Did The Catholics Get it Right?

I’ve often cited one of the benefits of ‘being Baptist’, (or any kind of free church) as the idea of freedom of conscience – the ability to think for ourselves and hold different / dissenting opinions on various issues. There is no central ‘rule’ in Baptist churches and no one person who calls the shots. The ‘church’ doesn’t tell us what to think or do and if they try to we usually get gnarly about it. For example, our church (QBC) has no official stance on same sex marriage. The upside of this is a decrease in the level of control exerted over people – a lessened call to conformity. No one gets shoved around or forced to comply with a theological position they don’t hold.

I have always felt for Catholics whose church makes decisions and decrees and then expects it’s members to toe the line.

But this week I was reflecting on the weaknesses in our own system. When no one gets to call the shots then everyone gets to frame truth their own way. When there is no recognised authority then in an increasingly individualised world we often find that authority in ourselves. We become our own reference point – our own best guide. You have to admit that is a bit scary…

While I am attracted to the freedom of this perspective I’ve also become disturbed by the conclusions it allows people to reach and it has prompted me to consider the value of the ‘Catholic’ model – placing authority in the church – being willing to submit to the church’s authority. That’s a big call I know…

Our approach assumes people read scripture, listen to God and discern his mind on issues, and when we come together we practice communal discernment. It’s a great idea…

The truth is we are more often driven primarily by the winds of culture and sometimes – not that often – by what we see the Bible saying – if we can read it diligently enough and coherently enough to make sense of it. Honestly – I don’t think more than 20% of people do this – and I’m being generous.

The Catholic way assumes that some people are able to read the Bible much more capably than others and that they are then able to discern a) what God is saying b) what is best for the church. It assumes that on our own we will likely veer into a ditch of misinterpretation and misapplication. It then expects it’s members to accept the statements the church makes. In our current climate the Catholic Church is clear on its stance on same sex marriage – but if you’re a catholic I’m guessing no one sought your opinion or input!

The problem with the Catholic way is that when the bloke/s at the top (because it’s not gonna be the women) gets it wrong then everyone gets it wrong for a very loooong time! There is minimal opportunity for grass roots questioning and dissent. And history has shown that we do get doctrine wrong sometimes.

Ok so there is no perfect method but lately I’ve found myself veering somewhat back towards a church that is willing to take a stand and call it’s constituents to fall in line. Why? Not because I want to retard individual thought but rather because I sense we have lost the ability to submit – to think communally and to allow someone we disagree with to speak for us.

In an increasingly individualised world I sense we are going to splinter theologically into thousands of pieces unless we are willing to allow ‘the church’ to speak for us in some way. I’m not sure how that plays out – and I honestly I don’t like the thought of having my own freedom impinged upon – but I can’t help but wondering if we are going to end up tripping over our own autonomy and finish up in a place of mass confusion.









I opened the envelope and sat down at my desk to cast my opinion (because it isn’t a vote – its an ‘opinion poll’), but as I was about to tick a box I hesitated. Because ‘Yes’ doesn’t say all of what I want it to say… and then ‘No’ doesn’t tell the full story either. I came back 4 days later and ticked a box but it wasn’t without some frustration.

The problem for me was that I only get to choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and unfortunately then I get to be defined by my choice (It seems to have become a defining issue) but I can see both sides of this argument and depending on the day and the conversation I am in, I can lean either way.

Its not that I don’t have strong convictions – I do – but rather that it is a complex issue and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just doesn’t do it justice.

If I go with my Christian convictions based on how I read the teachings of the Bible in regards to human relationships then I will vote ‘no’. (I believe its God’ original intent for men and women to be together.) The fallout from this is that some will see me as bound to the teachings of a book that carries no authority for them and that has no relevance to a 21st C secular society. At best I may be perceived as lacking in my ability to think – perhaps a product of a religious system that prevents me from free thought. Or at worst I may just be cast as a homophobe and a bigot – and no one wants to be that… a modern day leper.

Then if I take a step back and look at what it means to live in a secular society where everyone has a right to their say and where we cannot assume any priority based on Christian heritage I can see a case for the ‘yes’ vote and a number of Christians have argued this case quite articulately and convincingly. It means equal rights for all and people get to choose their path – wherever that leads. If I take this tack then some of my Christian tribe will see me as a sellout – as having a ‘low’ view of the Bible – of caving in to cultural trends. At best I will be seen as out of step with the rest of the church community, or at worst I will be a false teacher and a heretic – one to be disregarded in future conversations around issues of this nature – the guy who lost the plot on the gay marriage issue…

You see ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ just doesn’t allow for any nuance whatsoever. When I say ‘yes’ I do so meaning ‘XYZ’, but I am concerned about ‘ABC’, or when I say ‘no’ I do with similar caveats and concerns, and if you are a Christian and can’t say that I’d suggest then maybe you haven’t grappled with the issue sufficiently.

I don’t expect my friends who aren’t Christians to share my wrestle – there is no need to consider faith issues when you don’t hold the Bible in high regard. That said, I do expect respect and to be taken seriously. I’m happy to offer my thoughts and reflections on the subject and to explain the challenge that this subject is for many people of faith. I’m even happy to have a good spirited argument about the issue – but I’m not happy to either use propaganda to demonise others or be defined myself by propaganda. The plebiscite was always going to be problematic, because campaigns call for propaganda and propaganda requires an enemy to fight against. So far the propaganda machine is doing its job well and managing to create ‘us’ and ‘them’ (whichever side you are on)

Likewise I would hope that my Christian friends would see the bigger picture of what it means if one group (the Christians) get to dictate the tone for society. Our own God allows us to choose our path – whether that is in line with him or not. Christians are as entitled to their say on this issue as much as any other group in society, but not more than any other group.

Increasingly I have felt the pressure increase to ‘get with the program’, ‘wake up’ or ‘see the light’ – and that’s from both sides. When you treat me like a moron and try to win me over with crass arguments, fear or manipulation then you insult me and I find your campaign weak. Unfortunately this is what it has come down to so often.

I expect most of my friends who aren’t God botherers will vote ‘yes’. (I’m not sure why you wouldn’t as it is the way our society is heading). But for my Christian friends who may vote either way, my great hope is not that you will ‘get it right’, but rather that whatever you do it will be done in a spirit of love and respect. Whether you are perceived as ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ the call from Jesus to love those who disagree with us and seek to live at peace with everyone is stronger and more powerful than the call to get the right answer to a vexed question.

I’m not going to tell you which box I ticked in the end but you’re welcome to have a guess…










Back in October 1974 I arrived in Australia as a chubby, freckle faced 10 year old Irish kid with an almost unintelligible Belfast accent. To make matters worse I thought football was a game played with a round ball which in those days cast serious dispersions about my sexual orientation… We rented a house in one of Perth’s cheapest, but roughest suburbs and in those first 3 months I struggled to fit in at my new school and I became the obvious target for ridicule and bullying.

Pasty white skin, a thick Belfast brogue and no clue how to kick a real football meant that I spent lunchtimes in the library away from people, or with my only friend – Charlie – one of the ‘special’ kids as we called them then. Charlie didn’t know I was a loser so he was happy to be my friend.

It wasn’t a great start to life in this new country.

When the new year came we moved house and school. I was relieved as I wanted out and I wanted friends. In this school I knew one person, another kid my age called Mark. On that first morning I went to school I prayed. I don’t think I could even call myself a Christian at this point, but I was desperate and I hoped God might take pity on me and cut me a break. The prayer went something like this, ‘God I know one kid at this school. Could I please sit next to him and be friends? Please?…’

It was simple and direct – the way prayer ought to be I reckon. If I’m honest it was said more in hope than confidence, but I was desperate and prayer always seems to be the place we go to in times of desperation.

When we got allocated to classes I found myself in the lower academic group and Mark was nowhere in sight. I wasn’t convinced prayer worked so that was no great surprise. The morning went slowly, but about an hour before recess the teacher introduced some new maths to us – long division. She gave us a bunch of problems to solve and told us it would take us through to the break. I finished the lot in 10 minutes and got all of it correct. She was clearly a little puzzled at my academic capacity. Starting school a couple of years earlier than everyone else back in Belfast had definitely given me a headstart on the Aussie kids who hadn’t heard of long division until that day.

At that point the teacher decided I really didn’t belong in her class after all and brought in the principal to re-locate me. They had a brief conversation and then told me they were going to move me into the class next door – the smart class – woohoo! As I got to my new class I discovered there was only one seat vacant in the whole room – right next to a kid called Mark…

Now I was the one puzzled. Crikey… this prayer stuff really did work!

Mark became my friend and introduced me to all the other kids at his table, who oddly enough shared my love for football played with a round ball… I instantly had friends and the sense of belonging I wanted.

Although it was over 40 years ago now, I remember that morning vividly – the first time I recall God ever answering a prayer of mine – and what an important one it was to a kid who really needed a friend. Since then I’ve prayed plenty of times and some seem to get answered how I’d want, while others obviously matter more to me than to God.

I can’t say I understand how prayer works – except to suggest that if we see God as a good father then it’s a bit like when my son comes to me and asks for something. I love him and always want what’s best for him so sometimes he gets what he asks for and other times not. That’s what good dad’s do.

No doubt someone will call that experience a co-incidence, a lucky break and that I have just assumed it was an answer to prayer. Honestly?… Maybe you’re right. I can’t be one hundred percent sure it was an act of God, but over the years as I’ve prayed and got to know God I’ve developed a confidence in him that causes me to believe that he actually does care and does want to get involved in the lives of ordinary people – even lonely 10 year old Irish kids who play football with round balls.

Another Day in the Backyard

‘Do you eat marmalade?’ Sally calls out after she has backed her ute into the street.

‘Um… yeah… I guess… My wife will eat it.’ I reply.

So she drops a jar on the front seat of my car. ‘I make it, but I never eat it.’ she says with a cheeky cackle.

Sally is a 70 year old ex-crayfisherwoman turned farmer who lives in a neighbouring suburb and who I’ve worked for several times in the last few years. She lives alone after caring for her sick mum for the last twenty years. She’s tough as nails, a bit rough around the edges and kind hearted all in one quirky package.

A new retaining wall she installed has created some work for me – some plain grunt work digging trenches and laying pipe and some problem solving, wondering where the old pipes run and how I can make it all function again.  It sounded like two hours work on the phone, but on arrival I ring my next job and tell them to expect me after lunch. Its often that way at Sally’s place. I think her favourite phrase is ‘while you’re at it…’

As a farmer, she knows retic and knows exactly what she wants, so everything needs to be run past her before moving on. I’ve learnt that – its done Sally’s way or its done again.

At 9.00am after just an hour of work the rain sets in so I head indoors to sit at her kitchen table and have a cup of tea. She’s a self confessed hoarder and the room is full of random boxes, papers and junk that probably meant something to her once, but now just fill space. She lives between this house and her farm in the midwest that she manages on her own – no mean feat for an older woman.

‘I lost 21 sheep last week to bloody dogs,’ she tells me. She gives me the rundown of how the farm is going and then asks how I like my tea. Without the slightest blip of conscience she uses a vile racist description to tell me she likes hers very strong. I don’t think she realises how offensive her words are and I am bemused, but beyond wanting to correct her. It isn’t an offense to her and it won’t help for me to go there.

She has no clue how to use her printer to print my invoice out, but she can find the weather radar on her ipad quick as a flash. ‘This is only a quick shower’ she says, ‘but the next will be a big one…’  (and she was spot on).

I head back outside to work while she drives down to Yanchep to book a flight to Darwin for a friend’s birthday. She still uses travel agents and doesn’t trust the internet.

As she gets back a local restauranteur arrives to check out her fridge that is for sale. ‘Oscar’ chats with her, agrees to a price and then after an extended conversation, leaves with a bunch of shallots and some helpful gardening advice.

She potters out the front and tells me a bit about her life – never married – ‘not for lack of offers’ – she assures me. But she didn’t want to spend her life ‘waiting from someone to come home from the pub.’

‘Fair enough’ I say.

‘There have been a few blokes (and one son as a result) but I always wanted someone taller than me and stronger minded than me…’ she laughs.

I laugh as well… She’s 5 ft 10, but that’s not the point. ‘Stronger minded than you?’ I say. She cackles again and makes me another cup of tea as we continue to chat. I near completion and ask if she wants me to backfill the trenches, but she tells me she will do that. (I thought she might)

‘Nothing hard about that!’ she laughs, so I will leave and she’ll get on the shovel and clean up.

When its all done its $1100.00 which is good because she had budgeted $1-1.5K. She pulls out her cheque book and assures me she only has tradies in when she can afford to pay – although I reckon she’s got a few bob in reserve. We have another laugh about what kind of crazy job she may have for me next time and then I drive off.

I leave Sally’s at 12.30 and head for Dave’s house. I debate whether to head home for lunch but instead I pick up a pie to get me thru what I’m hoping will be a quick job. Dave & Edna are kiwis and long term Yanchep locals whose retic has ‘been on the dick’ (or ‘duck’ if you’re a kiwi) for several years, but they have never got around to fixing it.

It looks simple, but turns into a complex problem. Each step of the way Dave is watching me and cursing the retic ‘F$%k me. I hate this stuff’ he says.

‘No’ f$%king idea’ he says, when I ask about what work was done previously.

‘F$%k!…’ he yells emphatically as I finally work out what the problem is and explain that its not gonna be fixed today.

What I thought was going to be 15 minutes turns into two and a half hours and another extended conversation. As I’m packing up out the front and chatting with them I realise I have been here before – but at night. They are the local ‘Christmas lights house’. Dave tells me they have two sea containers of stuff that they store each year waiting for December to come around so they can decorate and serve the local community. Light, snow machine and Santa – the whole bit – people come from miles around to see it.

‘Its just us doing our ‘but’ for the community’ says Dave.

They tell me stories of the people who come to visit each year. Those who come early and complain because the lights aren’t on at 6.30 and those who arrive at 11.00pm and expect them to get out of bed and entertain them.

‘Its must make you think about giving it away?’ I ask, imagining how I’d be feeling if that happened to me.

‘Nah – no way – we love it.’ Edna says.

”F$%k yeah’ says Dave.

As I drive home I realise yet again how blessed I am to work as a tradie in the local community and to spend time with people like these. Beautiful, earthy, genuine people who have generous hearts and kind spirits.

In the evening I chat online with Ian Robbo, a theology lecturer in the East doing some research on the whole idea of being a ‘bivocational / tent-maker’ pastor and whether its a helpful thing or a hindrance to ministry work.

I remember I used to feel sorry for the poor blokes who had to work a ‘secular’ job because their church couldn’t afford them full time. These days I can’t imagine being sentenced to full time ministry work again. I certainly wouldn’t be encountering the likes of Dave & Sally on a daily basis, if at all, and that is worth more than you can ever imagine.