opinion

'What I need you to do is listen.' Fr Rod Bower would like to sit down with Israel Folau.

It was Tuesday afternoon when Fr Rod Bower received a message from Magda Szubanski. The comedian and campaigner wanted the Anglican priest from Gosford to join a group she was forming.

“I got a text from her saying, ‘Darl…’ as you do,” Fr Bower tells Mamamia with a laugh. “She’s wonderful. She floated this idea and immediately I said, ‘Yes, let’s do this’.”

Magda Szubanski talks to Mamamia’s Adam Bub at the Sydney rally. Post continues after video. 

Szubanski was bringing together a group of Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists, both gay and straight, under the banner ForLove, as a response to Israel Folau’s GoFundMe campaign. It’s not hard to see why she approached Fr Bower.

Last week, after rugby player Folau launched a tirade against homosexuality and transgender kids, Fr Bower put up a sign out the front of his church, reading, “LGBT friends. Folau is wrong. Don’t listen to him.”

Not long after his tirade, Folau set up a GoFundMe campaign, aimed at raising $3 million for his legal battle against Rugby Australia, who sacked him after a string of homophobic social media posts.

“He’s got his faith, and I believe he ought to be free to express that, which he is, as repugnant as I find it,” Fr Bower says. “But Jesus tells us that if you’re serious about your faith and expression of it, it can be costly. Okay, he wants the right to express it, but he doesn’t like the bit about it being costly? So he wants to have his cake and eat it too.

“Also, Rugby Australia has a very clearly articulated policy of inclusion, especially with regards to the LGBTI community. I think a person of integrity wouldn’t then want to work for an organisation that has such a clearly different set of values.”

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Fr Bower has seen firsthand the impact of homophobic comments like Folau’s.

“Imagine a young gay kid, struggling to work all that out, loves his footy, thinks Israel Folau is the greatest thing in the world, and all of a sudden he comes out and says something like that. You can imagine the devastating effect it will have on that person’s mental health.”

As Szubanski explained to Fr Bower on Tuesday, 90 per cent of the money raised by the ForLove campaign on GoFundMe will go to the Children’s Cancer Foundation. The rest will go to Twenty10, a service for young LGBTIQA+ people in NSW.

“If I’ve got to support people’s religious freedom, even if I don’t agree with them, then I absolutely have to support the people who may be damaged by their expression of their freedom,” Fr Bower explains. “And so ten per cent of this money is going to support young LGBT kids who often get thrown out of home when they come out.”

Szubanski contacted a number of other people to ask them to join ForLove. Among them were SBS presenter Patrick Abboud, lawyer Mariam Veiszadeh, and Lyndall Katz, who’s active in social justice issues in the Jewish community.

Katz tells Mamamia she hadn’t wanted to get involved in the whole Folau debate, because it was “too divisive”. But ForLove was different.

“We needed something to bring people together and this seemed like a really good way to do it,” she says.

“It was being able to join in with others who are sort of different from me but the same. We wanted to show that people can connect across divisions and really work for something that we all care about.”

The ForLove GoFundMe campaign drew $150,000 in donations in its first 24 hours.

“It was fun watching the dollars go up,” Katz says.

Listen: The Mamamia Out Loud team discuss Israel Folau. Post continues after audio.

Fr Bower has also been “blown away” by the response to the ForLove campaign. But the priest has faced a massive backlash for sharing his views on the Folau controversy. Since putting up the “Folau is wrong” sign, he’s been bombarded with abusive calls and emails.

“My secretary had to stop answering the phone because she was just getting so sick of the abuse. I had one that I’ve passed on to the police that was threatening to cut my throat.”

However, he felt it was important, as a religious leader, to give an alternative view to Folau’s.

“Honestly, there is nothing in the scriptures that condemns what we now understand as same-sex attracted people,” he says. “Infidelity is condemned. They don’t know what same-sex attraction is. It’s a very complex thing.

“Bad biblical scholarship always leads to human suffering, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing in this case.”

Fr Bower says he would love to sit down and talk to Folau.

“I would like to say, ‘Look mate, I understand you actually believe that you are offering hope and help to LGBTI people, but what I need you to do is listen to their voice and hear how they’re receiving what you’re saying. They’re hearing condemnation and marginalisation and vilification. I just hope you can hear their voice.’”

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