Tuesday, November 25, 2014

He was everybody's "Father Austin"

Just over thirteen years ago (5th November, 2001) the death occurred of Father Austin Day. In thanksgiving for this man whose life and ministry led so many to the Lord, I share with you the tribute I gave at High Mass, at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Australia), on the Sunday after he died.

1926 - 2001

This photograph of Father Austin was taken 
inside St John's Horsham (Diocese of Ballarat) in 1989 
by the photographer of the Wimmera Mail-Times.

"God's in his heaven, Austin Day's at Christ Church, and all's right in the world."

So it was said for many years by Australian Anglo-Catholics, indicating the crucial role of both Christ Church St Laurence (set right in the midst of the Diocese of Sydney) and Father Austin Day whose ministry of spiritual direction and encouragement sustained the lives of countless priests and lay people right across Australia and beyond our shores. Father Austin, Rector of Christ Church from 1964 to 1996, died last Monday, following a difficult struggle with motor neuron disease. 

I first met Father Austin when I was an impressionable teenager from Sydney's working class western suburbs. It was 1968. He had been at Christ Church less than four years, but was already making his own mark on the parish. The thing that struck me was how very cultured he was, how wide were his interests and reading, and at the same time how much he loved the Lord Jesus in a genuine and unfussy way. This was recognised by the evangelical clergy of his acquaintance and it contributed as much to the growing relationship between Christ Church and the Diocese of Sydney as any deliberate attempt at rapprochement.

He was always trying to bring people to Jesus. Just listen to this passage from a sermon he preached in July 1983 about John Henry Newman:

“Newman knew God had called him . . . As he was personally chosen by God, raised up to present catholic truth as it is in Jesus and as it is believed by Anglicans, so are we called today to do just that, as individuals and as the people of Christ Church St Laurence, just as the Jews were specially called of old as a peculiar people for God’s own possession ‘You are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your earth to be his special possession’ (Deuteronomy 7:6).

“Likewise Jesus said to His disciples in His final discourses at the Last Supper, ‘You did not choose me, no, I chose you: and I commissioned you’ (John 16:16.)

“The idea of being chosen by God seems odd and frightening - odd because it smacks of favouritism; frightening because it presents a God who intervenes in our lives and in His world.

“Despite that, the Catholic belief is that we are called and set apart for God’s service in our Baptism, as Newman was; and right on through the whole of our lives, God continues to call us to Himself, not for any merit we possess but because in His providence we are the appropriate persons for particular tasks. God said “It was not because you were more numerous than any other nation that the Lord chose you, for you were the smallest of all nations: it was because the Lord loved you”.

“Furthermore, as God’s call comes to us as particular persons, inevitably it must be a very intimate association that He has with us . . . So Jesus says, “I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (John 15:15).

“With a pious Evangelical family upbringing it is no wonder that Newman had a dramatic sense of being chosen by God for a particular work as priest and prophet. We too as Anglican Catholics today are to follow that close and intimate call of the Saviour; to be the Sons and daughters of God, the friends of Jesus, the child of God . . . AND that is a call to personal holiness (as Newman’s was), to sacrifice and service too, to private prayer, and public worship.”

Father Austin’s deep and personal response to the love of the Lord Jesus sustained him in the wide range of responsibilities that were his as Rector of Christ Church. It was apparent in the healing ministry. He took over his predecessor’s motto, “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and in turn helped countless individuals come to know the forgiveness, love and healing of Jesus in their lives.

Christ Church’s healing ministry had been established by Father John Hope many years before. It was continued and developed by Father Austin, week in and week out. Privately in homes and hospitals, and publicly in the weekly healing services, the prayer of faith, the laying on of hands and the sacrament of anointing were all commonplace. As in the Gospels, the healing ministry was the means by which multitudes found the Saviour’s love to be real. So many without any church background whatsoever discovered the community of faith and love by being brought along to a Christ Church healing service. I’ll never forget the visits to Christ Church of the great Church of England healing lady, Mary Rodgers! On her first Sunday, the healing service began with High Mass at 10.30am and went right through the afternoon. It included Evensong and Benediction, lasting until midnight, with large numbers of parishioners showing faith, love and hospitality to the needy whose coming and going made Christ Church look like a railway station! Father Austin was in his element! Prayer for the sick always played a key role in the evangelistic missions he himself conducted in many parts of the country.

But he also wove that ministry into the “normal fabric” of parish life. Some years before the Mary Rogers visit, the best master of ceremonies in the parish had come down with a very bad virus, and looked as if he would be in bed for all of Holy Week. Father Austin couldn’t bear the thought of the elaborate Holy Week liturgies becoming muddled, so he took the Blessed Sacrament and the healing oil to the M.C.’s house where in response to the prayer of faith and the power of the risen Lord in the Sacraments, the M.C. was marvellously restored to health so as to fulfil his unique ministry in the parish community. Holy Week that year went with even more pizazz than usual!

Father Austin preached simple sermons, generously laced with poetry, and peppered with geographical and artistic allusions. This led some people to imagine that he was a theological lightweight. How wrong they were! In 1977, John Hick, Don Cupit and their friends produced a book of essays entitled, “The Myth of God Incarnate.” These were Church of England clergymen denying the real divinity of Christ. Of course, most of the non-evangelical Australian theological schools had been adapting themselves to reductionist Christologies for some time, with the result that today - to all intents and purposes - their Jesus seems not much more than an intensely good and inspired man. This was certainly not a development of which Father Austin approved. I was at High Mass on that memorable morning shortly after the publication of “The Myth of God Incarnate” when he presented what was really a spirited and tightly argued lecture defending the true Biblical and patristic understanding of Jesus with such depth, scholarship and relevance as to be congratulated the very next day by the evangelical diocesan leaders to whom it had been enthusiastically reported!

It was Father Austin’s intense devotion to Jesus as his Saviour and Lord that was apparent at High Mass during which he prayed earnestly, reaching out to the Father - as he so often said - in union with the perfect self offering of Jesus. He celebrated (as once used to be said of holy priests) “with great recollection.” The same was true of the Daily Office, weekday Masses, healing prayers and periods of quiet and meditation. For him, all prayer was mystical and deeply personal. He was perfectly relaxed with extempore prayer when ministering to the sick as well as to those who came for spiritual direction. Gently and in a most natural way he would speak to our Father God about the problems experienced or the direction sought, sometimes with the laying on of hands, sometimes just holding hands, or with his hand on the other person’s shoulder; even back in the time when Australian Anglo-Catholics tended to be uncomfortable with anything less formal than collects from a prayer book.

The marriage of the formal and the informal, the concern to integrate spirituality with the rest of life, and the conviction that the Mass and the other sacraments really do bring us God’s grace, all flowed from Father Austin’s incarnational theology. The Incarnation was not just an historical event for him: it was the ongoing mystery of God’s way with us now. It lay at the heart of Christ Church’s worship; it remained the inner principle of the parish’s life; it motivated the welfare ministry of the parish.

But the Mass WAS central, and to make this point, I give you another piece of that same sermon:

“As Anglican Catholics today we perceive God as transcendent and beyond us in majesty ever to be worshipped and adored; and we see Him as coming down from Heaven in the person of Christ, a man among men, but also a tiny helpless Baby to be loved and caressed by the Blessed Virgin Mary and S. Joseph those many years ago; and we know him today, in His world, in the persons of our neighbours and friends, in the poor and needy, in the sick and the imprisoned. But above all we perceive Him by faith in these Holy Mysteries, in the Breaking of the Bread . . . intimately and lovingly.”

Father Austin proceeded to one of his favourite quotes, this time from Bishop Mervyn Stockwood:

“I think of the Mass as a golden cord that begins at Bethlehem, proceeds to Calvary and the Easter Garden, continues through the joys and sufferings of mankind till it reaches the kingdom of God. As it passes over the table I know that I am pegged on to it and that, as I take the broken bread and drink from the Cup, the Lord is in the midst, just as years ago he walked on Easter evening with two disciples along the road to Emmaus, before making himself known in the breaking of the bread.”

To know the risen Jesus was everything to Father Austin. To proclaim the Gospel of God’s love was his passion, and to care for those who came his way was his sacred calling.

Father Austin held a high view of human nature as being in the image of God while at the same time he taught and lived the gospel of redemption in Christ. Sin was a reality to be dealt with. He never compromised on that. His understanding of human sinfulness was far more realistic and gritty than is often found these days in Anglican circles. Yes, the image of God is marred (sometimes, he would say, twisted and almost hopelessly deformed), but, the Creator God and the Redeemer God are one and the same, and through faith and the Sacraments, and the caring ministry of the spirit-filled community gathered at the altar, we enter into the mystery of redeeming love, divine forgiveness, and transformation. “There is always forgiveness”, he would say.

His own daily life was extraordinarily disciplined. At one level he was always on his guard against those weaknesses of his that might get in the way of what God was doing through him. That very much accounted for an old fashioned austerity - even severity - which balanced the other side of his temperament - his infectious love of art, beauty, humour, fine wines, witty company and sumptuous celebration. “There is always forgiveness.” Some people hurt him very deeply, causing him immense pain. He always struggled to overcome that . . . but those same people found him amazingly ready to forgive, even if the re-establishment of trust took longer. He once said about the priesthood that “it’s our job to absorb the pain” and take it to the Lord “who gives us the grace to deal with it.”

In an uncanny way, Father Austin had many of the qualities which the English saw in Cardinal Hume. He was “everybody’s Father Austin” - “my priest” to so many people, inside and outside the Church, and in every walk of life. He was gentle - and indulgent, even - towards the entire range of those who wandered their spiritual and emotional wastelands. Yet he was thoroughly orthodox, and without exception tried to point those whose lives he touched to the Saviour. A phrase from the eulogy at Cardinal Hume’s funeral so marvellously applied to Father Austin “ . . . the Christ-like instinct was to count the lost sheep IN, and never OUT.”

I think back to my time as a Deacon in 1979 when I innocently walked into an argument Father Austin was having with some of the “heavies” who thought that Christ Church was built on great liturgy and fine music. He became more and more agitated and eventually declared with magisterial finality: “We certainly have great liturgy and fine music, but Christ Church is actually built on two things: the preaching of the Gospel, and catholic pastoral care.” That is what he really believed.

It is not surprising that a vast number of young men were influenced by Father Austin to offer themselves for the priesthood. He nurtured us, inspired us, persevered with us, and was always there when we needed him, even decades later.

Much is written in our time about the priest as a “professional” or a “manager.” For Father Austin, being a priest was much more like being an artist. He waited on inspiration; he followed his spiritual “hunches.” He expected to be able to see just where God is already working in the lives of those who came to him. He believed in the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He painted on the broadest of canvasses. Or, in a different image, his parish was an orchestra to be conducted in such a way that all and sundry could use their gifts for the glory of God.

Was he dictatorial? Not really. To be sure, he expected from his assistant clergy and lay leaders the kind of deference that is normally shown by members of an orchestra to their conductor (and we all know what happens to the music when for whatever reason it isn’t!). So I was not surprised by the pep talk he gave to me about leadership just weeks before I was inducted into my first parish. He actually said that my time had come to conduct an orchestra. I had to realise that no parish priest can do anything unless the other clergy and lay leaders are prepared to defer to him; and they will only defer to him if they know three things: first, that he really loves them; second, that he wants them to discover and use their gifts; and third, that he is able to lead them further into God.

I cannot say how grateful I am to have been influenced so strongly by Father Austin; to have been on the receiving end of both his patience and his rebuke as a teenager (and, indeed, until quite recently!); to have had his guidance in discerning God’s will for my life, to have been supported by him in times of failure and personal turmoil, to have had him preach at my ordination to the Diaconate in Ballarat and to serve him as a Deacon at Christ Church; to have conducted missions with him three times in the bush, to have preached at his 20th anniversary Mass at Christ Church in 1984, to have been launched by him here at All Saints’ Wickham Terrace in 1995 when he preached at my Induction, and to have had him come and stay at length three times since then. I cherish every one of those memories. Each of those different contexts revealed aspects of the character of this multi-dimensional man.

It was sad to see Father Austin decline in health during his brief retirement. It frustrated and annoyed him. But when he realised that he really was dying he determined to use every ounce of his spiritual energy to make the last bit of his life really count for God. Although debilitated, bent over and handicapped with that terrible illness, he continued to preach and to give pastoral and spiritual encouragement to others. He participated regularly in the healing services at St Mary’s Waverley, and loved to go there for Evensong and Benediction. He preached his last sermon at St Luke’s Enmore just one week before his death.

One of Father Austin’s favourite quotes was the expression of St Augustine of Hippo, that “God is the country of the soul.” He applied that to our experience of God now; and he saw our departure from this life as a deepening of that reality rather than an abrupt change. Life here and in the hereafter was the same thing, the boundary having been blurred by our experience of God. So many times at funerals and in the pastoral care of the dying, I heard him share this, and then go on speak in the most natural and reassuring way of the Lord’s victory over death, the deliverance of his people from hell and destruction, and the unity we share at the altar of God with “those whom we love but no longer see.”

In his own poetic way, he would often explain that the Mass is when “the Eucharistic veil is parted” and we are able

“to gaze out on the world of God, the angels, the saints, and our departed brothers and sisters - that great company which no man can number - and join with them in the heavenly worship, centred on the Lord Jesus.”

Father Austin loved the music of Sir Edward Elgar, and he loved the writings of John Henry Newman. Both came together - "almost miraculously" he would say - in Elgar’s setting of the “Dream of Gerontius”, from which the words to “Praise to the Holiest in the height” and “Firmly I believe and truly” are taken.

I want to conclude this morning with some verses from the last section of Newman’s poem to nourish us as we journey through the Month of the Holy Souls, and as we give thanks to God for Father Austin. They are gentle words, encouraging and comforting words; words that Father Austin used very often at funerals, for they represent a deep belief that the love of God that has touched us in this life will continue its healing and sanctifying work in us even after we have died.

The angel says to the soul being made ready to experience the fullness of the glory of God in the beatific vision:

Softly and gently, dearly-ransom’d soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And, o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.

And carefully I dip thee in the lake,
And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.

Angels, to whom the willing task is given,
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest;
And masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.

Father Austin was one of the great priests of God. May he rest in peace.

In September 1984 I had the honour of being invited to preach at a great Mass to mark Father Austin's 20th anniversary as Rector of Christ Church St Laurence. This photo was taken after Mass. L to R: Fr Victor Pringle (now a Roman Catholic Priest in the far west of New South Wales), a young version of me, Father Austin, and Fr Reg Mills, now the Dean of Clergy for the Anglican Catholic Church, Diocese of Australia and New Zealand).


Unknown said...

I still DESPERATELY miss Father Austin and am forever grateful for the influence he had on my life - and my contemporaries at CCSL. Just read of the death - last year - of Fr Ellis Jones - another of that group. I know Ellis will be happy to be with "Father " again!

Ted Henningham said...

Great presence always. RIP Fr Gary Priest SA 8/11/21 another CC St L legend.✝️😇💐😇💐🛐

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