One of Sydney’s most high-profile Anglican priests has been forced to resign from his church or face the sack because his wife walked out on him.

Fr David Smith – a two-time Australian of the Year nominee who is popularly known as “Fighting Father Dave” due to his boxing exploits – told Guardian Australia he faced total loss of income by the end of the year and possible homelessness after the Sydney diocese learned his marriage had broken down.

The bishop of the southern region, Michael Stead, did not dispute that Smith’s 30-year career as rector of Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill was over because his wife had left him.

But he said Smith had “voluntarily” resigned “at my strong encouragement” because his position was “untenable”.

A portrait of Father Dave Smith by the artist E.L.K adorned the side of a building in Sydney’s Martin Place.
A portrait of Father Dave Smith by the artist E.L.K adorned the side of a building in Sydney’s Martin Place. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

Under the Sydney doctrine, not shared almost anywhere else in the Anglican church in Australia, men who are divorced or separated with no chance of reconciliation are not permitted to serve as head of a parish – a rector.

The conservative evangelical diocese’s controversial doctrine of “male headship” holds that men are the undisputed heads of their households, wives must “submit” to their husbands, and only men can lead in church.

The doctrine also means Sydney is one of only four dioceses in the country that continues to ban the ordination of women priests.

Smith said his voluntary resignation was the equivalent of “having a gun pointed at my head and told to pull the trigger”.

“And if you don’t pull the trigger, we’ll do it for you.”

Stead said Smith’s position had become untenable on biblical grounds, citing 1 Timothy 3:5: “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?”

Smith said Stead gave him a six-month ultimatum to “get his wife back” or buy time by providing proof she was the offending partner.

Fighting Father Dave.
Father Dave Smith has had a high profile in Sydney thanks to his boxing exploits and liberal views. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“I mean how unChristian is that?” said the father of four, who has been ordered to vacate the diocese-owned home where he lives with one primary school age child by March.

Stead said this was not an ultimatum but an expression of hope that Smith might reconcile with his wife, making his resignation unnecessary.

“We have this policy that if the marriage has irrevocably broken down, I would have still had to ask him to step down whether or not he could establish he was not at fault,” Stead said.

The policy was essential because divorced or separated male clergy were a “destabilising” influence on a congregation.

“Any alternative inevitably leads to questions and speculations about faithfulness and unfaithfulness,” Stead said.

‘Not many friends in high ecclesiastic places’

An ABC investigation in 2018 partly attributed Sydney’s male headship doctrine to a disproportionate incidence of domestic violence within Sydney Anglican clergy families.

The investigation forced the diocese to create what is believed to be the world’s first fund to support and compensate Anglican clergy wives who had been forced to flee the family home because of abuse at the hands of their husbands.

“The Sydney diocese knows it has a domestic violence problem,” Smith said.

“I have seen some unhappy marriages where the wife stays because she knows the consequences of leaving – costing her husband’s job, the family home … the whole family loses everything.”

There is no suggestion domestic violence or infidelity played a role in Smith’s marriage breakdown.

The 58-year-old priest – who was depicted in a 10m mural in boxing mode overlooking Martin Place in the city centre for five years until recently – said he had decided to go public because he was due to launch a book in two weeks and it was inevitable the circumstances of his private life would emerge.

“You could say I’ve been a thorn in the side [of the Sydney church] for years, but until now I was largely untouchable,” he said, referring to his high public profile largely due to his decades-long work with substance-addicted youth and as founder of Father Dave’s Old School Boxing Academy, set up to help young people at risk in the inner west.

Father David Smith in 2009 with the former president of Iran, Syed Mohammad Katami (left), and Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, who was later wrongfully deported by Australian security services.
Father David Smith in 2009 with the former president of Iran, Syed Mohammad Katami (left), and Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, who was later wrongfully deported by Australian security services. Photograph: David Smith/Supplied

He was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2004 and 2009, twice awarded Marrickville Citizen of the Year, and in 2012 he broke the world record for the most continuous rounds of boxing to raise money for charity.

However, he concedes his outspokenness has not earned him any friends in high ecclesiastic places. He has given strong support to the Palestinian cause, promoted ecumenical activities with the local Muslim community, and was a lone voice against the Sydney diocese’s decision to contribute $1m to the “no” vote in the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

In his 2003 book Sex, the Ring and the Eucharist, Smith wrote candidly about his clerical colleagues’ “glib middle-class satisfaction” with Sydney’s status quo and at the annual clergy conference he described his fellow attendees as “ageing priests with pot bellies” and their “well-groomed wives”.

He said his marriage breakdown was the excuse the diocese had been waiting for “for years”.

His latest book – Christians and Muslims Can Be Friends – carries endorsements from the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, and Australia’s first female Muslim federal MP, Anne Aly.

At his book launch on 28 November, Smith will enter the ring for friendly bouts with professional boxers Anthony Mundine, Billy Dib and Solomon Haumono.

He has not ruled out a return to professional boxing to keep the wolf from the door.

“The truth is, getting hit in the face by your opponent is nothing compared to the pain of losing your partner and your job,” he said. “On the contrary, it’s almost cathartic.”