And when the radical priest
Come to get me released
We was all on the cover of Newsweek
– Paul Simon, ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’
“Is politics a call to you? Like religion? Was religion? I mean is God an existent, or simply a ‘real’. Is…”
“Well, I haven’t talked about God this much for years…” Father Rod Bower and I are on our third beer each. He wants to talk about climate change and refugees. I want to talk about God. We’re at a friendly impasse, because I’m an atheist who thinks God might be real, and Rod’s a post-theist Christian.
Clad in the the radical preacherman’s outfit — no dog collar, but an open-neck white shirt and black jacket — he bounced into the main bar of the Royal Hotel in Redfern, close the the Sydney Writers’ Fest, an hour ago, with the energy of a man on the campaign trail. There’s a crowd of colleagues from the ICAN movement in tow, campaigning journo Margo Kingston among them.
“Have you been out canvassing?”
“Oh no. Meetings. Meetings meetings meetings. You can’t canvass for the Senate in NSW. Maybe Tasmania, but not here.”
Bower is the priest at the Gosford Anglican Church, best known to Australians for its provocative, insistent messages on the church’s noticeboard — tweeted round the country. They’re the most visible part of a much larger operation which helps and advocates for refugees, the homeless and the poor; a reminder to many that there’s a counter-voice to the neat, establishment-affirming Christianity spruiked by NSW’s right, from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, all the way down.
Now Bower is running for a NSW Senate seat as part of a loose network known as Independents for Climate Action Now (ICAN); a group focused on the urgency of climate change and biosphere destruction, working in a non-party mode. Their branding is wilfully daggy — the logo a smiling bright yellow sun with pointy rays — it’s redolent of the look of the Greens in their early mung bean and knit beanie phase, a refusal of political slickness.
So, if the world crisis has called Bower to politics, why not work with the Greens?
Bower smiles. His hair is ginger-brown, he’s twinkly of eye, short and low-slung — not what I imagined. (What did I imagine? Max von Sydow howling at a Godless world in a storm I suspect).
“I’ve never been one for organisations,” he says. “They let me stay in the seminary well, ha, they saw something or they needed the personnel…”
Bower’s from the Hunter Valley, farming stock, left school when you did there and then, trained as a butcher.
“Another biblical profession.”
True. I can see the man in black, in white, blood-flecked, carving down a carcass.
So, the priesthood, was there a call?
He looks a little uneasy, as he does whenever our talk gets off politics and the urgent questions. “Well I was a regular churchgoer, high Anglican, incense and the works, and at some point… it just happened. There’s no one big moment, or there wasn’t for me.”
Bower undertook training, was nearly thrown out — “in training, I was introduced to Jesus and that makes you start to ask questions: why are we doing this, who is it for” — was let through, and took a couple of parishes before winding up in Gosford on the NSW Central coast. The work there was as much building community as building a congregation, as it is for any conscientious priest. “But one day,” Bower says, “we put up a sign that said ‘Dear Christians, some people are gay, get over it, love, God’ and it went from there.”
The ICAN team are a half dozen Senate candidates spread across the eastern states, none with a chance except Bower. For a radical priest, it’s a somewhat centrist move.
Rod Bower: I think we have to give people different ways in to voting for the climate, for the earth. If we’re in parliament, well, the pressures on those holding out to come to a real solution…
Guy Rundle: Speaking of the other side, how do you relate to a form of belief like Scott Morrison’s?
RB: Well per se, I’m not going to judge anyone’s way into faith. But I think the Pentecostal attachment to prosperity theology, I’ve got no time for that.
GR: Prosperity theology, the God-will-guide-you-to-deserved-riches, that doesn’t strike me as Morrison’s thing. I think his faith his genuine, I admire it about him, but it’s still a Sky-God, big daddy sort of thing. And I presume that’s not yours.
RB: [Long pause] The simplest way to say it is: the best way to be religious is to follow the living example of Jesus.
GR: The thing about Morrison’s type of faith is, and I’ve seen this in the States, it’s sort of a one-stop shop for personal dilemmas. You get your faith and a whole lot of questions don’t need to be answered; you can get on with life.
RB: Yes, the questions have to be out in the world. In Gosford, the issue is not just climate, not just refugees, but changing communities, communities that don’t know each other. I said to the mayor, “If we don’t address this now, proactively, we’re going to have to later, not so easily.”
GR: What strikes me, going through Victoria and NSW, is that these new independent movements, voices etc is that they do double duty. Political organisation in a world where parties seem alien to many and, in modernity, well, everyone’s lonely. These new networks answer that.
RB: And these things are parts of the whole, that we’re facing with climate crisis etc. Out in the world. It was the Jesuits, actually, who introduced me to that — the real Jesus, a post-theist one — when I did a short course.
GR: I’m guessing that wasn’t their intention.
RB: Nevertheless that’s how it went…
We drink some more. We drink, when the others join us, more than the whole writers festival that day I suspect (all herbal tea and trauma novels). Rod leaves early, off to another meeting.
Rod Bower is as powerful a candidate as the independents grouping will get, but in the Senate I wonder if those who feel the call should not just join the Greens; they could change the party if they don’t like its direction, but build it. The butchery of mass politics…
The worry would be that votes for a quietly heroic figure like Bower will flow not to the Greens but to a skywhale like Clive Palmer. Nevertheless, we all have to answer the call we hear; no one knows anything and nothing but the election can tell us where in the world we go next.