In 2017 let's celebrate 200 years of sharing the Bible

Join the Celebration

The accidental Bishop: John Harrower reflects on almost 50 years of trusting Jesus

INTERVIEWS | Tess Holgate
Tuesday 2 February 2015

Dressed in his purple Bishops’ shirt, John Harrower greets me with a warm smile and a gentle handshake at the offices of the Anglican Church in Melbourne. It’s a warm day, and with rosy cheeks, he looks a bit jolly. Over the course of our two-hour conversation, he will have plenty of reasons to chuckle, and not a few stories that bring tears to his eyes.

John recently retired from 15 years serving as the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, a role that took an emotional toll as he first apologised to victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of Anglican clergy and lay workers, and then spent many years listening to the stories of abuse victims, in an attempt to seek reconciliation.

“It just seemed to me that the way of the cross, the way of Christ is the way of seeking reconciliation through forgiveness, and saying that we’re sorry,” says John.

The wheels of the apology had been set in motion two years before John was actually ordained to the role.

In 1998 the Anglican Church of Tasmania had produced a report titled Not the Way of Christ, where they invited any victim of abuse, bullying or sexual misconduct—confidentially, all documents would be destroyed and no names recorded in the report—to come forward and detail their abuse.

“It just seemed to me that the way of the cross, the way of Christ is the way of seeking reconciliation through forgiveness, and saying that we’re sorry.”

After he was called to serve as the Bishop of Tasmania, but before he took up the role, John said, “I read the report and cried. I thought, these people need an apology.”

At the same time, the lawyers were advising him not to apologise. An apology admitted liability and the lawyers believed that admitting liability would bankrupt the church.

“But I was a Christian, and I felt reconciliation was fundamental. These people had been done a great evil, a great wrong by Anglican Church workers, and we needed to acknowledge the great wrong that had been done to them. And we needed to name it as an evil; it was something that should never have happened.

“I [wanted to] apologise unreservedly to them for the injury that they had received at the hands of these priests and lay workes.”

Bishop John Harrower

Bishop John Harrower

The morning after his ordination as Bishop, John delivered his apology in his first press conference in the role.

He was one of the first Australian Anglican Church leaders to apologise to victims of child sexual abuse by clergy and lay workers. He says his apology was largely met with “deafening silence” by the rest of the Anglican Church in Australia, except from a couple of people working out of Sydney.

Two years later in 2002 he was the first to call for a Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse.

After that, people started to come forward and tell him their stories. John’s voice wavers, and I notice him holding back tears as he tells me he suffers from vicarious traumatisation from years of listening to victims recount their own traumatic abuse stories.

Following the apology, John says he sought to implement some kind of pastoral response, which could marry a compassionate response with a legal structure that would be able to assess the claims. It was a difficult tension to manage.

The pastoral response was strong. “They [victims] could meet with me right from the beginning, and I would tell them that they were believed, even though we hadn’t heard a lot, and I’d give them an apology,” says John.

He would meet abuse survivors in parks or homes or offices, and they would be free to bring a support person if they wanted. John says he always asked whether they wanted him to wear clerical dress.

“Some of them said, ‘Whatever you do don’t come wearing a cross or a clerical collar’. And others said, ‘No you’re a bishop; I want an apology from the bishop. So tell him he’s gotta come in his purple shirt.’ So I came in my purple shirt.

“For the victims or survivors of abuse, they felt there was somebody who was trying. Somebody who certainly was not going to cover up and who was genuinely trying to at least say sorry. I think it helped them.”

But the ramifications of the apology were not limited to the survivors of abuse.

Fighting back tears, John says, “I think it helped the church to a certain self-realisation of who we’re called to be. We don’t always get it right. It’s not that we always do evil, thank God, but there is evil amongst us, because we’re rebels, and we live in a fallen world, so evil can happen in the church.

“And where evil is in the church, it must be dealt with, and it’s got to be dealt with clearly, transparently, and fairly. And where evil has been done to people, we must walk with them.”

“We don’t always get it right. It’s not that we always do evil, thank God, but there is evil amongst us, because we’re rebels, and we live in a fallen world, so evil can happen in the church.”

But facing up to evil and seeking to deal with it justly and compassionately is a costly activity. In Tasmania, the diocese sold Bishopscourt (the historic residence of the Bishop), and although John had intended to use the $1 million sale to employ a diocesan evangelist, that money—and more over time—was funnelled through the pastoral support assistance scheme.

It also cost John a lot of his time. He says he probably spent half his life, for the first four or five years, meeting and apologising to victims. “I often say that in those years I cleaned out some dirty cupboards, to make the house hospitable.”

John concedes the apology might have won the church back some social capital amongst media and community leaders, but he also says, “I still think the weight of it went very much against us. The whole sexual abuse issue has taken away a great deal of our credibility in terms of presenting the gospel of Christ. It’s always been hard [to present the gospel] in Australia, and this just hasn’t helped one little bit. It’s just another thing that justifies not listening.”

John himself came to Christ in his twenties, many years after hearing and memorising Sunday school stories as a young child. After his father walked out on his mother, she returned to church, taking the children with her.

John Harrower, with wife Gayelene | Facebook

John Harrower, with wife Gayelene | Facebook

Though he attended church with his family for well over a decade, John had not become a Christian. Indeed, by the time he got to university he thought “religious people” were a bit weird.

He graduated from Melbourne University with a degree in Chemical Engineering, and married his high school sweetheart, Gayelene. She, too, was not a believer. After a few years at work, both found themselves back at Melbourne University. John began a second degree (part-time) in economics and political science and soon discovered that one of his tutors—Dennis—was a Christian.

After a serendipitous meeting in the café one day, Dennis invited John and Gayelene to his house for a Bible study. Together, they studied the life of Christ.

John said, “after two years of [the Arts degree], I felt I knew a lot about the ‘isms’: nationalism, socialism, communism, capitalism; but none of them actually worked. And of course when we did the Bible studies, then I saw that the Jesus answer is that those things don’t work because I don’t work. I’ve actually got a fissure, a brokenness through me because I’m a rebel against God and God’s ways.”

After three months of Bible study, John realised he had never really taken hold of Jesus. He knelt down and said a prayer of confession and repentance. About ten days later, Gayelene made a decision for Christ as well.

Not long after becoming Christians, Gayelene said to John, “I think God will ask much of us, because we know married couples where one has become a Christian and the other hasn’t, but God has called us together.” Neither of them could have known what God had in store.

They hooked in with the Navigators, and were involved in evangelism and ministry amongst university students in Melbourne until the mid-1970s, when they attended an AFES (Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students) missions conference and were invited to go to India to do university ministry.

“I’ve always felt the hardest decision that I ever made in my life was deciding to leave work and to enter missionary training.”

John soon discovered he was allergic to curry, and India was quickly taken off the table. But a man named David Penman (former Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne 1984-1989), who worked for the Church Missionary Society at the time, suggested that while God was not calling John and Gayelene to serve in the curry-eating part of the world, perhaps he was calling them to serve in the non-curry-eating part of the world. Soon after that, they entered missionary training.

John says, “I’ve always felt the hardest decision that I ever made in my life was deciding to leave work and to enter missionary training.” At the time, John was working as the director of what is now the Productivity Commission as the Industries Assistant Commissioner. “Because I loved my work, it was very satisfying, and I was working with a very stimulating group of people.”

John and Gayelene went to Argentina in 1979, to work in university ministry. They arrived in the middle of the so-called ‘dirty war’, where the Argentine government systematically hunted down and disappeared left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents and anyone believed to be associated with socialism. Estimates suggest around 30,000 people vanished during those years.

On their arrival, they found that the man who had invited them to come had had a breakdown. The dirty war had decimated the university Christian student movement, with many students, graduates and teachers falling victim to the ruthless campaign of terror by the ruling military junta.

With just a few graduates and scattered students around Argentina, John says, “they were very difficult years for us.”

They settled in Buenos Aires, and John began to travel around the country trying to contact graduates and meet students.

Public meetings of Christians were forbidden, so John would meet people in cafes or homes. It was slow work but he tried to encourage Christians to start some small activities.

“I remember once we were meeting at a smaller university campus, a few hours out from Buenos Aires and we’d advertised fairly informally that we were going to have a coffee conversation. There was only about 10 or 12 of us and there was myself and two Christian students and the rest were just people who were interested.

“Well, in stormed the soldiers with machine guns and forced us out of the university at gunpoint and threatened what might happen to us if we ever came back,” says John.

“Or, one night I was on a train going out country with a student leader, we were stopped in the middle of nowhere and we were in the carriage with the chooks and piglets ‘cause that’s all we could afford. The soldiers were outside with tanks and trucks all lined up, and then I was on the floor and they were yelling and screaming and I couldn’t really understand what they were saying. I remember Moira (the student leader) saying ‘it’s your Bible, open the Bible, open it very, very, very slowly,’ and so I got the Bible, with guns pointing at my head, and just slowly opened it to show it was a book. They thought it might have had a pistol or a grenade or something in it.”

“I used to think if I had been in Nazi Germany I would have been really strong, you know, I would have been a Bonhoeffer. Well I quickly learnt that I wouldn’t have been a Bonhoeffer at all! I would have been hiding under the bed somewhere.”

The Falklands War, between Argentina and the United Kingdom, broke out during their first tour in Argentina. The Australian embassy advised them to leave, but John says he just couldn’t. He had been invited to become the national advisor of the Christian student movement, and that it felt wrong to leave. But he wanted Gayelene to leave with their two sons, now aged eight and ten. She refused to leave without him, so the four of them stayed in Buenos Aires for the whole horrifying ten weeks of that war.

John admits, quite easily, that it was a really scary time.

“I used to think if I had been in Nazi Germany I would have been really strong, you know, I would have been a Bonhoeffer. Well I quickly learnt that I wouldn’t have been a Bonhoeffer at all! I would have been hiding under the bed somewhere.

“Fear is a terrible thing, and it made it difficult to talk, because nobody trusted anybody. It was very hard to talk openly.

“We have a deep affection for Argentina. The Argentines were so brave; we have massive respect for them,” says John.

After the Falklands War, John became involved in a church plant, and the Argentine Bishop wanted to ordain him to the leadership of that church. John hadn’t been ordained in Australia, and so he needed a bishop in Australia to vouch for him. David Penman, who originally suggested that John and Gayelene go to Argentina, agreed to be John’s sponsoring bishop. John was deaconed in 1984, and priested in 1986 in the Anglican Church of Argentina.

Bishop John Harrower

Bishop John Harrower

Upon returning to Australia [in 1988], John was invited to be the Anglican chaplain at the University of Melbourne, but he laughs and says, “I thought, no, if I have to have another coffee with a university student where I talk about the sovereignty of God and the free will of man, or how can a loving God and an all-powerful God allow suffering in the world, so help me I’d tip coffee over somebody’s head and go mad.”

Instead, he took up a position as rector at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Glen Waverley, in Eastern Melbourne, where he further developed his interest in cross-cultural ministry, particularly focusing on multiculturalism in Australia and Islam.

John has a sweet turn of phrase that he uses at least a dozen times during our interview: “it was a difficult time.” To me, it seems like an understatement for a man who was abandoned by his father, who ministered to Argentine university students during the dirty war, who stood up before the Australian media and apologised, unreservedly, for abuse at the hands of Anglican Church workers in Tasmania.

When I ask him if he can identify one overarching theme in his life, he says, “I’m a child of God, on a pilgrimage of faith in Christ, in a chaotic world.”

“It’s important to take time in a really busy world, to sit back in the armchair and imagine and re-imagine, time and again, God’s arms enfolding us.”

But on the days when it feels like it’s all just too much to bear (and there have been plenty of those) John says he sits in his armchair, closes his eyes, and pictures God’s arms holding him.

“The world’s a mess, my life’s a mess, but underneath are the everlasting arms and I rest in [them] because I can’t rest in my strength, my friends, my family, the church, whatever. None of these things are holding me, and I have to trust that somehow God is, even when I can’t see it.

“It’s important to take time in a really busy world, to sit back in the armchair and imagine and re-imagine, time and again, God’s arms enfolding us,” says John.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. It’s a great line, and it’s true.”

Comments are closed.