How a Humble Western Sydney Pastor Got Canberra’s Attention On Religious Freedom
How a Humble Western Sydney Pastor Got Canberra’s Attention On Religious Freedom
By: Akos Balogh
Sydney Anglican Minister Mark Tough does not see himself as a political animal.
And yet, in 2019 he organised a 500-person rally in Western Sydney that discussed the issue of religious freedom. He was then invited to speak to then Shadow Attorney-General (now Attorney-General) Mark Dreyfus about his concerns.
I caught up with Mark a little while ago to hear how he did this, and to encourage more Pastors to become engaged about these sorts of issues:
I’m interested to hear about what you did as a Pastor in the religious freedom space. You engaged with your local member and it eventually led you to Canberra, which I’d love our readers to hear about. But before we get there, tell us what you do.
I’m the Minister at the Anglican Church in Lalor Park, in Western Sydney. I’ve been in this role for over ten years.
What got you thinking about religious freedom?
As we had the same-sex marriage debate, I could see that there could be issues for religious freedom down the track.
But what prompted me to get involved in talking to politicians was the encouragement of the former deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson. John convened a group of ministers and he encouraged us to be politically active about the issue of religious freedom and gave us ideas for how to do this. And I thought that this was something I could do. So, another local clergyman and I arranged to meet with our local member.
That’s where it all started.
Have you been politically active before?
Not really. I remember speaking at an anti-WorkChoices rally in about 2006. I had been invited by a guy in our church who was running this rally to present a Christian perspective on WorkChoices. That was an interesting experience. But I’ve never been involved in political parties or been politically active apart from that one rally.
I can imagine many people will think I’m just not a political person. I don’t like politics. I don’t want to get involved. But here you are, who’s similar in not having been involved in politics but thinking that this is an issue you want to address.
John Anderson pointed out that politicians value connection with the community. And politicians consider clergy to be community leaders. And so, they’re very happy to meet with clergy because they represent a segment of their electorate. So, John encouraged us not to be hesitant in making an appointment.
And so, Geoff Bates (Life Anglican Church Quakers Hill) and I made an appointment to see our local federal member, Michelle Rowland, the member for Greenway and now the Minister of Communications in the Albanese Labor Government. It was straightforward getting an appointment. When Geoff and I met with Michelle we said; ‘look, we see an issue with religious freedom.’ We gave her some examples, like how Archbishop Porteous in Tasmania had been hauled before a tribunal for issuing a pamphlet which simply outlined Roman Catholic teaching on marriage. We talked about the blow up that occurred when hotels and bottle shops and consumers started boycotting the Coopers beer company because they had sponsored an interview conducted by the Bible Society between two politicians who calmly and respectfully presented the two sides of the same-sex marriage debate. We talked about the trajectory of where things were heading and how we were concerned about that.
We articulated that we didn’t want to be privileged as Christians above others, but that we were keen to advocate a civilised pluralism where we’re not trying to cancel one another out but living with others as harmoniously with as we can despite our differences. We tried not to be over the top with our claims or in the way we spoke. We tried to be reasonable, calm, and well thought out.
At the end of the meeting, Michelle said; ‘Look, Mark, you’ve argued this very well, and I’m going to come back to you in a month. I’m going to go away and think about this some more.’
True to her word, a month later, Michelle invited Geoff and me to meet her at a cafe.
And she said; ‘I get it; I understand what you’re talking about. That makes a lot of sense. I will advocate for this in the Labor Party.’
Shortly after that, the Wentworth by-election came up and during this time there was some changes proposed to the Sex Discrimination Act which would have had a negative impact upon religious freedoms in religious schools . And I remember contacting Michelle’s office saying; ‘I need to talk to Michelle about this.’
The next I knew, Michelle called me and said; ‘I have the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, on the phone.’ And I thought; ‘Oh, wow.’ I never went to university or anything like that, but here I am talking with the Shadow Attorney-General about matters of law. And I prayed in my mind that God would give me the wisdom needed to engage well in this conversation. I praise God that he gave me the words that I needed. And Mr. Dreyfus seemed to be taken aback by the things that I said.
So he wasn’t even aware of some of these issues?
So, he had this bizarre view that Catholic schools weren’t worried about same-sex marriage because they didn’t consider government marriage to be true marriage, but it was more of a sacramental thing. And I said; ‘Well, I’m not Catholic, I’m Protestant. The school that I send my kids to required that all the staff be Christians. If these staff are not engaging in sex or marriage in the way God ordains, then we need the ability to be consistent with our beliefs and remove these staff from their employment at the school if that is required.’
I don’t know if he was just feigning ignorance but he seemed to be oblivious to these kinds of concerns. Michelle also gave me the opportunity to address the late Senator Kimberly Kitching about these sorts of matters. And I think Senator Kitching was one of the members of the ALP who understood these issues.
In my wildest dreams, I’d never imagined engaging with people of this level. But I did, and God gave me the words that I needed.
This reminds me that we can’t assume that our local members know what we think or that they understand the issues. And a lot of the time, they are very open to hearing another point of view.
Yes, my experience was that they were very open. We made them aware of the problems, and they said; ‘Oh, okay.’
Now our seat happens to be very conservative when it comes to moral issues. So, we were one of the seats that said no to same-sex marriage. Michelle Rowland is probably one of the more conservative Labor Party members. So, she was open.
Not everyone who has tried to advocate with local members has had the same response. I know one fellow I was talking to, not a clergyman, but a Christian guy, he tried to get a meeting with a Labor party MP but he was denied. And so, he and a few others just camped out in that Labor member’s office until he met with them.
The local member was not at all happy.
But three days after the election, and this was the 2019 election, that local member rang the Christian man and said; ‘I’m sorry, I got it wrong. I need to listen to what you’ve got to say.’ This is because there was a backlash against Labor for their views about things like religious freedom.
So this was all happening in 2019. But then later on, you organised a big event that was focused on this issue of religious freedom.
In 2019, just before the introduction of the first draft bill of the religious discrimination act, I was encouraged to organise an event to help rally support for religious freedom. And so, I communicated via email initially with about 85 churches and other religious groups in the Blacktown area. I then ended up having face to face meetings with around 35 churches and religious groups in the lead up to the event.
And this was your initiative?
Yes. With the help of some anonymous friends paying for the venue and promotion.
But in terms of getting the ball rolling?
People knew me to be a person who was engaged on the issue. So, I was asked to organise something, and I said sure. We ended up having around 500 people come along to the rally.
John Anderson was one of the speakers, as was Michelle Rowland, our local member. It was a Monday night in November in Blacktown, so it’s not a night where you would expect to get many people to come out.
These large numbers sent a very, very strong message, I think, to Canberra. Because a couple of months later, Michelle Rowland’s on the phone, asking me to come to a meeting with the deputy Labor Leader and the Shadow Attorney-General to talk about these things with religious leaders in our area. Michelle started this meeting by getting me to outline the concerns that religious leaders had about the loss of religious freedoms. And next thing, I’m going toe to toe with the Shadow Attorney-General on these issues.
I want to stress that I’m not special or especially gifted with these things. I just give things a crack and trust that God will help me do what I need.
Yes, it’s worth remembering that in a democracy, our politicians are there to represent us. So they want to hear from us. And they recognise that pastors have a position of influence and leadership.
Yes. We must take the time to think through the issue of religious freedom, articulate it calmly and reasonably, and clarify that we’re not seeking to be privileged above others. We should engage with whatever the politicians come back with and provide practical examples of religious freedom issues.
So you can say to them; ‘we’re losing religious freedom.’ Well, they want to know, how are we losing it? Give them examples. Prepare yourself with that sort of info. The Human Rights Law Alliance publish resources that you can use for that sort of discussion. Chances are, if you’re well prepared, politicians will listen to you.
In one sense, it’s basic, common sense persuasion. These are human beings as well. They want good reasons why they should believe what you’ve got to say. And if you can provide it to them, they’re more likely to listen.
The other thing is whenever I engage with local politicians, I always make a point of thanking them for their service, acknowledging that there are sacrifices that they make. Unfortunately, our media and populace are quick to criticise and condemn politicians.
But they’re away from their families a lot. They put in long hours. Federal politicians, in particular, are away from home for much of the year. I think we should thank them and recognise the good things they do. And I think that helps you to be better received.
Yes indeed. What’s your relationship like with your local member?
It’s great. Michelle’s coming to church in a few weeks. I’ve invited her and our local state members to come for a special service at which the Archbishop is our guest speaker.
I also attend Blacktown council meetings where I am often given the privilege of praying to open these meetings.
One of our state local members used to be the mayor. So, if I’m with him at a function, he’ll introduce me to people and say; ‘this is Mark. He’s a minister at Anglican Church at Lalor Park. He would often come and pray at council meetings.’ This local member and I worked together last year on a vaccination clinic. In fact, one of his staffers now comes to our church as a result of his recommendation! So, if you’re developing those relationships, that opens up possibilities for ministry to your local community.
So what started with the issue of religious freedom is opening up other opportunities to build relationships and minister, even to the members themselves. That’s fascinating. So I guess maybe if a pastor is reading this thinking, I haven’t got a background in politics, but I can see that I can do it, what would you recommend as a first step?
Please remember that I never went to university. I’m not trained in law or anything like that. So the first thing is, you don’t have to be some fantastic lawyer to be able to interact with your members on this sort of issue.
I think the second thing is to arrange an appointment to go and visit them and express the concerns that you have. But present evidence for what the issue is, and do it calmly. Make sure you don’t ask for special privileges above other groups.
Praise God, my local member has been very open, but I realise some local members aren’t so forthcoming. But all you can do is be winsome and be thankful to them. And if you come across reasonably, they’re more likely to give you a hearing.
Is it also worth inviting them to church services or things like that?
My relationship with local members now is such that I invite them, and they’re happy to come along. But those relationships had to be developed.
And so, for example, our Federal member will have a temporary office, where she’ll set up for a while in the local shopping centre to hear from people. If your member does that, go up and say hi. Even if you don’t have an issue to talk about, you can thank them for what they’re doing and tell them you’re praying for them.
In other words, develop the relationship.
So, you may have your local members’ mobile numbers (they’ve now entrusted me with those). If you see them do something good on TV, be sure to text them, saying; ‘Well done, that was an excellent thing you did.’
Remember, they’re people as well who also need to hear about Jesus. And so, the opportunities for developing relationships are there.
Small steps can build bridges. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and experience!
Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.
About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.
Feature image: Photo by Pedro Lima on Unsplash
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