An interview with Rod Bower
WORDS BY EDEN FAITHFULL
CW: Rape, Child Abuse.
Talking to Father Rod Bower for the first time is a little bit like bumping into an old friend. His warmth and tenderness flows freely throughout the course of our conversation, and you can’t help but almost instantly feel at ease in his company. Most people know him as the man behind the Gosford Anglican Church sign that exhibits infamous one-liners such as “Bless the Burqa” and “Pauline, let’s have lunch”. He prefers ‘Rod’.
I don’t know this because I have just called him up for an interview, but rather because he acted as the celebrant for my grandfather’s funeral late last year. As a victim of child molestation at the hands of a Catholic priest, one of my grandfather’s dying wishes was that there be no religious iconography at his send-off. When my family expressed this wish to the funeral home near where he lived in the Central Coast, the nice lady in the crisp white blazer said she knew exactly the person to call.
Rod Bower didn’t know my grandfather, but the moment he stood up to the podium to speak to a tearful congregation remembering the life of Alwyn Hatter, it was clear he didn’t need to. “Seeing all of you here today, it’s pretty clear that Al was one lucky bloke”, he muses. For the first time that day, I see my mum in the row in front of me smile, hang her head and chuckle. I imagine Al and Rod sharing a beer down at the club in Erina Fair, trading stories about the golf game the day before and about how aggravating it is that young people these days always have to wear those rubber sandals. Then I remember that my grandfather never drank beer – or alcohol at all for that matter – and that Father Rod Bower probably didn’t have the specific irritation regarding people’s choices of footwear that Al did. One thing was clear, and it was that this man was the perfect person to send off my grandfather in the way he deserved.
Six months later, I find myself speaking to Rod again. This time, I’m barefoot and cross-legged on my couch in Sydney eating blueberries out of the punnet, and he’s in his car in the Central Coast, chatting to me over his Bluetooth’s loudspeaker.
“One of the Pro-Vice Chancellors there at Sydney Uni was saying to me that one of the least integrated groups on the campus were the Muslim students. The most integrated group apparently is the Chocolate Appreciation Society”. I laugh and tell him that our campus is nothing if not infinitely hospitable to the entire spectrum of simple carbohydrates.
Seeing the recent displays of racism, Islamophobia and general bigotry on campus, I thought that perhaps Rod Bower’s words could help educate different groups of students, helping them to sit still, stay quiet, and listen to one another for a change.
“The first controversial message you put on your sign was ‘Dear Christians, some PPL are gay. Get over it. Love, God.’ Was there any particular event or circumstance that made you want to use your sign as a conduit for your progressive ideologies?”
Rod’s sigh through the crackling loudspeaker sounds almost frustrated, or sad. I can't decide. I don't think he can either.
“What actually sparked that sign was that I had to give the last rights to a gay man that was dying, and the family had made the assumption that I would be critical or judgemental, and so they kind of hid his partner away. I had guessed what was going on, and so I insisted that his partner be a part of the last rights. Of course I didn’t blame the family for their decision, but it was just the whole Christian culture that would have informed them, and so that’s when I put that particular sign up, to say to the community that just because I was a Christian priest, don’t assume that I’m anti-gay.”
This makes me think of something that I had read in one of many articles about 'Rod Bower the religious rebel', and I ask him whether he thinks he deserves the title of a “reluctant priest”.
“I mean, I think my whole journey towards priesthood was a reluctant one to be honest. I was a fairly well-off young man, and living a pretty hedonistic lifestyle…” - he laughs bashfully at this point - “and so this insistent call to the priesthood was one that I fought against, I assumed that eventually in the process someone would throw me out. But they never did, and here I am twenty-five years later. Still going strong. The warden of my college actually took me into his office one day and told me, ‘no matter what you do, I’m not going to throw you out, so stop trying’.”
And it seems that Rod’s penchant for getting into hot water is still going strong as well. Of course, along with his public expression of pro-Muslim, pro-refugee and anti-homophobic ideologies, Father Rod Bower has encountered a number of people who have not been so willing to have faith in him. So how do a Christian rebel’s social beliefs align with his historically conservative faith?
“Well I think we are closest to God when we are closest to each other. The divisions between human beings are, I guess, an outward and visible sign of the distance between us and the Divine. The closer we get to each other is essentially the closer we get to God. It’s a spiritual necessity to seek reconciliation with other human beings.”
It is these small pearls of spiritually-allied wisdom that Rod Bower spreads across his many social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. Of course, however, his notorious church sign does most of the speaking for him, and Rod acknowledges that he’s not the first holy man to spread his message with a little help from the world wide web – and it’s forbearers.
“I’m not that good with technology actually! I probably should be better on Instagram, though I can’t quite work it out. I think I need some lessons on it. I really do think that as social media evolves or whatever the next generation of social media will become, it’s imperative that anybody with a message to get out there engages with the most recent technology. This is not even a new thing in the church, actually. Even in the middle ages, we engaged with the technology of the day: the church was the first organisation to use the printing press – we embraced social media very early! Whether it’s through music or art of technology, this is just the twenty-first century equivalent of the printing press.”
Father Rod’s Bluetooth cuts out at this point, and we both scramble on either end of the line to reconnect. I swing my foot out and knock my punnet of blueberries over as I pace around the apartment, trying to get connection again. As the call finally comes through, it occurs to me that the poor man is probably in his car because he needs to get somewhere, so I finish off with a final question. I tell him about instances of Islamophobia, racism and hate speech on campus.
“What do you have to say to young students who are starting to engage in this kind of rhetoric? Is there any crystallised message we can try to send?”
“I’d have to say I’m privileged to meet some extraordinary young people that are passionate about their community and social justice and the future of our society, and I would really want to encourage them to resist the narcissistic part of modern society that tells them ‘it’s all about me’, and to embrace the fact that what they’re doing at University is for the betterment of the entire community. And I know that’s really hard in modern culture. Resist that cultural push towards the ‘I’ stuff, and understand that what you’re doing at Uni is evolving into something that could be helpful to the whole community.“
“I actually just had a conversation with somebody who was quite critical of my messages and the things I say. And I said ‘what do you want to see happen?’ He said ‘I want to see Muslims having a higher level of participation in our community’, and I said ‘well yeah, so would I!’ And so I would say to these people is that what we’re trying to achieve is a higher level of community participation for minority cultures across the board. It’s that that makes it a safer, happier, more peaceful community for everybody. All the other stuff just falls away and you find out you’re just left with another human being who has the same dreams, hopes and fears that everyone else does.”
At the end of our conversation, I thank Father Rod Bower for all the help and support that he’s given to so many people who are not given a voice in Australian society, both in the Central Coast and across the country. He probably didn’t know this, but I couldn’t help thinking he’d done the exact same for thing for Al and my family.