Counter-Cultural Renewal


    Asked to think what church renewal might look like in a few years, I tried to visualize a healthy parish, which might well not be a growing parish. Here are some concrete thoughts (with the usual reminder that if you take them and add three dollars you might be able to buy a cup of coffee).

    The groundwork: it seems most important for a church to have clarity that it is, in significant ways, counter-cultural. That is, the culture around us is rapidly taking on views that run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is particularly true in what is called “theological anthropology,” the effort to understand human beings in light of Christian revelation.

    It seems to me that there are two areas in which we Christians are going to be, more and more, at odds with our emerging North American or Western European culture. The first is the practice of euthanasia, already legal in various parts of the U.S. and a recently and rapidly expanding practice in Canada, where it is called MAiD (for Medical Assistance in Dying). It is a long-standing biblical view that human beings should not kill themselves or one another (with exceptions for people acting as agents of the state, e.g. soldiers in justified war). A renewed or healthy congregation will be able to explain why doctors should heal, not kill—why providing lethal drugs is not a healing practice. Such a congregation would also be alert to the subtle ways that when asking for death becomes a legal option, it is particularly the poor and those with limited social connections who will suffer. 

    Second, churches will need to be able to say why it is a good thing that there are men and there are women. What, positively, is the point of having male and female? Why is it good that human beings don’t appear generically unsexed, but rather have this difference built into our race? I believe we need to foster marvel and wonder at our bodily difference and affirm with great saints (e.g. Augustine) that our resurrection bodies will still be male or female. This is a piece of our tradition that helps us transcend a mere utilitarian view, that the sexual difference exists solely for the sake of conceiving new human beings. No, the male-female difference is part of our eternal glory. But this is hardly the only thing to be said. There is also the practical argument that to affirm the goodness of sexual difference is also to protect the female from being denigrated or erased as a defective male. 

    My point here is not to spell out the needed Christian teaching; in a few hundred words one can only gesture towards what is needed. But however we address this emerging situation, our teaching needs to be manifest in how our congregations live. Christians should be known to be people who do not kill one another. They should be recognized as people who stay with those who are seriously ill or depressed or feel lost. Renewal will be seen in a community of care for outcasts and vulnerable and wounded people, a community which is able, when needed, to give an account for why it is good not to turn to suicide or euthanasia—and why it is good that we have both men and women.

    May God strengthen all of us for the work that is ahead!


    Out & About. The weekend of Oct. 28/29 I will be preaching at All Souls’ in Oklahoma City: 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and 8 and 10 a.m. on Sunday. I will also be teaching, from Mon., Oct. 30, through Wed., Nov. 1. There will be a class at noon on each of those weekdays on “Three Big Stories in Saint John's Gospel” (the woman at the well, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus). Also, at 6 p.m. each of those weekdays there will be another class series on “Assisted Suicide and Living Forever.” Visitors are welcome to drop in on any or all of these. All Souls’ Episcopal Church is at the intersection of N.W. 63rd St. and Penn. Ave.

    The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be on Shakespeare's King Lear on Sunday, November 26, at 5 p.m. at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.

All For Nothing

 Here’s a passage from Willa Cather’s 1927 novel about the first archbishop of New Mexico, Death Comes for the Archbishop. It is from the latter part of the life of Father Latour, the archbishop:

    “One night . . . he was lying in his bed, unable to sleep, with the sense of failure clutching at his heart. His prayers were empty words and brought him no refreshment. His soul had become a barren field. He had nothing within himself to give his priests or his people. His work seemed superficial, a house built upon the sands. His great diocese was still a heathen country. The Indians travelled their old road of fear and darkness, battling with evil omens and ancient shadows. The Mexicans were children who played with their religion.”

    Each sentence of that paragraph is a hammer-blow of sharp accusation. Point after point after point: everything has come to naught. I thought: this is where many of us find ourselves from time to time, tossed by demons of doubt through a sleepless night.

    He couldn’t stand it. He got up, got on his warm cloak (it was December), and went out through the snow to go to the sacristy, to go to the church.

There he found a woman, shivering, a Catholic who had slipped out from the home where she was a servant, denied permission to go to mass. He gave her his cloak. He ministered to her with an attentive ear. He was pleased with her remembrance of “the holy things,” despite it being nineteen years since she was in a church. They prayed together at length, on their knees. He heard her confession. He gave her a little silver medal “with a figure of the Virgin” to have safely with her.

    He had been in the pits, and God woke him up and showed him the truth of his life.


    Readers Write. I have imaginative readers. After I wrote about the coincidence of the feast of St. Michael & All Angels with National Coffee Day, I learned (from one of you) that St. Gabriel, the archangel who appeared to Mary, is apparently concerned with Hatch green chile. Who knew? (Hatch green chile was, when I moved to college in New Mexico, just “chile,” and for decades it was impossible for us to find in New York. When I moved to Dallas and found it for sale in late summer at the grocers, well, I felt I had moved to the land of milk and honey. But little did I think Gabriel might be involved!)

    Another wrote that just to have a National Coffee Day could be a subversive move to reintroduce Christianity into our culture. I quote: “Morning Coffee is, for some, a cup of courage to help them face the day, to be not afraid. It's not hard to imagine an angel offering a cup to a frightened man as a gesture of peace and good will.” He went on: “angels do deliver quite strong wake-up calls when they appear. Morning and evening jolts!” But we could also think of the “cups” which we would “ask God to let pass from before us,” as does Jesus on the night before Good Friday. Obviously this was not a cup filled with coffee—unless we are talking about bad coffee, “in which case we should thank our guardian angel for doing such an exquisite job that something like bad coffee is our chief concern.”

    As I’ve said before, if you have good readers, your column just writes itself. Thanks to all of you who drop a note from time to time.


    Out & About. This Sunday, October 15, at 5 p.m., I will offer the fall theology lecture in my role as diocesan theologian-in-residence, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. My topic is “Divine Distinctions.” There will be time for questions and then a reception.

    The next Good Book & Good Talk seminar will be on Shakespeare's King Lear on Sunday, November 26, at 5 p.m.



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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: