Herbert’s blockbuster a must see

Herbert’s blockbuster a must see

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments? Russell Crowe in Gladiator?

Which movie blockbuster is large enough to contain the mercurial character of the Rev. Harry Herbert, Executive Director of UnitingCare NSW.ACT?

Don’t know him well enough to say? Then come to Harry Herbert: The Director’s Cut (Part Two) at the United Theological College in North Parramatta on August 2 to hear from others who do so you can peg it.

Part One of The Director’s Cut on June 21 in Sydney offered rare insights into one of this Synod’s most influential, best known, least fearful and more intimidating Uniting Church ministers.

Mr Herbert will retire at the end of 2012 after 27 years at the helm of one of Australia’s largest community services organisations. UnitingCare NSW.ACT is responsible for the work of social justice advocacy, community services and chaplaincy within the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT with an expected financial turnover in the coming year of $630 million.

Journalist, media personality and South Sydney Uniting Church attendee Julia McCrossin cut (humorously) to the chase with questions which narrowly dodged the slings and arrows of Mr Herbert’s (legendary) sharp ripostes.

“I like sticking my neck out,” Mr Herbert said at one point during the fast-paced proceedings. (That characteristic comes from his mother, whom he acknowledges was “a shocker”. She was also extremely courageous going back to work in the 1950s when that wasn’t what a woman with children was supposed to do.)

His resoluteness, he said, came from his father. (A trade unionist “of the rather solid type”. Though not a member, his father said he always voted for the Communist Party because they were enthusiastic and protected your rights.)

“I’m a bit more flexible than he was. His failure in life was that if he had a thing against someone, 20 years later he was still going on about it. I have the ability, which my mother had, to move on from things.

“Bearing a grudge,” Mr Herbert added, “is a terrible thing.”

Freedom fighter

Mr Herbert told of being one of only six divinity students at Sydney University during the turbulent days of anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid protests.

“Because I was a divinity student there was a fair bit of trust in me so I got called in to be the bail officer. I used to stuff $30 or $40 thousand dollars in my wind jacket and go around on my motor bike and bail people out of Darlinghurst jail — and my mother thought this was pretty good.”

Of life as a parish minister he recalled taking groceries to Aboriginal land rights protestors in Warrnambool who had upset racist white people in the town by blocking a road with a tree. It was also in Warrnambool that a woman called Mrs Muir told him, “Young man, your tongue is going to get you in a lot of trouble.”

“Mrs Muir,” he replied, “that’s not any sort of prophecy; that’s just history.”

UnitingCare NSW.ACT has grown and changed under Mr Herbert’s direction and he cites the regionalisation of its aged care services in 2003 (here he dips his lid to Ted Woodley) and the decision to run the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (which opened in 2001) as two of his most significant achievements.

He was glad UnitingCare decided to run the centre after the Catholic Church pulled out because, “The purpose of the injecting centre was to save lives of people who were dying of drug overdoses … and that was a worthy purpose.”

Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director at the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre since 2008, said she admired Mr Herbert for believing in the centre before there was evidence to confirm its efficacy.

She said this should encourage future leaders to try to get things done because they make sense. “Rather than looking for reasons to stop things happening, look for reasons to make things happen.”

The Rev. Eric Drury, Director Ministry and Mission for UnitingCare Ageing, said he saw Mr Herbert as a courageous leader and, after being on a staff retreat with him, as a warm and caring friend.

The organisation needed a courageous leader in the future and a tough decision maker. There was also the need to hold together the relational and the pastoral with the social justice advocacy and to say, “This is the Uniting Church, this is the church, this is God at work through God’s people, and it happens to be UnitingCare that is the agency through which that is happening.”

A living faith

Mr Herbert has crossed swords with many over the decades on boards, at standing committee meetings, with parliamentarians, government officials and church leaders.

Yet most — even his opponents — would probably admit he’s stuck to his guns about key justice issues and maintained a commitment to serving the disadvantaged.

“Most great battles are won or lost in the last five minutes,” was the wise advice Mr Herbert once gave to the Rev. Michael Thomas, who said that was the way Harry Herbert lived his life.

Ms McCrossin raised laughter when she quipped, “Listening to this, working for the Uniting Church sounds like a war process!”

Thirty-five years in the Uniting Church and five before that in the Congregational Church has not shaken Mr Herbert’s preference for a more traditional style of worship, for clergy who robe up and for a liturgy in which he can praise God and confess his sins.

“Worship is very important. I want to go along to church on Sunday mornings, confess my sins, get my assurance of pardon, hear a stirring sermon and hear the grace of God is there and I am living by it and sing the amens and go home. That’s my idea of church.”

Practically, he admitted the Uniting Church would need to change. “There are 600 congregations in New South Wales, but there’s no way there will be 600 in 20 years. All that will change. But if we can stick to what really is important in the faith — preaching the gospel, living by the grace of god, getting your sins forgiven — then I think we’re okay.”

Mr Herbert said the Uniting Church would also do well in the next 20 years to heed the words of theologian Yaroslav Pelikan, who said tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

I hope that in 20 years we are still sticking to the true faith and we haven’t got obsessed by all the bits and pieces.”

In his 40 years since ordination and almost three decades as a director, Harry Herbert’s learned much about strategic planning — most importantly that, by itself, it’s not enough.

“I’m all for strategic planning but in the end you’ve still got to have the intuition of the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Fans and friends of this larger-than-life protagonist will love Part Two of this rollicking retrospective. Even if you don’t like the genre there’s free popcorn, fairy floss and canapés. There’s also a good chance of verbal fireworks, flinty commentary and fast and furious fun. RSVP by July 24 to bjafari@unitingcarenswact.org.au or (02) 9376 0446.

Marjorie Lewis-Jones


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