The rector at the Anglican Parish of Gosford, in Australia’s Central Coast, is not just controversial: By many accounts, the Rev. Rod Bower defies conformity and resists many of the stringently conservative views of his church.
He once said this to his fellow Christians, via a roadside billboard that serves as his megaphone: “DEAR CHRISTIANS, SOME PPL ARE GAY. GET OVER IT. LOVE GOD.” Bower is also a strong advocate of Muslim migration, a defender of refugees and a believer in climate change. He has made his views widely known, much to the dismay of some in his congregation who would prefer that he keep quiet about politics. But Bower, who further amplifies his message on social media, is far from staying silent.
His latest message on the church’s popular billboard is a swipe at the United States in light of the Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 people at a Florida school: “WHEN WILL THEY LOVE THEIR KIDS MORE THAN THEIR GUNS”
In a Facebook post of a photo of the billboard, Bower described the United States as “a society destroying itself from within,” a declining empire that “can never be great again.”
“A culture that loves guns more than children has no future other than corruption, decline and death,” Bower said.
Australia has some of the most stringent gun laws in the world. Parliament passed strict gun control legislation in 1996, after a gunman opened fire in a Tasmania cafe, then hunted down more people in his car, killing a total of 35 and wounding several others. The National Firearms Agreement banned the possession, manufacture and sale of all semiautomatic firearms and pump-action shotguns other than in “exceptional circumstances,” notably military and police use. It also mandated that applicants wait 28 days from the time they obtain a permit to the time they buy a weapon.
Australia has not had a mass shooting, defined as five victims or more, since the law’s passage — a fact that many in the American media have repeatedly brought up, usually in the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States.
This isn’t the first time Bower has criticized the United States. Days after President Trump’s inauguration he posted: “WE MUST LEARN FROM AMERICA’S GREAT MISTAKE.”
Trump’s election and the nationalist sentiment he’s inspired are a “dark cloud that has engulfed the United States,” Bower wrote in a lengthy Facebook post.
“The United States has made the mistake of following a leader who uses a form of populism to manipulate an already anxious populace,” he wrote.
Another example is his swipe at White House counselor Kellyanne Conway: “ALTERNATIVE FACTS. WHAT THE!”
But perhaps Bower’s more headline-grabbing billboard messages were about his stance on social justice issues, religion, equality and national politics.
A few examples:
“MARRIAGE EQUALITY. FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST DO IT” (This was posted around the time Australian leaders were debating whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. The Australian Parliament legalized same-sex marriage last December.)
“IF ONLY REFUGEES WERE GREYHOUNDS” (The billboard pokes fun at the state of New South Wales’s apparent concern over its greyhound racing industry.)
And this: “DUTTON IS A SODOMITE.” The message was referring to Peter Dutton, Australia’s immigration minister, who was criticized last fall for suggesting that refugees headed to the United States from the island of Manus, which is part of Papua New Guinea, were not living in hardship because they had luxury items from Armani. Bower explained in a Facebook post that the “sin of Sodom” is not about homosexuality, but about lack of hospitality.
In an interview last week with a New Zealand radio station, Bower said he does not believe that the church should be passive, especially about politics.
“Politics is simply the way we human beings organize each other. So yeah, I think everybody ought to be involved in politics … Religious leaders have a responsibility, I think ethically and morally, to speak into the life of the nation,” Bower said, adding later: “While I think the church always should be involved in politics … I think it should never be involved in government.”
While Bower’s outspoken attitude makes him stand out among the high-collar clergy, he is not necessarily alone in the Anglican community in his beliefs. The Anglican Parish of Gosford is part of the Anglican Church of Australia and the Anglican Communion, the third-largest Christian group in the world, with some 85 million members. And the Communion has long held to traditional views, such as marriage being strictly a union between a man and a woman. But in early 2016, it suspended the Episcopal Church, its U.S. branch, following years of heated debate with the American church about homosexuality, same-sex marriage and women’s role in society.
Bower, who’s also an ambassador for the Refugee Council of Australia, is not without critics. The assistant archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Melbourne, for example, criticized him for his billboard post about Dutton and called it a “personal slur on a government minister.”
And in an interview with News.com.au, Bower said he’s been trolled on social media and has received physical threats. In August 2016, anti-Islam protesters dressed in Islamic garb interrupted Bower’s Sunday service.
“When I first began speaking out, it was a tense time, the letters to the top levels of the church were flying thick and fast,” Bower said. “There must be a whole room dedicated to letters complaining about me.”
Lindsey Bever and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.