Tony Abbott has been called one of the world’s most unpopular prime ministers, but that moniker does not do justice to the opposition he faces at home. While Abbott and his ministers are trying to sell an unpopular budget, some churches in Australia are trying to sell socially responsible morality in their sanctuaries and on their billboards. Pithy slogans and witty banter have taken hold of the internet as one church in particular has taken to the web in order to spread its message of love and justice. While there are many churches that are opposing Tony Abbott and his measures, the Australian parish of Gosford Anglican Church has become an internet sensation for doing so, and its somewhat unexpected support for causes of social justice has gone viral.
Gosford Anglican Church has what many modern religious institutions should probably have – a socially responsible rector. Father Rod Bower is not a fire and brimstone type of preacher, but a man who focuses on love and the very simple motto of “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” According to him, “This Kingdom of God manifests itself in compassion and justice and true humility and there are lots of things going on in our society at the moment that aren’t about those things.” There is no better place to see what he means by this than the signs he puts up in front of his church that have gone viral on the internet.
His signs about gay marriage are all over the internet. One has read, “Jesus had two dads and he turned out okay.” Another read, “Dear Christians, some people are gay. Get over it.” As Bower’s message of affirmation and challenge to his fellow Christians spread over Facebook and the rest of the web, news outlets started picking up on it. The Huffington Post ran a story about the signs and Buzzfeed listed 23 of them as “inspirational.” While the simple parish priest seems to think this kind of message is a simple no-brainer, other people in Australia and around the world have found it nothing short of amazing. Gosford’s rector remains humble about the internet success, saying that it is “just a little sign in Gosford.”
If it is such a simple idea, then why are Bower’s signs so popular? In Australia, at least, part of the reason is a shifting sense of what matters and what is right. On the issue of gay marriage, more people than ever are supportive of it, creating radical shifts in parts of Aussie culture. For sports, one of Australia’s best loved pastimes, the shift is obvious. A sports writer in an Australian newspaper remarked that the taboo surrounding homosexuality in sports has “retreated like a tide.” He cited not just examples of athletes coming out, but also the sporting audience response to discussions of homosexuality. During one football program, for instance, a presenter criticised American football player for kissing his partner after being drafted, calling it “annoyingly gratuitous.” Not only was he labeled as homophobic by some of his fellow presenters, but the audience applauded when one presenter said that view was “off the pace.” For some people, this kind of response is an indication of just how much Australian culture has shifted over the last few years.
That shift in culture may explain why the signs in front of Gosford Anglican are so popular. They reflect an already growing movement towards acceptance and equality. But it is not just one issue that has people in Australia excited about a simple church sign. After Tony Abbott became prime minister, the signs Bower put up for the church opposing a politician that many people already felt extreme dislike for has led them to go viral as well.
In many ways, Bower’s signs are saying what most Aussies are thinking at this time. There is widespread opposition to Abbott’s new budget, which slashes programs like medicare, education, climate change research, and foreign aid. While these measures are unpopular, what really has the voting public hopping mad is the fact that Tony Abbott broke almost all of his election campaign promises in order to pursue them. In a brilliant piece of social commentary, Gosford has had signs that say, “Transparency is a currency of a trust relationship,” as well as, “Our budget tells us who we are.” For a country that feels lied to and betrayed, these signs are a social commentary on how they feel about Tony Abbott.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental issues of the moment, however, is the treatment of asylum seekers. As of this week, asylum seekers trying to gain access to Australia were still be held indefinitely in camps with terrible conditions and having their human rights violated by the Australian government. The United Nations has already warned Australia about its possible violations, but that warning has largely gone unheeded by the Abbott government. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison also announced that taxpayer funded assistance to asylum seekers would be cut, labeling efforts to help people navigate the legal system as an “advocacy group.” He chalked the decision up to the “tough budget.”
Gosford Anglican Church’s signs have already addressed the issue of asylum seekers before but now, under Tony Abbott, the issue has reared its ugly head once again, providing more fodder for the pithy reverend. Some of his signs address the issue of asylum seekers directly. One has said, “Safeguarding the rights of others is the most noble act.” Another told readers online, “Dear world, we need help to stop harming asylum seekers.” The internet savvy priest knows his audience well if he is directing his message beyond the bounds of Australia. With 10,000 likes on Facebook, he knows that the world is watching his signs, even if they do not know what is going on in his country.
The signs in front of the church also address Tony Abbott directly, having the voice of God express its opposition to asylum seeker policy, a message that has also gone viral. One sign said, “Tony, please stop calling asylum seekers illegal. I don’t like it. God.” This poked fun at Abbott’s policy on asylum seekers as illegal immigrants which, according to Australian law, they are not. Another sign was more Biblically minded as God said words he once expressed in early Bible times. “Dear Mr. Abbott, please let my people go. God.” The echo of Exodus may have put many readers in mind of the Israelites in captivity and Moses asking the Pharaoh to release his slaves.
Whether Father Bower is a modern day form of Moses or not, he has enjoyed internet popularity for himself and his church. With his social justice messages out there for the internet to see, he has increased his audience beyond the members of his congregation and touched the hearts of many. His message about gay marriage appeals to members of the LGBT community which may feel rejected or persecuted by religion, but it is also a sign of the times which are seeing a drastic swing towards support for marriage equality. As an Australian, however, Father Bower has a message for his countrymen and for his politicians as he tackles the issues of asylum seekers, honesty, and the unpopular budget. As Gosford Anglican Church and others continue opposing Tony Abbott and his extreme political agenda, more and more of the signs have gone viral proving that at least one preacher in Australia knows the value of the internet.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury