• Australian viewers have had a strong reaction to SBS's 'Christians Like Us'. (SBS, Twitter)
There were plenty of thoughts and feelings when the first episode of SBS's new two-part documentary 'Christians Like Us' screened.
By
Samuel Leighton-Dore

4 Apr 2019 - 9:29 AM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2019 - 10:56 AM

Content warning: This story contains sensitive material.

SBS Australia's two-part documentary series Christians Like Us was always bound to stir up conversation.

The show's premise, unlike the topics it addresses, is simple: 10 Christians from around Australian, living together for one week. From conservative to progressive, Catholic to Anglican, charismatic to controversial - each confronting the issues that challenge their respective faiths.

"Christianity in Australia is in crisis," the narrator informs us. "Rocked by sex scandals, dogged by internal battles, struggling against the tide of public opinion, and battling to get bums on seats. Yet faith stills hold sway in the corridors of power."

He adds: "So what is the faith of a modern day Australian Christian?"

The housemates

Meeting our housemates one by one, it soon becomes clear that this week-long venture isn't going to be a merry kumbaya-fest. There's Chris, an openly gay former pop singer who underwent years of conversion therapy at the hands of the church. Then there's Marty, who not only believes homosexuality is wrong, but that it's possible to teach gay people to be straight.

We meet Reverend Tiffany who, as an Anglican priest at a progressive church in Brisbane, is immediately put at odds with Assumpta - a former Hindu, Anglican woman who is firmly opposed to the idea of women being priests.

Other housemates include Steve S, who was abused by an Anglican priest between the ages of 10 and 15, spending most of his adult life seeking justice and trying to reconnect with his faith. And Hannah, a 26-year-old Latter-day Saint from Brisbane, who openly admits to being "terrified" of participating in the program, describing herself as "a sheep among wolves".

It doesn't take long for a some fairly divisive topics of conversation to come up.

Mormonism

"My entire life I've felt marginalised, because I'm not a 'Christian' I'm a 'Mormon,'" Hannah shares, describing the sense of otherness that can come with being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As she'd anticipated, the other housemates hold strong views on Mormonism.

"There are significant differences between Mormons and essentially the rest of Christianity," admits Reverend Tiffany. "It was certainly my education that they were not a part of the mainstream Christian church."

Assumpta agrees, saying: "There are a number of things about the Mormon faith where I'm not able to legitimately, genuinely go, 'you know, that makes sense'... I'm not able to say I agree with the way Mormons express their faith."

However, Hannah, the youngest of the group, holds her own.

"I do think it's a little hypocritical for anyone to put a label on what Christianity looks like," she says.

"Because every Christian faith is different, it doesn't make any sense to say 'I'm more Christian than you are.'"

Women being ordained

Another subject to divide the participants is whether women can be ordained. This, it turns out, is something the Sydney faction of the Anglican Church disagrees with - while the Brisbane faction allows it.

"Asking if a woman can be a priest in the Catholic Church is like asking if a man can be the virgin Mary," Daniel, a Coptic Catholic, boldly states in reference to Rev Tiffany - who was ordained at the age of 29.

"I think that women are equal in every way," Rev Tiffany says.

"I'm very much of the school of Paul from Galatians 3:28 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for all are equal in the eyes of God.'"

She adds: "On Earth as it is in heaven. So, we should be equal here."

Assumpta, who goes to an Anglican church in Sydney, holds a different view.

"In the Bible it says that men should teach and lead women," she says. "I think this is where we differ."

Speaking in an on-camera confessional, Rev Tiffany admits that "women who don't agree with women's leadership confuse me."

Same-sex marriage

With openly-gay Chris in the house, it's little surprise that the subjects of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are raised. A year on from the divisive same-sex marriage postal vote, which saw Sydney's Anglican Church donate significant money to the 'No' campaign, views in the house are varied.

Chris is open about his belief that members of the Christian community feel falsely persecuted, following a long history of not treating others (including LGBTIQ+ people) with love. Steve S agrees, stating that he can't believe an organisation which covers up sexual abuse wants to have a say on who is allowed to get married.

"I'm sorry, but the church has done so much wrong, creating this narrative that demonises the LGBTIQ+ community who has been absolutely oppressed for years," Chris says at the dinner table.

He continues: "Christians need to deal with the fact that public opinion has changed, it's not okay to have sh**ty views about gay people and moreover, not okay to make up lies to fearmonger and demonise an entire group of people just based on their sexuality."

Several members of the group, including Daniel and Steve C. disagree with same-sex marriage.

"I don't believe same-sex marriage should be allowed in the Catholic church," says Daniel. "It's never going to be allowed. The Catholic church will not and should not change its teaching on homosexuality or on sex in general."

However, Carol from the Uniting Church says same-sex marriage is part of her church's "concept of openness and acceptance."

Jo, a Roman Catholic teacher, brings it home: "We don't choose our orientation, and if we really believe that God is our creator, then God has created that orientation."

Sexual abuse in the church

When the topic of sexual abuse within the church is raised, Steve S bravely shares his story. He tells the group that  he had been abused by an Anglican priest in Maitland, NSW, for a four-year period.

“I looked forward to when I turned 10. I could become an altar boy,” he said. “And, then we got this new priest, (he was) young, charismatic and not long after he arrived, I was allowed to become an altar boy.”

The abuse soon followed.

“He told me I wasn’t to say nothing to anyone. No one would believe me,” Steve said. “That I was his special friend.

“And then promptly drove back to our place and sat and had lunch with my family, as if nothing had happened. Sat fondling me under the table while we’re sitting there eating our food.”

The show’s participants were visibly moved by the story, crying as he shared the horrific details.

“It was probably 250 to 300 times over those years,” he said. “He’d come and get me out of school. He’d tell the principal there was a funeral going on, and he needed an altar boy for the funeral.

“So he’d come and get me, and I always knew what was going to happen. There was nothing I could do about it. I’d run and hide in the bush, but then I’d get in trouble off Mum for not going to church.”

While the priest was eventually moved to another parish, it wasn't long before Steve and his little brother were sent to be his altar boys once more. When he eventually told his mother what had been happening, she confronted the local bishop - only to be thrown out, dying of a heart attack soon after. She was in her 40s.

However, according to Steve, the biggest “slap in the face” was when the church sent his abuser to conduct his mother's funeral."

“The priest they sent to conduct her funeral was the guy who had been raping me. And the church knew that,” he said. “That was the slap in the face that pack of bastards delivered to my family. My mum’s coffin was sitting there, and that bastard was standing behind her coffin waiting for us to come in."

Heated conversation aside, there were plenty of tender, unifying moments between the housemates - particularly when 28-year-old Hannah confides in Steve S. that she'd also been sexually abused at the age of seven. In a tearful moment, the pair put aside their differences of faith and hug.

"My parents went to the church, went to the police and it was taken care of immediately," she says. "And my heart breaks for you, particularly for your younger brother. It just would have felt horrible to have that amount of responsibility."

Those seeking information or support relating to child sexual assault can contact Bravehearts on 1800 272 831 or Blue Knot on 1300 657 380. Lifeline is available 24 hours a day on 13 11 14.

You can watch Episode 1 of Christians Like Us on SBS On Demand now. Episode 2 airs at 8.35pm, Wednesday April 10 on SBS.

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