A minister, a gay couple and a new SBS documentary about “Living with the enemy”

photoWhen Eternity received a miniature wedding cake in the mail from SBS, our initial reaction was, huh?

But it all quickly became clear. The cake gimmick encouraged us to tune in to the new SBS documentary series Living With The Enemy. Anglican minister and blogger David Ould from Macquarie Fields in Sydney’s southwest is featured in the first episode, all about same sex marriage. Ould, a conservative, was pitted against atheist gay couple, Gregory Storer and Michael Barnett, both activists for same sex marriage.

“Living with the Enemy confronts major issues by bringing together a provocative clash of beliefs, ideologies and personalities that will have audiences shouting at the television”, Tony Iffland, SBS Director of Television, said.

Iffland said he hoped the series would provoke “intense public debate on topics that impact all Australians.”

Eternity caught up with David Ould this week, to thank him for the cake, and to ask him what he hoped would come of the new doco. 

Why did you sign up for the SBS documentary?

We were approached by the production company who were doing the documentary, who had got our name from a Christian lobby group who thought we might be suitable. And as I spoke to the producers and heard what their understanding was of what they were doing and talking things through, I was increasingly convinced that they actually wanted to have a serious go of it and actually wanting to present a fair representation of where both sides [of the same sex marriage debate] stood. So we then thought that that would be a good chance to make a contribution to this debate and hopefully have a positive Christian voice and perhaps to have some of the wider issues which just haven’t been talked about at the moment, at least addressed.

Living with the enemy

Anglican minister David Ould (far right), with gay couple Gregory Storer and Michael Barnett, from the new SBS Documentary series ‘Living With the Enemy’.

What was your experience like in the filming? Do you feel like the producers lived up to the expectations you had, how they pitched the show to you?

It was pretty intense, but we knew that it had been. I had nothing but praise for the production company, and the way that they kept to the obligations that we asked them to keep. They were sensitive to my family. While they wanted to get the job done, but we had a couple of issues around how the children would be involved, and what that would look like, and they were absolutely brilliant. I cannot praise them enough for bending over backwards to work with us. So while it was intense—and it was very weird having people film pretty much everything that you do—at the same time they were a delight to have with us, everybody… was great to have around. It was hard work, but they made it much easier for us.

How long did the whole process take?

So, it was 10 days of filming, the guys were with us for five days and then I spent five days in their world. And there were a few interviews beforehand too, but the hardcore filming was 10 days.

What does five days in your world look like?

We had a number of ‘staged events’. I took them to one of the first churches in Sydney, and looked at, we tried to talk about the Christian heritage (such that it is) of Australia and the influence of Christianity in Australian on our moral landscape. We had a church service that we went to here. We went to a petting zoo to try and have a discussion about biology and nature, that was fun to do. And a bunch of other little things that we did around those staged events. And then of course having breakfast, having lunch, having dinner together. Having meals over some of those conversations, where I tried to push them forward. But also just the sharing of life, and getting to know each other and to hopefully build trust and to try and deepen those relationships so you’re not simply just throwing sound bites at each other, you’re really trying to engage with people you know and are trying to like.

Did you get to choose those staged events?

My great desire is that Christians engage well on big social issues.

We talked together, with the production company about what we wanted to do. I had a number of my own [suggestions] and they had a number of great suggestions too. And so we worked together until we had a schedule that we were all happy with it.

And what does five days in, I think you said ‘their world’, look like?

I’m not sure how much of the show I’m actually allowed to give away! But if you watch the trailer, it’s quite obvious that there’s a wedding. And weddings aren’t yet legal in Australia, so you do the maths on that one. I also went to a gay pride march in Melbourne. And then there were conversations with researchers doing research into parenting by homosexuals, which isn’t actually going to make the show, but was interesting, anyway. And the most interesting was just meeting their families as well, hearing from them, hearing how they talk about their view of the whole thing, and just the immersion of it. You see how people live, and their homes in some way reflect what’s important to them and how they go about things. And again, there were some staged events, but a lot of just spending time getting to know them and trying to move those conversations forward.

Do you feel like you got a good hearing for your view – and I should also ask within this question – what is your ‘view’?

Yeah, I tried to articulate as well as I could where I was coming from and do that as a way of engaging, so particularly when we were spending the five days here.

So, conservatives like me, we’re against the redefinition of ‘marriage’. Many of us think that you ought to be allowed to have like a contract relationship, if they want to, but marriage is a particular form of relationship, of a particular nature that you can’t just redefine without being very clear about what you’re doing. And there’s a whole host of arguments that go into that. We don’t want to pretend that it’s not a religious argument on our point, on our side, but there’s natural law arguments, and arguments from science and research and other things.

I try to articulate some of those points of view, looking for actual, generous engagement. Sadly, my experience, more often than not, was there actually wasn’t a desire to listen and engage. It really was just a re-statement of some very simplistic notions of ‘you can’t tell me what to do’, ‘I have the right to do what I want to do’, some pretty nasty hostility towards even having a religious point of view. I think that will come across in the show, some of that hostility.

So in one sense it became quite a frustrating experience for me, on my turf. Because I was trying to set up these—what I saw as opportunities to engage in conversation, rather than just ram something down someone’s throat and say,

‘Look, here’s the position I have, here’s the backdrop in which we’re going to have that discussion, what do you think?’ and instead I was met with, time and time again, what was actually not engagement, a lot of it was sound bites, not actually listening to what I was saying. And so I think it will become clear in the episode that after about two or three days, I’m actually quite frustrated. And struggling to deal with what is my disappointment of what could have been a really helpful conversation, not happen.

There are reports about the documentary, already calling you a ‘fundamentalist’. What’s your reaction to that? 

I think a mature Christian reaction to being called names and labels is to expect that to happen .The world doesn’t often understand us. The mainstream media have a narrative that’s in their head that they’re already telling before they’ve even listened to you. There was one article describing me as a ‘fundamentalist, anti-gay minister’ living with two gay guys. They could have written, accurately, ‘fundamentalist, anti-religion activists meeting with Anglican minister’. It would have been equally true, in one sense, and yet the media chooses to portray it in a certain way.

I think as Christians we need to have the maturity and the grace to recognise that’s what’s going to happen and to just seek for opportunities to gently undermine that stereotype. My hope is that engagement with the show and interaction now with the media in the lead up to it, a fair amount of people will be able to say ‘you know what, this stereotype that we have isn’t accurate and we ought to maybe rethink this whole conversation of how we describe people.’

What do you think about this portrayal—at least in the marketing materials that I’ve seen—of Christians and same sex marriage proponents as ‘enemies’?

Look, the whole series is titled ‘Living with the enemy’, which is catch and engaging but perhaps not indicative of actually what the series is trying to achieve, which is conversations between people who are of opposing views on big social issues. I certainly don’t see the two guys that I was with as my enemy. And I think by the end of the 10 days, they would certainly say the same thing of me. At least, I hope they would. But I understand why—it’s a catchy title.

We’ve talked about labels before, there’s another label. We can either throw up our hands in rage about it, and despair about it, or we can try and sensibly and winsomely move beyond it.

Presumably ‘changing views’ isn’t why you signed up to this – particularly at least not to change your own view. What did you want the ‘other side’, as the documentary portrays it, to hear from you?

I’m not sure that I wanted them to so much hear something from me, because I’m sure these two guys, in fact I’m absolutely sure, that they’ve heard a lot of it before. What I wanted the opportunity to have some serious discussion about the point of view that conservatives are putting forward—to have them engaged with rather than shouted down.

That was my great desire, to actually have conversations like ‘What is your new definition of marriage? Articulate it for me. Tell me why it has the boundaries that it does.’ And on stuff like that, sadly, I actually didn’t get substantive engagement. And actually, it left me disappointed that— surely out there, there must be someone who has a more comprehensive and consistent argument and position on this. But I don’t know where they are yet. We’re not seeing it.

So I was hopeful that we might have that more sustained engagement, and a deeper conversation but I was gently disappointed, although perhaps not surprised that we actually never got there.

Do you think this serves to cement already-held views, or will it start a different conversation?

Look I hope possibly it will encourage people to have a go at having conversations. There will always be people on both sides of any argument who are dug in and just don’t want to hear and just don’t want to listen and engage. And in one sense you can’t help that. But any discussion like this really is aiming the middle ground, and the soft positions on either side. And it’s a ‘look, come on there is more we can say about this. And actually there’s things we can do together to change the tone and the style of the conversation’ and there’s things that we can learn and take back to our ‘own sides’—that’s bad language but there you go—and say that, as we’re having these discussions, here’s some things you can bear in mind.

And actually a big thing for me was I was reminded in a very clear way of the real pain that many gay and lesbian men and women feel over their identity and the way that people talk about their identity, and their perception of rejection‑whether they’re valid or not, we might think— the pain is still there nevertheless. That means that we as Christians, I think, have got to be doubly careful of how we say what we say. We’re always going to upset people, often, with the position that we take. But we can take responsibility and be careful about how we say what we say, and the way that we treat people. So that kind of thing hopefully will come positively out of this show.

I hope this encourages people on the other side of the debate to think again about the labels that they use and how quick they are to jump to calling people fundamentalists, bigots, haters and the rest of it. And then that will have served its purpose, I think. To help society have better conversations.

Would you do it again?

Yeah, definitely.

Do you expect to get a lot of flak from Christians, as well as non?

I’m expecting to get flak all round. I’m trying to hopefully model how to better engage on this subject. And that we can engage. I’m expecting most of the flak to be, obviously, from the other side. And I’m already getting some, ah, ‘lovely’ emails through the ‘Contact Me’ section of my blog, but that’s okay, I’ve struggled with worse than that before.

I’m intrigued to see what Christians will actually do. Most who I’ve talked to about it have said ‘Well, you’re brave and good on you for doing it’, and they’ve seen it as a positive move. But we’ll see.

My great desire is that Christians engage well on big social issues.

Living With The Enemy airs on SBS from September 3 from 8.30-9.30pm. The same sex marriage episode will screen as the first in the series. 

Eternity spoke with David Ould in 2013 about his ministry in Macquarie Fields to the unemployed and marginalised. Read more here.