When White Horse Church first moved into The Vanguard on King Street, one regular patron made his disapproval clear.
“Great, a bunch of happy clappers in my favourite place to have tits rubbed in my face,” he wrote in a comment—since deleted—on the church’s Facebook page.
If it wasn’t for the small sandwich board sign the group puts out before each Sunday service, it’s unclear how anyone would ever manage to find the group of 20- and 30- somethings, drinking water from the bar with their New Testament iPhone apps in hand.
Unlike the performers from Jaded Vanities or the bizarrely intriguing Star Wars Burlesque, the White Horse Church is “not advertised or promoted by The Vanguard”. In fact, The Vanguard would only confirm that the Church hires the iconic burlesque venue each week for a “private function”.
But 10:30 every Sunday morning, the believers gather in the burlesque club, sans lipstick and lace. The band leaves the room to pray, before coming onto the stage—its red velvet curtain drawn well back. The drums start, and they perform the same assortment of Hillsong worship tracks you’d find at any other reformist church with a young-ish membership and a couple of amps.
What follows is a typical church service: sermon, communion and all. It just happens to occur in an atypical place.
It began with just Adam Witanowski, his wife, and their mothers in their living room. However too many people started showing up, so they started booking a space at the Pyrmont Bridge Hotel and then The Dunnkirk down the road.
Briefly, they attempted to meet in a traditional sandstone church building, but Witanowski says it just wasn’t the right fit.
“Christianity is not about Sundays or real estate,” he says. “The building and the history were nice enough, I guess, but it embodied everything that people rightly or wrongly throw at the church: angst, hate, frustration, disappointment.”
It was when White Horse hired out The Vanguard for a music and creative training day that the venue management suggested they use the space for Sunday services.
“We moved a week later,” Witanowski says.
On the day I visited the church, Witanowski used his sermon to bemoan the “nice” Christianity of bake sales and wearing Sunday best. Instead he called for a disruptive, radical approach to evangelisation. It’s the “prostitutes and tax collectors” attitude to Christian life that he stresses when asked about his congregation.
“White Horse Church isn’t a gathering of perfect people nailing it, leading squeaky clean lives. You have tatted up musicians who used to have drug habits hanging out with 60-year-old empty nesters with four kids who teach at Christian schools. It’s a mixed bag.”
Despite this attitude and his church’s new home, Witanowski’s position on burlesque is clear.
“I have met the girls at The Vanguard who perform, they are sweet, beautiful, intelligent women,” he says. “I don’t know their stories, why they do it, but I do know that Christian burlesque isn’t a thing.”
However, that doesn’t mean the White Horse’s door is ever closed.
“They would totally be welcome to come along to White Horse on Sundays,” Witanowski says.
“We have a guy coming who, for a while, worked at a cafe that served terrible coffee, people still love him in spite of his past.”