In a recent appearance on Q&A, Bower was asked by a (presumably Christian) audience member how he reconciles his beliefs on same-sex relations with the scriptures, quoting a Bible passage, which literally condemns it. Bower responded by arguing the understanding of same-sex attraction was not as comprehensive in those times as it is today. It’s difficult to discern between faith and culture.
“It’s about reading the Bible in its context, about understanding the context in which these writers were writing, and what was accepted in their ethical and social architecture,” Bower says. “We can’t just take the scriptures literally and transpose them onto a modern context.”
It’s nearly a year since the final attempt at preventing the same-sex marriage postal survey was struck down by the High Court. Since its legalisation, the Uniting Church has permitted its clergy to practice same-sex marriages. Bower’s own church, the Anglican Church of Australia, has made no such advancement.
A literal reading of the Bible is difficult, but not impossible, to overcome. After all, it’s how women were allowed to be ordained as Anglican priests in Australia from 1992. A church is a fluid network, where one node doesn’t necessarily communicate with the other, making it difficult to adopt a universal stance. The Anglican diocese of Sydney still refuses to ordain women as priests, for example.
“It took 30 years of dialogue and theological exploration … It took a very long time to get to that point,” Bower says.
It comes as no surprise that, to change an idea in both an institution and its constituents, empathy and patience are the keys.
The introduction of new ideas will come to another head as the push for a republic grows. It will take years to reverberate through Australia’s public sphere, considering solutions to how we structure our government and the role of Indigenous Australians. Bower believes that eventually becoming a republic will demonstrate Australia’s maturity as a country — assuming we acknowledge Australia’s dark history.
“If we engage in the process of facing our past, learning of the wisdom of 65,000 years of civilisation in Australia, and looking to the future together with First Nations people, I believe we will become a mature nation,” he says.
Changing a prevailing culture is a pertinent issue for Christian groups. Though he wasn’t the true victim of the Catholic Church, Bower said the findings played an emotional toll throughout the Christian clergy.
“At one point during the Royal Commission [into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse], a priest who had been very good to me and nurturing to my vocation, it became clear he was an abuser,” Bower says.
“There were a few days I thought I couldn’t go on being a priest because I was so devastated.”
While Bower says change from within is powerful, he also admits the outside forces of the royal commission were necessary to kickstart a change of culture. In an institution as ideologically diverse as the Anglican Church of Australia, reconsidering a belief will take decades of successful discussion in order to occur. In terms of marriage equality, the first steps have been made and Bower says he will be there to speak and listen attentively.