In Memory – Prof. Gary Bouma, AM

Gary BoumaReligions for Peace Australia recalls Prof. Gary Bouma – former Deputy Chair of Religions for Peace Australia – Deputy Vice Chancellor at Monash University and Chair of the Melbourne Board of the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Emeritus Prof. Des Cahill writes in Memory of his friend and associate, Professor Gary Bouma, AM.


Professor Des Cahill
Yesterday we learned of the death of our close friend, Gary Bouma, Emeritus UNESCO Professor of Interreligious and Intercultural Studies at Melbourne’s Monash University. He died peacefully at 4 a.m. in the arms of his beloved Patricia after a difficult year of ill health, not least because of a fall after tripping on an asphalt corrugation in St. Kilda Rd. near his apartment – he ended up for several weeks in the Alfred Hospital in the same ward at the same time as Premier Daniel Andrews.

He was for a decade my deputy chair of Religions for Peace Australia (RfPA). He was an academic giant, especially in the religious, interfaith and sociological areas, with a global collegiate network. For over three decades with his prestigious and prodigious output, he had been Australia’s leading religious sociologist and was widely recognised as the best interpreter of the Australian census data on religious affiliation.

We have worked closely together since 2001 when we were elected as chair and deputy chair of the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace, the world’s largest interfaith network of religiously committed people working for peace and social cohesion in the 95 member nations.


Gary Bouma was born in 1942 into a Dutch American Reformed family in Grand Rapids, Michigan and he arrived in Australia in 1979 to take up his Monash appointment after studying at Calvin Christian University and Princeton Theological Seminary before gaining his Ph.D. at Cornell University. His spiritual odyssey was a little complicated but by 1981 he had been ordained as an Anglican priest with his first appointment as assistant priest at St. John’s, Toorak. Given our similar academic interests and my own background as a former Catholic priest, we ’hit it off’ immediately. He regularly took me off to lunch at the Athenaeum Club on Collins St. where we would meet some of the movers and shakers around Melbourne town.

September 9/11

Soon after our RfPA election, the world dramatically changed with 9/11. Forty days after that cataclysmic event, the International Secretariat of Religions for Peace International in the U.N. Plaza called all its chapter leaders to New York for a three-day briefing session. Such was the pervasive fear the Qantas flight from Los Angeles to New York had only four passengers. New Yorkers were just beginning to come out of their apartments to resume life again but the mood was still very sombre with thousands of floral tributes, especially outside rail and subway stations, including many from those who were forlornly hoping that their loved ones would still come home. And there was much survivor guilt.

We were briefed by the U.N. Deputy Secretary-General, Religions for Peace leaders and other interfaith and religious leaders, and several leading academics and it was a unique opportunity to meet our counterparts from other countries. Our New York togetherness cemented our collegial friendship.

It ended with an interfaith service at the church right on the perimeter of Ground Zero. Its hall had been destroyed by the falling towers and a Greek Orthodox Church had been completely obliterated. Huge, very noisy trucks were carting off the debris in the very still evening air. The prayer service was led by the New York Philharmonic Choir, and the Irish American parish priest told a wonderful story of how a week later a stranger called in and said, “I have come to say sorry”. Taken aback, the priest asked “Why?” It turned out that the man was a Jewish doctor who happened to be passing by as the planes hit the towers. The church was made into a medical staging post, and as victims were brought in, he was looking for bandages. So he tore up the altar cloths. The doctor had come back to apologise for he was aware how sacred the cloths are to Catholics but there was nothing to apologise for. Jesus would have approved, the priest responded!

Religion, Cultural Diversity and Safeguarding Australia

A little later, Gary and I, together with Hass Dellal, the Executive Director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation and our two universities with our researcher Michael Leahy were asked by the Immigration Department to examine how Australia had handled 9/11. Our study took us all around Australia, and Religion, Cultural Diversity and Safeguarding Australia (2004), brought to public attention the notion of multifaith Australia. It was published alongside a monograph on Islam in Australia by Melbourne University’s Professor Abdullah Saaed.

The 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions

Melbourne Parliament of Religions Logo
In 2006, we were approached by the Melbourne Convention Centre to make a bid for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the world’s largest interfaith gathering. Armed with $2 million each from John Howard (through Andrew Robb) and from Steve Bracks (through James Merlino and George Lekakis), Bishop Philip Huggins and I led a team to Chicago to win the bid over several other competing teams. Gary would eventually and very successfully chair the organising committee. He had immense communication and administrative skills and eventually became a deputy vice-chancellor at Monash University though his first loves were researching and teaching. The Parliament with 6,500 participants was the first major event in the brand-new Melbourne Convention Centre held in the first week of December 2009. It took three years of our lives to organise and stage.

2011 Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia

The Australian Human Rights Commission asked us (Bouma, Cahill, Dellal with our researcher Athalia Zwartz) to examine the right to freedom of religion, and so we spoke to religious leaders and government officials around Australia as well as an online public consultation. The study 2011 Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia found that the biggest threats at the time to religious freedom emanated from anti-Muslim and anti-gay sources but generally in Australia religious freedom observance was in good shape.

Victoria Police Multifaith Council

The last time we met face-to-face was in late 2019 at a meeting of the Victoria Police Multifaith Council. The advisory council was formed in 2005 by Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon as part of her community policing policy. We had been foundation members ever since. It meant that we met very regularly at the meetings, and we both got to know many senior police over the years.

Gary was able to make important contributions along the way. During the time when the white supremacists were invading Bendigo to try and prevent the building of a mosque, the police asked us to form a Bendigo Interfaith Council and we were both friendly with Ian Green, the Bendigo Buddhist who has driven the building of the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion. We used our church contacts to achieve the formation of the Bendigo Interfaith Council which helped to defuse the opposition to the mosque.

Vale, Gary

Gary Bouma leaves behind a formidable legacy in religious and interfaith studies. With his deeply rooted knowledge, his charismatic personality, his capacity to think on his feet and his determination, he was much admired. In any stoush, it was critical to have Gary on side. At the national and the international level, he held leading positions in professional associations in the sociology of religion. In 2013, he was finally awarded membership in the Order of Australia, A.M. He was deeply spiritual and committed to his Christian faith and his Anglican Church as well as to his university. He was very lovingly partnered and supported by Patricia and his two sons and daughter, and he loved his grandchildren deeply.

May he be welcomed by the good God into eternity where we pray he finds eternal peace and fulfilment. And we give thanks that he made the decision to emigrate to Australia and gave so much to his adopted country. Just over half his life was spent in Australia. By this presence, we were truly graced and blessed, and we give thanks to the Lord Creator.

August 20th, 2021


Gary Bouma


© Religions for Peace Australia, 2021