Stephen Crittenden: See how a tiny prayer opens on to everything. Father John Pawlikowsy, and we’ll have a Jewish view on this story next week.
Well now to a story of a different kind of conversion. This year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and when the parade marches up Oxford Street, there’ll be an innovation: large group of Christian ministers will be marching, to apologise for the hostility their churches have displayed and continue to display, towards gay people. They’re calling themselves ‘100 Revs’, and so far, 55 of them have also signed an apology.
Well the gay community may not yet appreciate it, but this is a big deal for these clergymen, some of whom who have been threatened with disciplinary action if they march.
The Reverend Mike Hercock is a Baptist pastor based in Surry Hills. He’s the spokesman for the group. Mark, thanks for joining us. Is this a milestone, or just a small step towards one?
Mike Hercock: I think it is a milestone certainly for many ministers marching in Mardi Gras, and certainly even signing the statement, but it is a small step towards a change in attitude, there’s no doubt about that.
Stephen Crittenden: And so what do you think it will mean for the gay community in Sydney?
Mike Hercock: Well I hope it means I suppose some level of acknowledgment of wanting to change the attitude that has often been presented by the church, certainly of the level of hostility. I hope they see the heart of it being one of trying to show a different way forward for all of us.
Stephen Crittenden: Well you’ve had about 40 signatories so far; tell us how you went about approaching ministers of religion, but also the sort of response you’ve got form them and from the gay community.
Mike Hercock: Well the ministers of religion, we’re an interesting bunch, aren’t we, pastors. When it comes to controversial issues we really want to have a good dialogue with them, so it’s really come through relationship and through individuals contacting individuals, which is very slow, you know. We’d send out the statement of apology and then a week-and-a-half later we’d have a long list of reasons why and why not, and we want to have further discussion. So it was really important that it started that way. The ministers’ responses across the country and across the denominations, those that have really taken the time to have a look at the statement, have been very positive. They’ve really sat with the issue of how have we not been welcoming to the gay community, and virtually none of them have disagreed. And then specifically I think some of the ministers themselves have said actually this is quite a serious issue, we’ve really said very little, certainly positive, to this community and certainly addressing our own ownership of the hostility that’s gone on at times.
The gay community has been interesting, from my perspective, I think they’ve in general seen the heart of what we’re doing. We were actually contacted just recently from different people all over the world trying to ask questions in different gay groups, and I think the joke is that my last name is Hercock, and Reverend Hercock is marching in Mardi Gras is a bit of a joke.
Stephen Crittenden: I wasn’t going to raise that, Mike. But you’re saying you’re getting interest from the gay media around the world?
Mike Hercock: Yes, I think in general it’s been very positive. I mean there’s always some concerns about what we’re saying in the statement that may not be fully said or agreed upon, but in general people are seeing the heart of what we’re about.
Stephen Crittenden: You’re a married Baptist minister with children, what motivated you personally to get involved in a project like this?
Mike Hercock: I suppose on my arrival two years ago to Surry Hills, I had an opportunity to start meeting with the local people.
Stephen Crittenden: Where were you before that?
Mike Hercock: I was in South Melbourne Church of Christ, and I was a pastor down there for a number of years. I then came up here to start the work initially out of the restaurant that we’re in, and I suppose I met one particular guy who shared a little bit of his journey. He was at a local congregation, he had come in and had made an acceptance of his relationship with Christ and wanted to be baptised. And when it came out that he was struggling with his sexual identity being homosexual, they made it very clear that he couldn’t be baptised. And he was just a young guy, 21 years old, and he was sitting in front of me and yes, it was just very sad, what I saw in his eyes and his sense of being rejected and excluded. He was high risk in regards to his mental health in my estimation at that time, and also he was high risk in the way he was behaving sexually, because he felt so ashamed. And I just saw that that just was not what Jesus would have been about for this young man who was desperately trying to work these identity issues and trying to find a faith in the middle of it. And as I sat with him and started meeting other young men and women, the stories just started to flow out of rejection, of distress, and somehow those stories affected me, and I just started to share them with others.
Stephen Crittenden: So tell us about your own parish, because it’s an interesting parish. It started off in a very interesting, very famous in fact Sydney church building, the Baptist Tabernacle down in Burton Street, which many people would know, in I suppose, East Sydney. And you’ve moved to, what? You’ve bought a restaurant?
Mike Hercock: That’s right. We’re now in a restaurant called Table for Twenty, which was started up 18 months ago, which is a bit of a communal dining experience. Out of that building, we run “Upstairs Sticky”, which is where we run our gathering, or our church gathering, and then we run the restaurant there four evenings a week – Northern Italian food, a communal dining experience. And so for us it was about making a space where the community for a whole variety of reasons would engage us. We have a counseling service as well, so you might come and eat with us and dine with us, you might go to one of the counseling services, you might also come in for our homeless art exhibition that’s on once a year. So it started to embrace the whole idea of community.
Stephen Crittenden: Sounds like you’ve got a very sort of informal thing going though, it’s not like a traditional parish in the way it operates.
Mike Hercock: No, no actually it’s not. I mean just recently we started our church services for the year, and we started with what we call the bar ipstairs, we call “Sticky”, so it’s sticky issues, and it’s also sticky desert wines. So we have a liquor licence, I think we’re the only ones with a liquor licence around, churches that I know of, and so we open it as a church for the unchurched, as a transition space.
Stephen Crittenden: It sounds like a first to me, a Baptist Wine Bar!
Mike Hercock: I’m glad you find it humorous, others didn’t find it so.
Stephen Crittenden: I mean that’s a serious question though, many Baptists are very conservative on issues like this one, raising the question I guess, of whether it’s possible to offer an apology on behalf of institutions that probably none of which have reached that stage of making apologies themselves.
Mike Hercock: Well that’s right. I think we have put our neck out, there’s no doubt, but we’ve actually made the statement from individual ministers, not representing their denominations. So out of the number of ministers, 50 or so now, who are signing the apology from a cross-section of denominations, we recognise that as ministers we have some responsibility in this. And so we take it on individually. Although if you looked over those 50 or so ministers who have signed the apology, you would have hundreds of years of ministry experience across a broad range of churches, across the country. So it’s probably some reflection, but not all. And there’s definitely a number of churches who are doing some significantly good work in trying to reach out to the gay community as well. And it is hard, you don’t want to lump people all in together.
Stephen Crittenden: Just explain the timing of all of this. You’ve got a whole lot of people who’ve signed up, and they’re presumably going to march in the parade, and sign the apology, but the apology hasn’t been published yet with their names on it. When’s that going to happen?
Mike Hercock: Well what we’re hoping to do is after the march, set up a pro forma where they can just add their names that they want to have made public. Because our concern is that each minister undergoes a certain amount of scrutiny because of being attached to it, and then some –
Stephen Crittenden: Pressure, you’re saying?
Mike Hercock: Some pressure, yet. And so as it stands at the moment, if you go to the website, people then choose to email us with their name saying ‘We’re in support of this’.
Stephen Crittenden: Mike, I hope the audience is picking up on this, because I am only slowly (talking to you), starting to realise what a big deal this is for the people concerned. What pressure are people really under, individuals who’ve accepted to do this?
Mike Hercock: Well I mean certainly those who have accepted to march will possibly face some kind of discipline within their denomination. I think the question of whether people sign it or not is a separate question. Some individuals recognise the statement as itself to be truthful, but wouldn’t march, because of other reasons. So yes, there’s no doubt that there is a cost involved for every person who’s connected with what we’re doing at this stage.
Stephen Crittenden: We’ve been told that a number of Catholic and Anglican priests in Sydney have been warned by their bishops not to march, or risk losing their jobs. Can you confirm that?
Mike Hercock: I wouldn’t like to confirm the issues that are going on in particular denominations, because each minister’s having to take on board the cost for themselves, but there’s no doubt there’s been a cost for every minister who’s been attached to us. That’s just the nature of being involved with our various denominational heads.
Stephen Crittenden:I wonder f any od them considered marching in masks. I mean that is what used to happen in early Mardi Gras parades to prevent exactly that kind of individual retribution happening.
Mike Hercock: I do wish I had thought of that myself actually, because I think we would have a lot more marching if they could be more anonymous. But at the same time I also think about the person of Jesus, and I think sometimes we have to stand up and put our face to things. I think there is something to be said for putting your face to it.
Stephen Crittenden: A last question: what about Fred Nile’s accusation that you’re all piggy-backing on the Prime Minister’s apology to the Stolen Generation?
Mike Hercock: Well it’s completely misplaced. We’ve been working away on this for a year, we didn’t even know who would be in parliament at this time of the year, and I think it’s just a way of kind of misdirecting people’s attention. We’re really about something quite different.
Stephen Crittenden: Great to have you on the program.
Mike Hercock: A pleasure, a real pleasure.
Stephen Crittenden: Pastor Mike Hercock, and we’ll have the text of the apology and other details on our website.
Well that’s all for us. Maybe they should march with masks, that’s what they did in the old days to avoid retribution.
Bishop Suheil Dawani of Jerusalem: full interview on Sundaynights with John Cleary
Dr John Pawlikowski (bio)
Nostrae Aetate (declaration on the Jews) on wiki
100Revs blogspot (apology to gays and lesbians)
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