The West

Retiring dean leaves his mark

For almost a quarter of a century, John Shepherd has worked in one of Perth's most recognisable and loved buildings.

As Anglican Dean of Perth, he has filled St George's Cathedral with song and music.

"What a cathedral does is give people permission to imagine God ... to imagine the dimensions of the divine," he said.

"The cathedral is prayer in stone ... you feel as though you are in another place. You are taken out of yourself."

But it is not through song but rather through the spoken and written word that Dr Shepherd has had an impact far beyond the cathedral walls.

He ruffled the feathers of conservative members of the Church by inviting a Buddhist abbot and a Muslim cleric to preach.

And there was significant ruffling over Dr Shepherd's expression of support for gay relationships and for suggesting that some teachings of Christianity were largely symbolic and need not be taken literally.

But as his last week in the job approached and he looked back on his time as dean, he did not shy from his outspoken approach.

Rather, he said, if that was the consequence of stating his beliefs and encouraging thinking and debate, then so be it.

The Church had a duty to have a voice, he said.

"If we are going to make theology and God relevant and meaningful to what could be a largely secular society, we need to be at the cutting edge of theological scholarship and to make that available," he said.

"And part of this is the importance of combating fundamentalism.

"The literalist fundamentalist, I think, has no future in the Church."

Taking the Bible "absolutely literally" without regard for historical and cultural context and turning it into a "rule book" would not work.

There were instances in the Gospels where "events are finessed to convey the spiritual truth", Dr Shepherd said.

As an example, he cited Jesus turning water into wine, which he said was a symbol.

"It is life being improved as though it were water being changed into wine," Dr Shepherd said.

He said his support for gay relationships was the right thing to do.

"While to me the relationship of a man and woman makes sense in terms of procreation, there are people in gay relationships where I have seen tremendous love, support and care," he said.

"What does it for me is, 'Do these two people love each other, are they faithful to each other … commit, for better for worse, for richer or poorer', all that, then I think the Church should bless that relationship."

As his last service on July 27 approaches, he said he felt the Church in WA was in good shape and would remain as as long as it did not turn inwards and become "combative and restrictive and surround itself with regulations that put people off ".

"Provided it is intelligent, it is scholarly, it reaches out, it makes it possible for people in the community to come through, then it is strong," he said.

"If it turns itself into a sect, it is on the slippery slope to oblivion."

Dr Shepherd said that to have been custodian of the cathedral had been "a great privilege".

He took satisfaction from the sculpture outside the cathedral, a schools education program, an institute of Anglican theology, various cathedral renovations and the start of a continuing building program in the grounds.

He would now enjoy being able to read and think free from the necessities of preparing for the next study group or seminar, pursue his passion for music, brush up on his Latin and deliver a few after-dinner speeches.

No doubt they will include a fair bit of the Shepherd humour.

"Humour is a huge thing," he said.

"The Church has to laugh at itself because it is inherently funny."

The West Australian

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