When John Shepherd became Anglican Dean of Perth in 1990, he said he wanted to “sail the ship a little differently”.
In the 24 years since, the often outspoken head of St George’s Cathedral has done just that, breaking ground by preaching at a Catholic cathedral, inviting Muslim and Buddhist leaders to speak at St George’s Cathedral and founding study group Heretics Anonymous.
On the eve of his final Easter service Dr Shepherd, who is retiring in July, says he has never considered himself controversial and “just said what I think is true”.
Those truths include his support for gay marriage and an article in The West Australian in 2003 suggesting that the teachings of Christianity were largely symbolic and need not be taken literally.
This resulted in hate mail, including images of his face plastered with “666”, calls for his resignation and accusations of heresy — prompting him to establish Heretics Anonymous, which discusses and challenges beliefs.
“The fundamentalists of the Church found it very confronting,” he said.
“But I really think it’s important to get people thinking about faith in a way they hadn’t thought of before.”
An avid Essendon fan, Dr Shepherd put this loyalty aside more than once to fly the flags of the Fremantle Dockers, West Coast Eagles and Perth Wildcats atop the cathedral tower and hosted concerts, ballet and even a cabaret show in the cathedral.
The arts, and in particular music, have played a pivotal role in Dr Shepherd’s life and the former chaplain of Christ Church Oxford and the University of UWA also taught music at both universities.
“I’ve been very keen to offer a faith for thinking Christians, encouraging people to turn the diamond and look at different ways of experiencing the divine, music, arts and architecture,” he said.
The abstract sculpture representing St George and the Dragon that stands outside the cathedral was an example of this approach.
“If we’d have got a St George and the Dragon that looked like St George and the Dragon you would have looked at it once, but every time you look at this, you see something different,” he said.
After previously lamenting the lack of vibrancy in Perth, Dr Shepherd has been happy to watch its transformation.
“When I came to Perth I thought it was a fairly flat city, and many people were comfortable with it being a country town where life was like semi-retirement,” he said.
“Now it’s got much more bounce and vigour and eagerness.”
Retirement for Dr Shepherd, whose wife Joy will retire as principal of St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls later this year, means time for more measured theological study and to further explore his passion for 16th and 17th century musical development — the focus of his thesis at Cambridge University.
A search is under way for the next Dean of Perth, whom Dr Shepherd said would make their own mark.
“When I came in I said ‘this is the same ship but I’ll set the sails a little differently’, and the person following me will, too, but it will still be the same, vibrant place,” he said.