“Impishly uncomplicated, lightly subversive”: remembering Father Peter Maher

During the last week, the funeral of a Roman Catholic priest, Father Peter Maher, took place. I have known Peter for five decades, and was very sorry to learn that he was unwell earlier this year. I met him when he was training as a priest; in those early years, Peter and I were in a Christian musical together for a while (organised by the Anglican Youth Dept—very ecumenical!!).

I attended Peter’s ordination at St Mary’s Cathedral in the mid 1970s—and in an early act of quiet defiance of the established doctrines of his Church, he gave me, a Proddy, communion!. Peter then attended my ordination in 1980–and I gave him communion (with no angst in terms of Uniting Church polity). Peter and his brother Chris visited us while I was studying in the USA. We caught up from time to time over meals—Peter was a superb cook and delighted in offering hospitality through good food and even better conversation!

Years later, Peter spent a year as my professional supervisor when my previous supervisor took a sabbatical year. His gentle approach and incisive commentary was invaluable, especially as that was a time of heightened stress and intense emotional pressure because of an ugly and unhappy situation in my church environment at the time.

I heard Peter’s stories about his run-ins with George Pell, always told with a lightness of tone despite the cost that this brought to his own ministry. I was chatting to him a couple of months ago about an LGBTIQA+ initiative here in Canberra. There are lots of rich memories, even though we weren’t in regular communication over the last few decades.

Peter was a strong advocate, throughout his ministry, for “the least and the lost”, and especially, in recent decades, for members of the LGBTIQA+ community. His weekly Mass for rainbow people, held at St Joseph’s Church in Newtown, attracted people and was the basis for the formation of a wonderfully extensive community of people of faith who identify with sexual or gender diversity. Peter lived a lifetime of work devoted, in various ways, to the gender agenda—affirming, supporting, counselling, encouraging, and advocating for, the many people of faith (and of no faith) within the broad LGBTIQA+ community.

The former Executive Director of Uniting in the NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church, Peter Worland, described Peter as “A mighty man. Small physically but massive heart … for others”. My Uniting Church colleague Rod Pattenden captured the very essence of Peter’s modus operandi: “impishly uncomplicated in attitude and lightly subversive”. The Roman Catholic media commentator, Noel Debien, referred to Peter’s “generous and inclusive ministry [which] he carried out at great cost to himself. He suffered significantly because of his compassion for others, but that was far, far outweighed by the blessing of his ministry. He made a huge pastoral difference” in the ArchDiocese of Sydney.

Noel recalls that “few (very few) priests I have ever known have had so much integrity, humour, compassion and determination to live the Gospel every day.” He continues, “I find it odd that in Sydney, we have gay bishops, archbishops with gay and lesbian siblings, clergy who are gay (and celibate) as well as huge numbers of Catholics with LGBTQIA kids, uncles, aunts and friends—and at a funeral like this, the church is not adequately able to fully recognise the real nature of LGBTQI ministry in our city.”

Another friend of Peter noted “This constant presence. This smile. Peter taught us about patience. About relationship. About being open to the most unlikely of allies. Planting seeds. And slowly waiting. And now we must wait to meet him again.” I saw a comment that described “the delight and mischief in his eyes”—how true! Another person noted, quite poignantly, “Peter was always encouraging and welcoming to me, even though I felt pretty unworthy.” That, there, is the Gospel, lived in all aspects of life.

Yet another wrote, “Peter always did the best he could and made the best of things. If something didn’t go as hoped for he’d say “that’s okay we can…”. “Well I’m glad because…”. A shrug, a twinkle of his nose and a “whatever”. He didn’t let what anyone else thought stop him from doing the right thing. He celebrated the smallest of wins and smallest of changes. An excited ‘Yes!’ fistpumped in the air. Always enthusiasm and heartfelt sincerity and seriousness in the one package.”

Others noted his “steadfast commitment to solidarity and equality”, his “warmth, kindness and affection … generosity, tenacity, laughter and good humour”. One wrote “Thank you for being a prophet. And teaching others to be too. Thank you for making mischief. Making change. With a twinkle of delight and hope in your eyes. Thank you for being a protector for people you will never meet. Doing justice.” Another, “Thank you for the healing. For the deep hearing. For the liturgy. For nourishing weary souls.” More Gospel qualities, so clearly evident!

These are wonderful testimonies to a man whose life was given in devoted service to the God who offers the grace of inclusivity, a celebration of God’s abiding love.

The songs and readings that Peter chose for his funeral are at

https://docs.google.com/document/u/0/d/1sRxct-DbuSVy-J_HafzxKiJw17rRIP63ew7wa0qFbis/mobilebasic

A fine tribute to Peter is at https://www.misacor.org.au/item/28929-rip-peter-maher-vigorous-priest-sydney-longtime-editor-of-the-swag

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See also

Challenged and transformed: with thanks for rainbow people, this Lent

The following reflection was written by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine, and shared with the Rainbow Christian Alliance at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 13 March 2022.

In many churches, including the Uniting Church, today is called the Second Sunday in Lent. Our church follows the calendar of seasons that is held by many churches around the world; instead of spring, summer, autumn, winter, we have Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

The season of Lent lasts for just six weeks, and it leads into the three day celebration of Easter. It’s called Lent, incidentally, not because it is tilted or skew-whiff, but because in the northern hemisphere, where such seasons were first given their names, the days are starting to lengthen (the name was Lencten in Old English).

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Lent is a period of fasting. The day before, Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, was a day to use up all the fatty goods in the kitchen — eggs, flour, milk — so they were out of the way for Lent. The day is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In South America, in countries where Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion, Mardi Gras became a public festival, a day not only to feast, but a day for street parades, for big banquets to celebrate, with colourful costumes and extravagant public exhibitions of joy.

And that has surely been the inspiration for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, both in recent years with colourful and extravagant floats, and in the decades before, with lots of rainbow groups marching, and even in the early days of protest and attempting to “claim the streets” and “go public” about gays and lesbians and more.

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Immediately after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday — a solemn day of penitence; and the fasting continued right through Lent, until Easter Sunday. We don’t actually do full-on fasting in the Uniting Church, but in recent times it has become customary to decide to “give up something for Lent” — chocolate and alcohol being the most common, but also more significant things like not driving your car and catching public transport; or not eating meat. In this way, Lent becomes a time of challenge, as we try to remind ourselves each day of the importance of being faithful to God. We “give up” so that we can focus in more clearly on God, if you like.

So there is already a connection between the season of Lent and rainbow people; because Lent starts immediately after Mardi Gras. And the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, now an institution in our annual public events; the extravagantly colourful celebrations of that event mark, if you like, the climax of joy as rainbow people celebrate that they are each made exactly as they are, and they can be happy about that.

We both enjoyed watching (on TV) the parade of organisations and people that were out and proud, out and loud, a week ago, walking unhindered around the SCG — a striking contrast to the first Mardi Gras, when police barricaded the road and people were arrested. It is truly wonderful to see that the rainbow colours can be flown in society, that people can acknowledge and declare who they are, and not be under threat of arrest.

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So in the cycle of seasons for Christians, after Mardi Gras comes Lent. And Lent is about giving up; or, at least, focussing intently on Jesus, the one in whom we see most clearly see God. How else might Lent relate to the experience of rainbow people?

There are a collection of stories that the church retells each year, in association with Lent. In preparation for Lent, the story is told of the day that Jesus was baptised: in the river Jordan, to the east of Jerusalem, fully submerged into the water by his crazy cousin John, baptising people as they repented of their sins.

John was crying out to the people who came to him, to repent; to change their way of being and living; to be transformed, completely, by being baptised. That’s what is meant by the single Greek word that John used, calling people to metanoia—to a complete transformation of who they are and how they love. Jesus came to that moment, willing to submit to that call, willing to experience metanoia in his own life.

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And yet for Jesus, this baptism became more than just the moment of call, or the moment of change; it was the moment when God publicly acknowledged him, when God declared, “this is my son, my beloved child; listen to him”. In that voice, booming from the clouds, a central affirmation is made: look at him, this is who he is; can you see that this is really who he is? And from that moment, Jesus began his mission of challenging people and transforming society.

The story of the baptism of Jesus tells us that, when God looks at us, God sees us exactly as we are; and we may well also hear God saying to use, and to those around us, “this is my child, my beloved one; I can see exactly who they are, and I am well pleased that this is who they are”. God sees me, a straight white male, and is well pleased; God sees a lesbian woman, and is equally well pleased; a trans man, and God is pleased; an intersex person, and is well pleased; an enbie, a gay, a pan sexual—God is just well pleased with each of us, as we are, and declares us to be beloved. And that means that we can get on with the kind of life that we each want to live, and are called to live.

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There’s another story about Jesus that is associated with Lent. It’s a story that, from our rather privileged, straight, perspective, sounds a great challenge to us. It’s a story about being changed; about being transformed. It’s a story that shows that being transformed means you are able to stand and challenge others to be transformed. It’s the story of when Jesus took his three closest friends to a mountain, and they had a shared experience of seeing Jesus standing between two of the greats of their people: Moses, to whom God had given the Law to govern the people of Israel, and Elijah, through whom God had established a long line of prophets in Israel.

The Gospel writers say that Jesus was transformed at that moment. But in this story, also, there is the indication that the friends of Jesus were transformed. That moment on the mountain was a challenge to each of them; the response that Peter wanted to make was seen to be inadequate. Jesus challenged him to respond differently. It was another moment when metanoia, complete transformation, took place. And these disciples did change; yes, it took some time, but these friends of Jesus ultimately became leaders amongst the followers of Jesus, and spearheaded the movement that became the church.

The change, the metanoia, that occurred within Peter, James, and John, spread widely. They faced the challenge head on, and responded with their own metanoia. That is mirrored, today, in changes that are taking place in society. As we watched the Mardi Gras last weekend, it soon became evident that this was no longer a side carnival, an event that was important to a minority group in society, and that’s all.

For the Mardi Gras—commercialised, mainstreamed, headlined and noticed—now reflects the way that society has been challenged—by you, by rainbow people—and how it has responded in metanoia, by being transformed. Banks, unions, police, sports teams, churches, golfing clubs, and more—all marched in the Mardi Gras, all affirming that there is a place in their ranks for rainbow people, no matter what letter an individual identifies with. And that reflects a very significant change in society, in which public acknowledgement and public discussion of gender and sexuality can take place.

Sure, there is still work to be done—much work to be done; many changes still to occur, deeper acceptance still to take place. But the changes are clear and evident; and it has been because those who themselves have been able to meet challenges by holding firm and calling for change, have then effected transformation, thoroughgoing change, in society. Rainbow people are changing our society. Last week’s Mardi Gras demonstrated that.

And for that, we are grateful, and say: thanks be to God.

A Safe Place for Rainbow Christians

A post from guest blogger Delia Quigley

July 2015 saw the beginning of  Rainbow Christian Alliance (RCA) as a joint program run in partnership between Tuggeranong Uniting Church (TUC) and Diversity ACT community services. RCA was initiated to provide a Safe Place for LGBTIQA+ people of faith, their families and friends who wanted to be able to get together in fellowship in an environment away from the judgement, hurt and pain often caused by Christian Churches and other faiths to the LGBTIQA+ community.

See the source image

RCA  gathers  on the second Sunday of each month with a dinner church format, meeting with LGBTIQA+ people of faith and their allies; gathering, chatting, eating, then sharing in a variety of worship styles including modified liturgy, readers theatre, discussion groups, guest speakers and the evening is usually wrapped up with dessert and much more chatting!

Initially RCA was led by Delia Quigley, Rev Anne Ryan and  Megan Watts

Initially the RCA project was set up utilising the space in the Erindale Neighbourhood Centre, next door to TUC, but since the arrival of COVID-19 and the requirements for modifications including increased space for those gathered, RCA has been meeting in the TUC auditorium.

Following the commencement of RCA in July 2015, an invitation was extended by Rev Aimee Kent and a partnership was also created with Goulburn Grace Community. Dare Café commenced in Goulburn in February 2016, meeting monthly, and later incorporating a Bible Study group. The Dare Café and Grace Community has been impacted by COVID-19, but Pastor Amy Junor is now keen to work with the Dare Café group and keep things moving where possible.

See the source image

Over its six years, RCA has provided support to many people, including Ministers or Pastors who lost their congregation or Church because of their own sexuality, as well as people who faced exorcism, conversion therapies or even had lobotomies performed on them to cure their sexuality!

RCA also provided information to other congregations on LGBTIQA+ education and issues, including at the very stressful time of the Marriage Plebiscite. Following the June 2016 Orlando shooting at the Pulse night club in the USA, where 49 patrons were killed and 53 were wounded, RCA partnered with Canberra City Church to hold a Blue service for Orlando which was catered for with heart warming soups and fresh bread rolls by the City Church Congregation.

In more recent times RCA has had increasing support from TUC Congregation members, who provide a core support group to assist with set up, catering and running of RCA, giving more space for the leadership team of Rev. Miriam Parker-Lacey, James Ellis and Rev. Elizabeth Raine to concentrate on working with the group activities.

Rev Aaron James pictured speaking online to the RCA gathering in October 2020
with Rev Miriam Parker-Lacey and James Ellis 

RCA has provided a safe place for many and has had steady numbers of attendees of approximately 20-22 people at each gathering over the past 6 years.  Obviously there has been changes as to who attends, but the numbers have remained steady and in recent months there has been an increase in LGBTIQA+ youthful attendees. These younger attendees may not face some of the issues older generation LGBTIQA+ people faced but there are still many  ongoing issues for LGBTIQA+ plus Christians.

6th Birthday gluten-free chocolate mud cake 

Sadly, since the Marriage Plebiscite, there has been an increased push from certain quarters to demonise Transgender or Non-Binary people, and the current Olympics has been used to push fears that Trans people are stealing women’s rights and your children! (The “protect your children” fears was also previously used to push the falsehood that homosexuality equalled paedophilia.)

There are ongoing pushes for legislative changes being introduced by Mark Latham in NSW to prevent even mentioning LGBTIQA+ issues in classrooms.  LGBTIQA+ people are also faced with possible legislation to be tabled by the current Federal Government on ‘Religious Freedom’. Initially the Prime Minister promised to look at legislation to keep LGBTIQA+ young people safe, but there is much cynicism as to what may be introduced and many LGBTIQA+ people fear exclusion or even loss of employment because of their sexuality or gender identity

The Rainbow Christian Alliance continues to provide a Safe Space for people who have been hurt or marginalised within society–even by the church–to gather, relax in each other’s company, and share their faith.

More information on RCA can be found at  https://tuc.org.au/worship/rainbow-christian-alliance/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1025029234182558

See also https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-17/what-is-it-like-to-be-christian-and-in-the-lgbtiq-rainbow-family/8808584