When Saying Sorry is a Risk

Sydney Morning Herald

Erin O’Dwyer

August 9, 2008

WHEN Mike Hercock, a Baptist pastor, put out a call for Christian clergy who wanted to make a public apology to gays and lesbians, he was knocked over in the rush. But when the time came for the priests and pastors to march at this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, some of the so-called “100 Revs” lost their nerve.

“A few days before the march, I started getting phone calls,” said Mr Hercock, a pastor with the Hope Street community project in Darlinghurst. “The harder calls were the ones saying, ‘The dog ate my homework and I can’t make it on Saturday to march.’ “

The apology should have been big news. But as word spread that the 100 Revs would issue a statement condemning the church for being “profoundly unloving” to gays and lesbians, church leaders flew into action.

The Baptist Union sent a one-page letter to its members warning them that it did not support the apology. Catholic priests and Uniting Church ministers were discreetly told not to get involved.

A preacher at a Pentecostal church received hate mail.

In the end, only 30 ministers marched. Even those who did not worried about their jobs.

Mr Hercock said signing the apology was a career-defining move for many of the 100 Revs. “For a lot of people it was always going to be a tough call,” he said. “It can affect your ordination; it can affect your call to ministry. I don’t know of one person who signed without going through some kind of internal process. They had to go through what the cost was to them, professionally and personally.”

Six months later, the ramifications continue. The Baptist Union’s national president, Ross Clifford, said this week that “discussions” with members who signed the apology were taking place. He said the church opposed the 100 Revs because the church did not support sex outside marriage and felt that the style of the apology, although well-intentioned, could be misunderstood.

“There will be discussions with people about why this was done without consultation with the church,” he said.

One minister, who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, said she had asked that her name be taken off the list. She had graduated from Bible college but was not yet ordained. “My fear was it would affect my call to ministry,” she said. “I’m female and I’m divorced, and these are barriers even before they get to the 100 Revs.”

The NSW police chaplain, Melissa Baker, said she struggled with internal conflict, but her personal convictions won. “In the end I just thought I can’t sit on the fence. I can’t sit quietly; I can’t be in silence because I’m passionate about what I believe in.”

Other ministers who spoke to the Herald expressed relief that the apology had gone largely unnoticed. “I might be looking for a job after this interview,” quipped Reverend Clive Watkins of the Anglican Church. “But you’ve got to be prepared to take the flak.”

Mr Watkins, who sits on the council of Cranbrook School, said he told the school because he “didn’t want them to be hit with something they didn’t know about”. But he declined to tell the conservative Sydney Diocese. “I had genuine concerns,” he said.

Three churches whose members were involved – the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, the Catholic Archdiocese and the Uniting Church – said no directive was issued. Concerns were also unfounded, because individual ministers had significant freedom to support various causes.

“They were being paranoid; we neither encouraged it nor discouraged it,” said the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth. “It’s affected nobody’s future and people signed it for very different reasons. It’s very hard when you get blamed for something that people think you might do.”

But small ripples of change make the 100 Revs confident that their defiance was not in vain. Ms Baker said she knows some gay and lesbian police who are considering returning to church.

Mr Hercock recently received a phone call from a young mother wanting her baby to be baptised by “someone who was part of the 100 Revs”. Last month, a Melbourne pastor, Anthea Smits, mentioned the subject in passing at a conference in Adelaide and was overwhelmed by the interest. “It wasn’t even the main topic of the talk,” said Ms Smits, who is from the progressive Pentecostal church Urban Life. “But I had many people come and speak to me afterwards. They wanted to know how they could get involved.”

One minister profoundly affected by the process is Peter Breen of Brisbane.

In 1995 Mr Breen – then a Wesleyan Church minister in Bundaberg – organised a high-profile protest march against the live broadcasting of the Mardi Gras on ABC TV. But alarmed by the “rabid right-wing gay bashers” he saw on the day of the protest, he began reading books by pro-gay Christian writers. Later a member of his family came out. Finally he began worshipping at St Mary’s South Brisbane, known for its inclusive stance on gay rights.

From his new place of faith, Mr Breen said it is unlikely he can continue as an ordained minister. And he believes that the 100 Revs will have an enduring legacy in Australia. “I think it was an event that had to happen,” he said. “We might get ostracised or we might not be asked to speak at conferences. But it was something that had to be said.”

Additional background on the 100Revs here https://www.abbi.org.au/tag/100-revs/