Father Charles Williams (1989-1994) had a keen interest not only in setting the intellectual tone of the parish but also in enhancing its artistic environment. The emphasis on the arts was most appropriate, for the parish served as a place of rehearsal, performance, and research for fine arts students, especially from TWU, for many years. Father Williams encouraged the remodeling of the altar area. After his death, the parish published a book of his sermons. Though known for his intellectualism and quiet nature, Father Williams also provided a good laugh. After telling the children at a Blessing of the Animals ceremony that pets did not go to heaven, he was petitioned by the children to reconsider. By that point, he had acquired a much-loved dog and deemed that pets did, indeed, go to heaven.From the history of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church (Denton, Texas) posted on the church’s web site: https://stbarnabasdenton.org/about-us/history/
The parishioners at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denton, Texas, must have thought it rude for a tourist to show up just before the morning service Sunday (February 23) as the congregation gathered for worship. My wife and I were just starting our trip back to Lake Jackson after spending Saturday watching our granddaughter compete in a gymnastics meet. We had discussed the possibility of looking up the church in Denton where my college roommate and our best man had served as rector until his death in 1994.
I was was pretty sure I would not enjoy being among strangers, most of whom would be too young to know my friend and none of whom, certainly, would know the Charles Thomas Williams I knew in college at the University of Houston. Moreover, I didn’t want our presence to be disruptive of the worship environment.
“But there may be a memorial of some kind and we could at least look around the outer grounds,” my wife argued. I acceded and she parked the car while I strapped my monster camera around my neck, slapped on my big Stetson crushable, and did my best to look like anything but a person hoping to be drawn into conversation with an Episcopalian in a worshipful mood.
I interrupted to agree and to introduce myself. I told them that he was also one of the chief reasons I was still in the church. Candy and Lee Dunn were on their way to service but seemed more than happy to spend some time with friends of their deceased and revered rector. They took us into the building and showed us Father Williams’ photograph in the hallway that led to the sanctuary. It was the same one that had been published in the book of his sermons I had purchased from the church a few years earlier (Last Things: Sermons by Charles Thomas Williams, Tribolite Press, Denton TX).
Candy said the building we were in was the new church, built after Father Williams’ death. The parish had been debating the idea of building a new church in the months leading up to his death. To the younger more progressive members it was apparent that the congregation had outgrown the existing facility. To people who had grown up in the church or had been members a long time, it seemed a sacrilege to tear it down.
She said that she had been one of the traditionalists who wanted to keep the old church intact but that she seemed to be losing and was finding it very hard to deal with the interpersonal stresses in the congregation. She had gone to Fr. Williams near the end of his struggle with cancer to see if she could enlist his support for her side of the argument.
But he had already accepted the need for change for a growing congregation in the center of booming Denton. She said it was the last conversation she ever had with him and she would never forget what he told her then: “It’s just a building, Candy, it’s just a building.”
At first, I thought those words too superficial a reflection to carry so long in her memory from so wise and eloquent a man. But, as I thought more about it, the words were probably said to her softly, lovingly and with the conviction of someone who had, himself, made peace with the passing of his own body into dust or ashes.
“It’s just a building, Candy” I can hear him saying it now.
People sometimes question the goodness of a god who would take so gentle and wise a man from us in the prime of his creativity and service. The randomness of afflictions like his seems cruel and meaningless. Yet one of the greatest gifts in creation may be the random distribution in nature that sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.
It is how scientists distinguish between experimental outcomes that can be better accounted for by their designed interventions than by chance alone. It is the reality of randomness, in fact, that provides a backdrop against which we measure our progress in curing disease.
All of science has benefited from our ability to measure variance from random distributions. It is only when we can observe nature untouched and predictably random that we can determine if our interventions are yielding the growth in our knowledge, understanding and invention we seek to achieve.
It gives us the means to continue the work of creation, God’s work, if you will. That is no small gift. And I suspect that Father Williams would suggest we embrace the gift of randomness and work to create those spaces within it that make life on Earth the gift God meant it to be.
I can imagine the conversation Charles and I could have had about this topic late into the night. Like Lee Dunn, I remain a Christian today largely because of my dear friend, my best man Charles. I am glad we stopped in Denton Sunday.