‘God’s in his heaven, Austin Day’s at Christ Church St Laurence, 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 (set in right in the middle 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 on Monday 5th November following a struggle with motor neuron disease.
He loved the Lord
He was a cultured man who loved the Lord Jesus in a genuine and unfussy way. This was recognized by the evangelical clergy of his acquaintance and it contributed as much to the growing relationship between Christ Church and the diocese as any deliberate attempt at rapprochement.
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 helped countless individuals, many with little or no prior involvement with Churches, to know the forgiveness, love and healing of Jesus in their lives.
Father Austin preached simple sermons, generously laced with poetry, and peppered with geographical and artistic allusions. Yet, he could also be strongly didactic. I was at High Mass one memorable Sunday twenty-four years ago just after ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ was published. Father Austin 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 by Sydney’s evangelical leaders the very next day!
Father Austin celebrated High Mass ‘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 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; and this was at a time when many Australian Anglo-Catholics were still 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 divine 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.
Father Austin held to 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. 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 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 weaknesses that might get in the way of what God was doing through him. That was manifest in an old fashioned austerity which balanced the other side of his temperament – his love of art, beauty, fine wines, witty company and sumptuous celebration. ‘There is always forgiveness’. Some people hurt him very deeply, but they found him amazingly ready to forgive, even if the re-establishment of trust would take longer.
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 towards the entire range of those who wandered their own spiritual and emotional wastelands. Yet he was thoroughly orthodox and tried to point every person whose life 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.’
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.
Much is written today 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 others. He painted on the broadest of canvasses; his parish was the largest of orchestras to be conducted in such a way that all and sundry could use their gifts for the glory of God. He required from his assistant clergy and lay leaders the kind of deference that would normally be shown by members of an orchestra to their conductor.
The Road to Heaven
It was sad to see Father Austin decline in health during his brief retirement. It frustrated him – but when he realized that he really was dying he used his spiritual energy to make the last bit really count for God. Although debilitated, bent over and handicapped with the motor neuron disease, he continued to preach and to give pastoral and spiritual encouragement to others. He preached his last sermon at St Luke’s Enmore just one week before his death.
At funerals and in the care of the sick, Father Austin would speak 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.’ He would describe the Mass as the instant of time when ‘the Eucharistic veil is parted’ and we 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 was one of the great figures of the Australian Church. May he rest in peace.
David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’ Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane.