Religious Dissenter: Peter Cameron and the Heresy Trial
This is chapter 5 of Bill de Maria’s book Deadly Disclosures, reproduced by kind
permission. To purchase the book please see
On the whole the status of heretic is
not one that I would recommend.
There is a certain image conjured up by
the word which is essentially negative: not only are you suspect theologically,
but is almost as if you were unclean and should have a bell around your neck to
people of your approach. And ancillary
accusations abound such as being dishonest, or a servant of Satan. - Peter Cameron’
Peter Cameron was convicted of heresy by
the Presbyterian Church of Australia in March 1993. At that stage he was the Principal of St
Andrew’s College at the University of Sydney. The charge arose out of a sermon the previous
year in which Cameron had supported the ordination of women, criticised the church’s
hard line on homosexuality and questioned its fundamentalism. This unleashed a
remarkable attack on Cameron, the temper of which he thus describes:
In all walks of life of which I had
experience – in the legal profession, the universities, even the underworld in
Dundee – I never came across such unpleasantness, and bitterness, and anger,
and sheer nastiness, as I did in the church.
All this in reaction to his liberal theological ambition:
What I wanted to do was to liberate
people from their slavery to the Bible and to give it a new status; I wanted to
raise their own estimation of themselves and their capacity to respond to
God. I wanted to open their eyes to the
Humanity in the Bible and divinity in themselves.
Cameron has very
ably told his story in three books he wrote after the trial. His experiences, however, need to be dealt
with here because a heresy trial in Australia in 1993 unambiguously
speaks of the rise of fundamentalism, a mortal enemy of dissent. The fundamentalism in focus here appears in
our everyday experience as a loosely confederated movement of biblical
literalism and patriarchy.
powerful movement against dissent and whistle blowing needs to be constantly
reappraised, for fundamentalism is to dissent as the mongoose is to the
snake. There is no middle ground; no
peace is possible, no mediated settlement can ever be brokered. This is no struggle between equally matched
opponents. In its fight against
fundamentalism, dissent usually has its back to the wall. In reflecting on Cameron’s heresy trial,
social commentator Hugh McKay reflected this view:
Peter Cameron was a victim of a set of
circumstances which did not favour boat-rockers and whistleblowers. He came onto the scene at a time when many
people were looking for some relief from uncertainty, rather than a new set of
questions to face.
re-telling of Cameron’s story avoids the theological matters at issue, and
instead focuses on the processes of vilification that were set in train against
him. It also inquires into Cameron’s own contribution
to his downfall. The questions that
settle over the Cameron case are the same ones that appear at the end of every
whistleblower story: was it all worthwhile? And did anything change? These questions stay with whistleblowers for
years. The reader is invited to stay
with them at least until the end of this book.
One important point to note at the
outset concerns the way Cameron identified himself. He has referred to himself as a ‘heretic’, a
cunning and courageous move. By adopting
the negative label that his accusers would apply to him, he assumed a huge
strategic advantage. Like black
Americans who from time to time referred to themselves as ‘niggers’ in the
context of their struggle for racial emancipation, Cameron has protected
himself by a pre-emptive strategy. After
all, what could be worse than accepting the full force of the accusation of
being a modern heretic in the Presbyterian Church of Australia? While this is a reluctant
move on Cameron’s part, it also indicates that he is comfortable with his
identity as a dissenter.
In dissenters’ formative backgrounds
there is often a subculture of familial reinforcement, powerful role-modelling
and liberal conditioning that sustains outspokenness. As Cameron rightly says, ‘One does not become
a dissenter overnight.’ Within these subcultures dissenters learn to see
contradiction in all human existence and to value critical analyses honed by
experience, where there are no icons above suspicion. Dissenters and whistleblowers are ethical
over reachers, forever going beyond what the prevailing orthodoxy says are the
central values. So Cameron the dissenter
did not stop his critique at the pedestal on which the Presbyterian God
sat. His questioning went through that
concept, not to it.
When Cameron tells of his childhood
experiences in his village church in Scotland, he displays an early
leaning towards a contradiction-sensitive, dissenting personality. In Heretic he describes his Sunday
school teacher in these terms:
church (my teacher) wore a demure grey hat and a veneer of piety, but the
vulgarity and viciousness which she displayed in the school bus were always
near the surface…As a result I have always been conscious that the church
resembles a fancy-dress party: people are rarely what they seem.
I could not surpass the gripping way
Cameron tells of another formative experience;
being addressed by a visiting preacher of outstanding dreariness…The school had
lapsed into its usual stupefaction … I was fidgeting in my corner in the back
row of the chair when I happened to find in my packet a whistle, with which I
had been refereeing a Rugby match that afternoon. I was at once attacked by a terrible urge to
raise it to my lips and blow: to blow the whistle on all this charade, this
imposture … I can’t communicate the violence of that desire to raise the
whistle, the tightness of my grip on it, the tension in my arm, as the visiting
preacher above went on his weary way regardless.
His nerve failed him on that occasion. Years later in Australia it wouldn’t.
receiving qualifications in law and working for a time as a prosecutor, Cameron
entered the ministry and was ordained into the Presbyterian Church of Scotland
at the age of thirty-eight, still with his dissenting proclivities intact. He has said: ‘I felt that instead of turning
my back on the church, as all my instincts prompted me to do, my task was to
debunk its pomposity and pharisaism from within. Perhaps Cameron’s atheistic parents had
something to do with his less-than-complete socialisation into Presbyterianism.
Cameron and his family moved to Sydney at the beginning
of 1991, when he was appointed Principal or St Andrew’s College, a place not
unused to the whiff of heresy in its 128-year history. In the 1930s the college had been rocked by a
series of complaints against Samuel3 Angus, its Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Theology, who was accused of deviating
from Presbyterian theology by questioning the historical basis of the divinity
of Christ and the virgin birth.
When Cameron took up his post,
Presbyterians accounted for about 4.5 per cent of Australian Christians. Fourteen years earlier, three Australian
Protestant churches had amalgamated to form the Uniting Church,
but a sizeable proportion (thirty-six per cent) of Presbyterians decided not to
amalgamate. These continuing
Presbyterians tended to be theological conservatives, and included a much
higher proportion of biblical fundamentalists than in the Scottish church. This formed the backdrop for the collision
between Cameron the liberal church leader and the Sydney fundamentalist Presbyterians.
The first skirmish took place within
three weeks of Cameron’s arrival, when he was interviewed by two members of the
Sydney Presbytery, ostensibly to gather material for a church magazine. Cameron, however, felt that their other
purpose was to interrogate his theological position.
Seven months after Cameron’s
arrival, the General Assembly of Australia decided to reverse a
seventeen-year-old policy of ordaining women.
This was a major blow to those liberal Presbyterians left in the church
after the schism. For Cameron, a strong
supporter of female ordination, the church lights had just changed from green
to orange. The question was: should he
proceed with caution or drive straight through?
On 2 March 1992 Cameron preached a
sermon called ‘The Place of Women in the Church’ to 300 members of a
Presbyterian women’s organisation. In the sermon Cameron raised objections to
the slavish following of the writings of St Paul, a principal source of authority for those who
reversed the policy of ordaining women and proclaimed the sinfulness of
homosexuality. Cameron went on to
observe that there were non-biblical reasons for the opposition to female
ordination, and specifically mentioned male vanity and privilege among the
elders of the church.
It should perhaps be clarified that the wrongdoing that
Cameron disclosed in this and similar sermons was predominantly moral in nature. He was not on about church
graft or bribery, he was concerned at the moral wrong, as he saw it,
of a too literal translation of the Bible, and the patriarchical exclusion of
women from leadership positions in his church.
Cameron’s mostly female audience greeted
his sermon with enthusiasm. Many women
were pleased to find a new and charismatic spokesperson for church women
seeking a greater pastoral role. Cameron
was able to support women’s ordination in the most effective way for a
Bible-centred church. He showed the
congregation how the Bible could be read to a conclusion favouring women’s
ordination. This unresolved theological
conflict was the major context for Cameron’s trial, and his leadership on the
women’s side accounts for why he was so severely dealt with.
At that time there were only five
women ministers in the Presbyterian Church.
One of them was present at Ashfield.
She has said that she listened to his sermon with tears in her eyes
because she foresaw what was going to happen to him.
Indeed, this critical speech was the
defining moment for Cameron. In reaching
down below the Bible into the mere mortal world of patriarchy for the source of
opposition to female ordination, he made some very powerful enemies. From that moment in the pulpit at Ashfield,
the conflict between Cameron and the fundamentalists in the church took on a
dual identity. The conflict always
looked like a battle about theology. It
was, to an extent. But by dragging
patriarchy into the debate Cameron gave the conflict a personal dimension. He would soon be attacked by the church
patriarchs for who he was, as well as what he stood
There was also a secondary current
in the campaign against Cameron, that of church nationalism. There is some evidence background and
qualifications. He was from Scotland, the mother country of Presbyterianism,
and had taught in one of Scotland’s
most prestigious theological faculties.
A statement from Reverend Paul Cooper, a church spokesman at the time of
the heresy trial, suggests that Cameron was targeted for his nationality as
well as his views:
the views that Dr Cameron is spouting would be acceptable in Scotland, they are not acceptable in Australia. We are a different church … an independent
Church. Colonialism is dead. Dr Cameron wants the Presbyterian Church to
be like the Church of Scotland … but we make our own decisions and our decision
is that we don’t want to be that sort of church. We stand under the authority of the Bible.
Although Cameron’s audience for his
Ashfield sermon was predominantly women, at the front of the congregation
taking notes was the Reverend Peter Hastie, minister of Ashfield Presbyterian
Church, who would soon become a prime mover in Cameron’s trial. Two weeks later, on 14 March, a complaint
about Cameron’s sermon was sent to the Clerk of the Sydney Presbytery. The complainant, a theology lecturer at the Sydney Mission
requested the Sydney Presbytery to:
what are Dr Cameron’s views … and to take what other action it thinks
appropriate to fulfil its responsibility to maintain defend the faith as
understood in the Westminster Confession
Cameron’s supporters would argue
that the Westminster Confession of Faith is not an immutable doctrine. It can in fact be changed as a result of a
1901 theological agreement called the Basis of Union. Since then the Westminster Confession has
been changed twice, and those promoting the changes were not subjected to heresy trials.
The distance between Cameron and his
complainants was already wide, but the institution of formal proceedings put
both parties into a lose-lose situation. Cameron felt the early attacks acutely. He ended his first formal defence of his
Ashfield sermon by saying to Dr Keith, the convenor of the first investigatory committee.
subject to my views, I expect you to give a satisfactory answer to these
questions. If on the other hand you do
not subject to my views, then I expect some sort of apology from the Presbytery
for all the unpleasantness and vilification I have been subjected to as a
result of this process.
observations can be made at this point.
First, according to Cameron, the reprisals started immediately. Secondly, from the outset both sides
responded to what was essentially a conflict over faith with the inappropriate
instruments of logic and rationality. An
example of this from Cameron’s side is found in his response to the conclusion
of Dr Keith’s committee:
let me admit that I am slightly surprised at the Committee’s conclusion, that
‘Dr Cameron may not hold views which are entirely consistent with Chapter 1 of
the Westminster Confession of Faith’ – surprised that is, because the logical
entailment of that proposition is that Dr Cameron may hold views which are
entirely consistent with Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith …
This report therefore is incompetent, illegal, and irrelevant, and I
congratulate the Committee on achieving so much in the space of three
strategy (possibly learnt in his days in law) was to give the church leaders a
double dose of sarcasm and logic. The
more logical he became, the more his chances of failure increased, for what was
being contested here were matters of faith not fact. At the end of the day legal arguments and
rational discourse, a sort of lingua franca of the heresy proceeding, would take
second place to religious belief. But what else could Cameron have done? He
understood the frailty of his strategies:
sarcasm and ridicule certainly made me enjoy the whole exercise more but it
didn’t improve my prospects. I think
that having begun to hit back, the best thing I could do was what I did: go on
hitting back regardless of the consequences.
He also acknowledged that conflicts
about fundamental issues bring out the worst in people:
necessity to be always defending yourself, which can only be done successfully
in this sort of context by attacking, makes your appear pugnacious and
cantankerous; and in time you begin to think automatically in terms of
has told us, in the most eloquent fashion, what it is like to walk in the shoes
of a church whistleblower. He has spoken
of the isolation, the risk-taking, the challenge to his relationship to his
God, and the ostracism from people he once thought of as friends. These personal reactions speak of
whistleblower vulnerability and organisational supremacy.
Cameron’s sense of the fearful power of
church discipline was corroborated by Stuart Clements, a Presbyterian minister
and Cameron supporter:
happens that as a young minister thirty years ago, I took part in a Commission
of Assembly at the appeal of the Rev. Mr Finch against his conviction for
contumacy (stubborn resistance to authority).
I went into proceedings as a commissioner and incidentally as a lawyer,
thinking that it would be a matter of no great consequence compared with a
conviction in a state court. I came out
shaking (literally) at the appalling weight placed upon someone by a
condemnation of the church.
the nature of the ‘appalling weight’?
Part of the answer is that dissent transforms the authority relationship
from one of accord to one of discord. In
the first phase the future whistleblower is more at one with her or his
organisation. Workplaces to not consciously recruit dissenters.
We can go further and generally state that the relationship can be one
of indoctrination, in which the worker’s personal values are refashioned (some
would say contorted) to conform to workplace requirements presented as
‘values’. This is the period of
accord. For many of us it lasts as long
as we work, give or take the occasional grumble. Workplace accord provides emotional and
material benefits. We experience a sense
of belonging and purpose. To cap it off
we are remunerated, and this gives us a comfortable, secure lifestyle. So powerful are the benefits of accord that
few of us dare jeopardise them by challenging the organisation, at least
Those who dissent have a really hard
time when accord gives way to discord, because of terrible contradiction. They have been cast out of an organisation
that they previously embraced so completely that they could no tell ethically
where the person finished and the organisation started. Whistleblowers in the phase of discord must
deal with the terrible effects of rejection.
The expelling organisation, which by definition cannot feel, closes
ranks and forgets the whistleblower the moment he or she is out the gate. Whistleblowers remember the rejection
forever. This was Cameron’s lot.
His original surprise that church
leaders would take exception to his sermon, and his shock at the speed with
which they reacted, soon gave way to an appreciation of the trouble he and the
church were in. A note he sent to the
church after it decided not to accept the Keith Committee Report as a mixture of
peace offering and dire warning:
the reasons why I have made a point of challenging the irregularities which
have so far arisen has been to give the Presbytery a chance to rethink and to
back out … If … they (Sydney Presbytery) … raise some sort of libel, it seems
to me that this could do untold harm to the Presbyterian Church of
Australia. I must admit I don’t relish
the prospect myself, but I am sure that it will damage the Church far more than
it will damage me … This case threatens to become as unpleasant and as farcical
as the Angus case, and all it will achieve will be to bring home to people
outside just how little theological progress the Presbyterian Church of
Australia has made since (the 1930s).
To some the case did become as
unpleasant and farcical as the Angus heresy trial. Opportunities for conciliation soon
evaporated. Each side was moving into
battle. The stakes were high – the
interpretative control of the Bible.
Both sides saw the righteousness of their positions with clear
eyes. It became a case of ‘praise the
ammunition and pass the Lord’. One can
argue that there is never a time for rapprochement between power and dissent;
that the relationship can only be transacted through conflict. That is the way Cameron’s matter worked
itself out as neither side seemed burdened with Luther’s worry that the other
side might just be right.
By now, however, it was too late for
rapprochement. The next stage was a
Brotherly Conference. On 23 June 1992
Cameron faced fifty members of the Sydney Presbytery. The mood on both sides was one of
determination and anger. Cameron was
asked whether he still stood by the sermon he preached in March. He reasserted his theological position, and
also defended the claim that homosexuality and Christianity were compatible.
Cameron left the Brotherly
Conference optimistic that the conflict was coming to an end. Again he had misread the charts. On 4 August the Sydney Presbytery decided to
hold a Preliminary Inquiry, the next stage in its complicated procedure for the
examination of allegations of heresy. Three
weeks later, on 25 August, the Presbytery moved to the final stage, the Judicial
Process, a heresy trial by another name.
Disagreements about the pending
process occurred between the Church’s most senior legal adviser, Garry Downs
QC, and Cameron’s prosecutor, Bruce Christian, a minister at Rose Bay
and former Moderator of the church. On
17 November the Presbytery confirmed its intention to proceed to the trial.
One week later the story was
out. The Sydney Morning Herald splashed ’Heretic? The Cleric Who Praised Women’ across page one. Cameron received strong coverage in both
print and electronic media, and a good deal of support from the Sydney Morning
Herald in particular. Numerous letters
of support followed, including two in different handwriting from the Archangel
Michael, which Cameron found ‘encouraging’.
Cameron was once a public
prosecutor, and knew the adversary’s role well.
He knew how to fight as well as how to preach. He has said that going to the media was ‘the
best thing I could have done’ but we must qualify this claim. The media are a powerful weapon for exposing
clandestine activities and secret deliberations, particularly when
journalists are well-informed and tenacious.
This strategy can be so powerful that no government in Australia has
been brave enough to protect whistleblowers who go to the media.
But, as Cameron soon discovered, the
media’s support can be a two-edged sword.
The other edge of the media sword is felt every time
the media kindergarten-ise complicated issues or gut
the story of all but sensational bits.
Media exposure reflects and amplifies social conflicts, which they call
‘news’, and therefore entrenches adversarial positions. This is a serious problem: stereotypical
images and fighting words detract from the conflict’s potential to effect
At one level, Cameron understood
this. He has said that going public
‘undoubtedly hardened the hearts of the opposition and made the eventual
conviction (for heresy) more or less inevitable’. On the other hand, he took comfort from the
public support he received.
In most cases whistleblowing
is essentially a solo pursuit. Often
whistleblowers have to endure long winters of despair with only their
consciences for companions. One effect
of this isolation is that dissenters can start to suspect that they are wrong, or even losing their minds. In this situation it was a great boost to
Cameron to read the media-stimulated support letters, and hear the telephone
ring with another comfort call.
Reflecting on his new strength, he said: ‘Now I could face the rest of
the proceedings with the knowledge that most rational people, both inside and
outside the church, were very much on my side.
Note Cameron’s continuing emphasis on the curative force of rationality.
Around this time Lindsay Moore, a
prominent member of the Presbyterian Church and its former principal law agent, resigned
in protest at its treatment of Cameron. Moore became Cameron’s
legal adviser for the trial. Moore said:
realised that I could no longer be publicly identified with a particular
religious mind-set which I found abhorrent, I felt a growing personal
estrangement and cynicism, and this is not good for the soul.
Moore went on to say that he was disenchanted with the religious
repression in the church. Cameron’s
matter was only one of several issues troubling the liberal Presbyterians. He mentioned the Presbytery of Dubbo’s
initiation of an inquisition against the church at Coonabarabran, and a
decision by the minister at Wynnum (Brisbane) to rip out a stained-glass window
of the Good Shepherd against the wishes of the congregation. He also deplored the action of the General
Assembly of Queensland in direction teachers at its Fairholme College to teach creation
‘science’. It seemed the Presbyterian
Church was rocking on the precipice of yet another split.
Cameron’s trial was set to start on
18 March 1993, and was the subject of intense media interest. The Sydney Morning Herald was continuing its coverage,
and Sixty Minutes got exclusive TV rights from Cameron under a callous
agreement that there would be no story unless the verdict went against
him. When Cameron arrived at the
Presbyterian Theological Centre in Burwood, Sydney, he was greeted by
half-a-dozen TV cameras and sundry print and radio reporters. After the media were sent out and the doors
closed, the pattern of allegation and defence went on until 11.30pm, when the
elders voted by a majority of twenty-six to three to sustain the charge that
Cameron had made heretical statements inconsistent with Chapter 1 of the
Westminster Confession of Faith.
Strangely, the charge relating to his position on homosexuality was
dismissed by an even bigger majority.
The church took a public-relations
beating in the storm of protest and support that erupted. The next day the Council of St Andrew’s
College issued a statement in support of its principal. For a time, the secular press and the
Presbyterian Review were inundated with letters of support for Cameron. A writer to the Sydney Morning Herald (25
March 1993) compared him to Socrates, who was forced to suicide for challenging
establishment views. Another
appalling that the Presbyterian Church has ordered a fine man to be
characterised as a heretic on the words of a man, a known misogynist (St Paul) who was not even
around when Jesus Christ taught tolerance, love and kindness to one another.
quoted Jesus Christ’s words after his own trial: ‘Forgive them, Father, for
they know not what they do.’
The question of sentence was
deferred after Cameron said that he would appeal. His appeal was heard on 2 July before an
Assembly of members of the church, which dismissed it by a majority of 123 to
65. Cameron’s prosecutor, the Reverend
Peter Hastie, said:
genuine when I say I am saddened for Dr Cameron. The decision would have wounded him, and I
took no delight in seeing him, as it were, under the pressure of the Assembly
as he was.
faced four possible punishments: rebuke, suspension, deposition (exclusion from
the ministry) and excommunication (expulsion from the church). He thought that it was most likely to be one
of the last two. To pre-empt this, he
withdrew from his last appeal opportunity and resigned from the ministry on 1
August 1994. His tell-all book Heretic
was published the next day. In
reflecting on his traumatic experiences, Cameron said with pride:
I have a
feeling of mission accomplished. At long
last I have steeled myself to raise the whistle to my lips and blow. My nerve failed me on that occasion in the
school chapel thirty years ago, and I regretted it ever since.
Cameron on a good day; that was Cameron the achiever. Soon the shine goes off this sense of
achievement, as the following statement from Cameron shows:
said some years ago that God was dead.
It might not be so absurd now to proclaim the death of the Church … I
entered the ministry as, in some sense an imposter –
a double agent – hoping to change things from within. That is no longer possible for me. I have stopped preaching now because I think
people come to hear me as they would the fat lady in the circus.
Cameron left Australia for good in
January 1996 to return to his native Scotland. “He left the Presbyterian Church and was
subsequently ordained into the Scottish Episcopal (Anglican) Church.
Cameron’s case raises a number of
issues. One important question is
whether there is a place for perpetual dissenter, or in Steiner’s words the
‘discourser without end’. Cameron left the
church after a brief but intense engagement.
Is there value to the organisation, and to the standards that it so
assiduously promotes, in allowing whistleblowers to have a protected presence
after they disclose? Or is their value
in the short, sharp shock? The arguments
appear compelling on both sides. Once
the dissenter is expelled from the organisation, what happens to the torch of
dissent? Is it picked up, or does the
flame go out?
One thing that is clear from
Cameron’s case is that whistleblowers move along in currents that are stronger
than they are. As on Presbyterian
commentator has said:
There was a
surge of anger and disgust at the Cameron decision within the basic membership
of the Church, (but) that was only from those who were involved or concerned
enough to notice what was going on. Even
then they had to be experienced enough to recognise it for what it was, a power
struggle in which Cameron himself was only a pawn.