By Megan Sayer
I should preface this interview by saying I’m not exactly an Anglican. I was once. I’m still a passionate follower of Jesus Christ, and still have many close friends in the Anglican church, but my own personal Anglican-ness belongs to my long-ago childhood, where memories of Bishops are of distant, sombre men in long purple robes; men you need to be quiet around, and do that bowing thing that I never got the hang of. Needless to say, I was quite nervous about interviewing a Bishop. What if I said something wrong? How should I equip myself to go talk to a Bishop—a Bishop!—and ask personal questions about history, life, faith? What if I forget to bow right? I’m not sure if I was physically shaking when I walked up the solemn steps of Church House, next to the Cathedral in Macquarie Street, but my insides were far from calm.
And then I met Bishop John Harrower.
What I didn’t expect, not once, was to meet a purple-shirted man who seemed to carry a cloud of peace about him, who smiled as if he meant it, who welcomed me into his office and sat down opposite me and dismissed with a friendly wave my concerns of taking up too much of his time. I knew of him from appearances in the media, from his calling for a Royal Commission into sexual abuse in the church to speaking out against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, but the last thing I expected was the story he shared with me; of his experiences of trauma and violence, the Secret Police in Argentina, church and spies, and the incredible transformational power of the love of God.
This is Bishop John Harrower, and this is the story he told me…
I was born in Melbourne in 1947, and my family wasn’t a happy one. One of my earliest memories is of clinging to the backs of my mum’s legs during one of my father’s violent rages. He left the family when I was about five, and my little sisters about three and one. Soon after my dad left my mum had what she called a “kitchen sink conversion”, hands plunged into the dishwater she prayed “God help me, I can’t do this anymore!”, and we joined the local church. I was a rebellious kid growing up, deeply hurt by the abandonment of my father and the abuse that I’d witnessed. That hurt came out as anger, and in one incident (which unfortunately came to involve the police) I lay in wait and beat up a kid who’d beaten up my sisters. My mum used to send me to a Christian aunt and uncle’s farm in the school holidays because I was difficult to control. They helped me greatly through my teenage years. I was in trouble a lot at school for sudden outbursts of anger.
With help from my mum, and two Christian high school teachers, I gradually learned to control my anger, but it would still erupt away from home and friends, while at work, and during my years of national service as a reluctant Army Reserve ‘volunteer’.
In 1970 I married Gayelene, my High School sweetheart, (also a university student), completed my degree in chemical engineering, and started work at Mobil Oil while studying a second degree in economics and political science at night. In amidst of all this busyness something else tumultuous happened: we met Jesus.
Half way across the world
A friend of mine had invited me to do a Bible Study around this time, and I thought ‘okay then’ – I had studied so many other things I may as well do a Bible study as well, and I liked the bloke who invited me. The more we studied and discussed things the deeper I understood that I’d never before actually made a definite decision to follow Christ. I made that decision – and with that everything changed. I changed. A friend actually asked me straight out, “John, have you become a Christian?” I said yes, and asked why. The answer was “because you’ve stopped swearing!” Gayelene made her own decision for Christ a couple of weeks after me, and from then on our lives took a dramatic turn.
Gayelene became involved with a group praying for missionaries, and we discussed the needs of the overseas mission field. After prayer, and some closed doors (we were invited to work in India but discovered I was allergic to curry!) we began missionary training in preparation for ministering to university students in Argentina.
Giving up my professional life was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I was happy and settled, working as a director of the Industries Assistance Commission, owned a house in a leafy suburb of Melbourne, was actively involved in church life, ran the youth group, a Bible Study group, and had two wonderful young sons. Life was good. The move to Argentina could have been seen as a significant sacrifice for all of us, and it brought to mind the scripture that God had placed on Gayelene’s heart those years before, “to those who are given much, much will be required”. Although it was a very deep and difficult decision, we knew it was right, and that we could trust God.
Into the firing line
By the time we landed, in 1979, Argentina had been in a state of internal conflict (the “Dirty War”) for five years. The Argentine military was in power, and people with Socialist sensibilities, affiliation with trade unions, political dissidents, and students were being hunted down and killed, or “disappeared” (by the time the conflict ended, in 1983, it’s estimated that up to 30,000 people had “disappeared”). Bombs were not uncommon downtown, and at times I heard sounds from my house that I recognised from my time in the Army Reserve as gunfire. At this time our little boys were aged three and five.
A couple of years into our placement in Argentina I was invited to become the national advisor to university Christian groups across the county. I was thirty three years old, and many people my age had been killed or had fled. This role meant I would be travelling to different areas of Argentina for 4-6 weeks at a time, which meant leaving Gayelene and the boys at home. At this time phones were an expensive luxury and not always accessible, so it was not uncommon for Gayelene to say goodbye and only hear intermittently from me. She had no way of knowing whether I’d return, or join the ranks of the “disappeared”.
Meetings of any sort in Argentina were banned, so I met with Christian university students around the country in coffee shops, sometimes with a page or two photocopied from the Bible in order to study the scripture. Coffee shops were also monitored, and I was followed regularly by the Secret Police. I remember one young man in the north of the country, Horatio, who had made a decision to follow Christ, who asked me on a number of occasions about the government, and “what were Christians to do about the military dictatorship in this country?” I always answered such questioning in the way I’d been trained: don’t get political. I’d answer something like, “I’m just a visitor. That’s a matter for the Argentines to work out themselves.” One time when visiting this particular area I noted Horatio’s absence, to be told that he was gone, and that he’d been a military government spy. I’m sure my careful answers saved my life.
Some brushes with danger were much closer. Military vehicles patrolled the streets and they sometimes stopped and threatened to take people away. Twenty two French nuns went missing, never to be heard from again. One particular time I was travelling in a train, accompanied by my bilingual friend and language tutor Moira, in a carriage crowded with peasants carrying small pigs and chooks. It was night, and somewhere in the middle of the country army militia stopped the train and soldiers got on board waving guns in people’s faces, checking people’s documents. There was a lot of screaming and yelling. People were dragged off the train and taken away. There was noise everywhere, and it was completely terrifying. One soldier came up to me and yelled something at me in Spanish that I didn’t understand. I showed him my Argentine Identity Documents, but he was suspicious of these, and yelled at me more. I was on the floor kneeling, with a gun pointed at my head, petrified, unable to understand a word they were saying, yet this soldier kept screaming at me in Spanish, and waving a gun in my face. Finally, amidst the screaming and confusion Moira whispered to me, “They want to see your Bible.” I got it out of my bag. “Open it,” Moira said, and I did. She whispered again, “Keep turning the pages, very slowly.” I did as she said, flicked slowly through the pages, as he shoved me, poked me with his gun and continued to shout words I couldn’t understand, and prodded the gun harder up against my ear. It wasn’t until later that I understood that he’d wanted to ensure that it was a real Bible, and I wasn’t concealing a weapon.”
“John, I am your Father”
In 1988, after nine years in Argentina, our family returned to Melbourne, where we eventually settled back into suburban life with the help of a supportive church. Some good family counselling also helped us all process the traumas of our experience. Interestingly, the boys both have very warm memories of their time growing up in Argentina, perhaps sheltered somewhat from the threats that shadowed the adults. They both have returned to visit their loved adopted aunties and uncles who loved and supported them and showed them the path of Jesus in so many ways. I’d been ordained as an Anglican minister in Argentina in 1984, and upon returning to Melbourne was instrumental in the planting of a new church, St Barnabas in Glen Waverley.
One of the wonderful aspects of my time in Argentina, apart from seeing the absolute faithfulness of God in all circumstances, was to receive a prophetic word during prayer ministry: “John, you have always had a father. I am your Father!” The healing which had begun at my conversion had entered a new phase. The prophetic word overwhelmed me. I knew I was released to live as a son of my Heavenly father, and to hand the loss and pain of my childhood to Him. In due course, this healing led to a relationship with my earthly father. The Holy Spirit had shown me that God is ‘The God of Life’!
This revelation of God is the treasure which would inspire my ministry and mission back in Australia. My deep yearning was (and still is) that men and women, boys and girls would come to know the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who said that he is “the way, the truth and the life”. What joy to introduce people to the God of Life! The Holy Spirit graciously blessed our eleven years of parish ministry in Melbourne with life.
A new place to call “home”
My role as Bishop of Tasmania has not been without trauma, albeit of a different kind. Very early on in my appointment as Bishop I met men who had been abused as children by Anglican ministers. I felt a deep hurt and anger on behalf of these victims who had come to my office to speak of what had happened to them, but this experience of anger was a markedly different one to the anger of my childhood: this was a righteous, God-given anger for translation into pastoral support for the victims, to cooperate with the police that the law could be brought to bear on perpetrators, and to introduce training for a church culture of safety for children and the vulnerable.
In all of this, my heart has always been for the Anglican Church in Tasmania to be, ‘A healthy church transforming life’.
My own experience is that the Holy Spirit, over time, has taken my anger, removed it, in the way that God seeks to transform each of us, heal us, and use the pain of our past for good. As part of my role as Bishop I’m deeply concerned about the way the church responds to victims of sexual abuse, and also domestic violence. We haven’t used our theology wisely at times. We’ve tried to rush too quickly to forgiveness, and we’ve been guilty of sending the woman back into the situation without addressing the man’s need to change. Forgiveness is part of our Christian DNA, and it’s a good thing, but we also need to have the blokes do the work they need to do in order to change.
As part of the Anglican Church in Tasmania’s response to domestic violence we’re training clergy staff in this area, and as part of that we’re writing a practical manual for people to know how best to respond. It’s my longing that people who have been hurt, people in the situation that my mum was in, are able to find in the church a safe place to heal.
Looking back on my life I can see that from a very angry and hurt child I became a rebellious person. To end up in the Office of Bishop of Tasmania, well, I can say that God has a sense of humour, and a healing power and a purpose in everyone’s life beyond what they can ever think or imagine. God brings life to the unlikeliest of people, transforming those deep and untouched places. My heart is that you also experience this life, and this amazing, transforming love of God.
John Harrower is moving back to Melbourne this month, to adopt the new role of “former Bishop of Tasmania”, and possibly a quieter life for a little while. God, however, may have other ideas.
The Harrower family will be greatly missed by the Anglican church in Tasmania, and many others whose lives have been touched by theirs. We extend our warmest regards, and blessings as they settle into their new home and surroundings. Thank you Bishop John, for all you’ve done for this state. You’ve left behind very big shoes to fill.