As we acknowledge the passing of Rev. Harry Herbert on 5 December, Insights has gone back through the archives and is reprinting this article from December 2012 when Rev. Herbert was interviewed on his retirement from the then formerly named UnitingCare NSW.ACT.  Now known as Uniting, we look back on Rev. Herbert’s responses when asked if he would “take it easy” now he is retired and the legacy of service he has given to the broader Uniting Church and its social justice work. We pass on our condolences to Rev. Herbert’s wife Meg and their family. The title of this article upon Rev. Herbert’s retirement in 2012 “Farewell Harry” seems just as apt now.

The following interview was conducted by Insights in December 2012 on the event of Harry Herbert’s retirement as Executive Director of UnitingCare NSW.ACT:

As the Executive Director of UnitingCare NSW.ACT prepares to relax, he reflects on a career of social responsibility.

The Rev. Harry Herbert has been known as a go-to man for quotes. Just don’t ask him what he is going to do after he retires.

“I’m sick of people asking what I am going to do. Nothing! That is the point of retirement! You don’t do anything. I am going to relax.”

He recently watched a program about Amazon tribes and, inspired by their straightforward lives, he is increasingly puzzled by everyone’s preoccupation with complex activity.

“They are very relaxed. All they do is get enough food to eat and that is life. Why can’t I do that? Why do I have to do something?”

I suggest that in the Southern Highlands where he is settling there are supermarkets that will greatly optimise his hunting and gathering schedule, freeing up significant pockets of time — for the rest of his life.

Virtues of idleness aside, I’m also uncertain that others will believe that, after 40 years of audacious ordained ministry in some of the most prominent offices of the Uniting Church, the Rev. Harry Herbert will be content with a just a vegetable garden and a good book.

He insists that at 68 he feels ready. He may eventually accede to doing something if the phone rings in request. But it won’t be anything to do with a church council, Synod or committee.

He will be in the pews on Sunday, worshipping and enjoying his status as congregation member, but we won’t see him at another Synod or Assembly.

“I’m not saying they are bad, I am just saying I’ve had enough — no more,” he explains.

“I don’t think it is good for old people to hang around too much.”

He believes that if he hasn’t achieved something by now it is not going to happen on his watch. That said, there is not much left on Harry Herbert’s initial to-do list.

Service, advocacy, research

After theological study at the University of Sydney and Yale, and before stepping into the role of General Secretary of the Board for Social Responsibility in 1986, Mr Herbert was living in Melbourne where he observed the work of the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

He admired the way they combined service delivery, advocacy and research and decided to build something similar for the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.

Through UnitingCare’s community service delivery and with the creation of the new Social Justice Research Unit (scheduled for launch by mid-2013) he feels this has been largely achieved.

He says much of the work he is proud of has not been planned. His significant work in the establishment of and advocacy for the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) was one such successful out-of-the-blue project.

The use of Weeroona (an out-dated nursing home) as temporary housing for disabled boarding house residents being relocated is another project that brought him satisfaction.

“I think the moral is that you have to be open to new ideas all the time. You’ll achieve some things you plan but others won’t be planned at all.”

Mr Herbert has also followed his instincts when it comes to public statements.

“I have made statements that have not been researched for a week or even for five minutes. I have used common sense to say what I thought needed to be said at the time.”

Though his progressive words have not always been ones the church or the public has been ready to hear (especially concerning subjects like abortion and the legalisation of brothels) Mr Herbert can’t think of one occasion where he “completely stuffed up” or said something he later couldn’t stand by.

On the occasion of Peter Worlands retirement in 2018, Harry Herbert (pictured top left) with Peter Worland and the present Executive Director of Uniting Tracey Burton

Courageous activism

When it was announced that the Uniting Church’s Board for Social Responsibility would operate the MSIC, public interest demanded massive press coverage. It launched Mr Herbert further into the public eye with his phone ringing off the hook with titles such as the New York Times and Reader’s Digest on the other end.

He doesn’t keep many clippings documenting his statements in the media but some of the mixed opinions about him have stuck in his brain.

He recalls journalists describing him as everything from “courageous” to a “dewy eyed optimist”, whose project would soon hit the wall (he’d like to meet that writer again and take them on a tour of the now well-established MSIC).

Before he was Premier, Barry O’Farrell said he was open to Mr Herbert’s advice as a prominent religious figure. But when Mr Herbert advocated for a better deal for low-income earners during the introduction of the GST, Alexander Downer called him a “bourgeois leftie” who “day in day out” “kicks the sh*t out of the Liberal party”. Mr Herbert doesn’t think he does anything that predictably.

There has been less of Mr Herbert in the media this decade. Not because the church lacks things to say but because times have changed.

“I think it is more difficult now. I did a lot of speaking out in the 1990s, more so than I have done in recent years, because there was an appetite for it in the media. People thought it was interesting that a person in the church said X or Y. It is not of as much interest now.”

It isn’t surprising to a journalist or the public, he said, that a church should make a statement about the welfare of asylum seekers. And in a three-year term it’s difficult for a Synod Moderator to build a public profile strong enough to compete with the longstanding hierarchies of other churches that put forward spokespeople backed by the weight of titles like “Cardinal” and “Archbishop”. It makes it difficult for the Uniting Church to be heard even though it has a lot to say.

Hard days ahead [in 2012]

It is still uncertain as to whether Mr Herbert will have a successor in his current role as Executive Director of UnitingCare NSW.ACT.

Another challenge will be maintaining UnitingCare’s connection and relationship with the wider church, something Mr Herbert feels he has worked hard at, to little credit.

“That issue doesn’t get solved one year so you can move onto something else the next. It is an issue every year. All the time you are working at it. Which is why I feel it is important for someone to replace me because, if they don’t, I think that relationship will be even more difficult to achieve.”

If he were to offer any pointers to those who might follow in his footsteps Mr Herbert would mention that there is much undeveloped potential in Lifeline and how he would like to see more energy put into addressing mental health issues.

He would offer three bits of advice. The first was given to him as he entered the job: don’t ever separate community services from social justice. The second: don’t get trapped in doing what has always been done.  And three: spend time relating to the church.

Lyndal Irons

Editors note: Peter Worland took over the Executive Director role from Rev. Herbert in June 2013 and served until 2018. UnitingCare NSW.ACT was rebranded in 2016 as Uniting in NSW. The Executive Director of Uniting is now Tracey Burton. 

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