Tuesday, July 27, 2010

R.I.P. John Worrell, priest, chaplain and friend in Texas

The circumstances of our lives may already have given us a simple way of living. But for most of us the call to simplicity is a call to examine the way we live, the things on which we spend our resources of money and time and strength.

Simplicity is a spiritual discipline and a spiritual goal. We can in times of privation or limited resources have our sacrifices extorted from us, as we are forced backward step by step into a simpler life. Or we can embrace an opportunity to learn new ways of living sacrificially, new ways, and spiritually richer ways, of growing closer to God as we re-order and re-arrange the priorities of things and activities in our lives. We face a new encounter with the reality of God, our need of him, and the power of his grace.
-- John Worrell on Simplicity

Though he accomplished much in his long career as a working priest, John will likely be remembered chiefly as the force behind Nevertheless: A Texas Church Review - founder, publisher (along with wife Vivian), and head writer of a thoughtful publication that prided itself on being an independent voice crying for a little sanity in the Anglican Communion - no, not just in Texas ... and not just in the years before before 2003, but especially, and with hard vigor, in 2003 and beyond, until finally just a few years ago Nevertheless and other small occasional pubs like it were forced to run up the white flag and surrender (swearing many cautions to the rest of us) to the immediacy of the Internet.

John was profoundly captured by the notion that The Episcopal Church was a place capable of having a wide, fair, giving, and intellectually honest conversation about faith and the politics of faith. (He was also less apt to confuse the two, as we sometimes are now, in our rush to keep the story going.) He was, simply, a broad churchman who did not accept the smallness one sometimes perceives in clergy - including bishops - and who never shied from pointing out both the location and remedy of faults. Upon handing over the reigns of Nevertheless to an editorial board, he noted, with a tinge of melancholy, that

... [w]e never quite succeeded in providing, as we had hoped, a place where very different views were argued out in "charitable yet rigorous" debate, at least not often. Perhaps the times had already turned to discomfort with diversity and serious exploration of important differences in a shared environment. It is also likely that our willingness, on the rare occasions when it seemed needed, to question the wisdom or fairness of our Bishops gave us a partisan reputation we had not desired ... I hope that our shared concern for the success of the Gospel and the welfare of the Church will continue and grow.

Let's remember that The Episcopal Church, like any American expression of Christian thought, was upheld by many in the last century who cared enough about her fortunes to do something to in the hope of making a lasting impact upon them. There were many who toiled with blue pencils, pica-poles, and reduction wheels to make their drafts better - who would stay up late copying, folding, applying stamps and fueling it all with cold coffee, because they loved their Church enough to sacrifice for it in ways that just made sense to them. And if today entirely web-based news-and-views organs like Episcopal Café succeed, they do well to recall their forebears in this lineage.

So farewell, John, and thanks for all the carp. We owe you.

I knew John Worrell chiefly as the celebrant of the 8 o'clock Holy Communion at my parish during my years in Houston, St Stephen's Episcopal Church on West Alabama, Houston. When the (former) rector Clax Monro retired, John was interim priest and was for a time in the running as a candidate for the rectorship of St Stephen's (it eventually fell to Helen Havens, another prophetic witness in the church). St Stephen's always attracted not renegades, but rebels who were thoughtful and challenging in their arguments for the faith. I also knew John as the chaplain for Rice University and Texas Medical Center students at Autry House. He was a good friend of the Houston chapter of Integrity.

Ken Kesselus and Robby Vickery writing a retrospective on John Worrell in the Easter 2008 issue of Nevertheless
In 1959, he came to the Diocese of Texas to serve at Beaumont's St. Matthew's Church and as Chaplain to students at Lamar State College. Shortly after arriving, a young black college student was confirmed in St. Matthew's Church. This new Episcopalian took part in sit-in demonstrations seeking desegregation of lunch counters and public facilities. A dangerous impasse threatened as city officials resisted. On the strength of their pastoral relationship, John went to a critical meeting about the crisis. Unexpectedly, he was designated as an unofficial emissary for the black protesters to business leaders and City of Beaumont officials. Along with other local clergy from both communities in the city, he aided a process that achieved a measure of justice in a peaceful manner. He came to know, practically, the reality that people with differing views could meet to reason with one another and find a good and peaceful agreement.

Similarly, after moving to Houston in 1965, he worked with an interdenominational, multi-racial group of clergy which was informally named the "Crisis Commission." They met regularly to build community and trust, strategizing how to avoid the violence and race riots that were spreading across America. Their strategies were opening conversation, learning to appreciate those on the other side, and finding the leverage to bring feuding parties together enough to at least prevent tense situations from getting out of hand.

John sought to use Autry House, which housed his ministry to students at Rice University and schools within the Texas Medical Center, as a meeting place for such gatherings. He passionately promoted processes that would put people with different perspectives at the same table, working to better understand one another. He labored to bring diversity into that holy place, seeking to sanctify it through reconciliation and understanding.

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