Houston Chronicle's effusive description of new Hines Center lacks critical distance

Back in the mid-1980s, I spent 3.5 years working for The Houston Chronicle, which was situated downtown on Texas Avenue.

A mere two blocks away was Christ Church (Episcopal) Cathedral, which became quite the hangout for the lunchtime crowd during my years at the Chron, because of a restaurant on its premises. The cathedral had its share of programs and events, but the real energy center for the local Episcopalians was the Church of St. John the Divine, a parish several miles west of downtown.

Much has changed in the Diocese of Texas since then, including a recent innovation I just read about in the Chronicle about the new Bishop John E. Hines Center for Spirituality and Prayer. Here’s how it’s described:

Christ Church Cathedral, a fixture in the heart of downtown Houston, sits just 6 sprawling Houston miles from Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in the world.
The handsome Episcopal church, established in 1839 when Texas was still an independent Republic, soon will unveil a new worship space as striking in its way as Lakewood, once the 16,000-seat home of the Rockets.
In January, The Bishop John E. Hines Center for Spirituality and Prayer will open in a repurposed printing plant at 500 Fannin, just across the street from Christ Church. The new space -- harnessing a countervailing force in spirituality that has taken root nationwide -- will incorporate elements from Eastern religions and emphasize community over doctrine, offering yoga classes and a labyrinth where visitors can walk and meditate.
The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, said he believes what’s being done in one corner of downtown Houston may help define what the Christian church will look like in 25 years. The Hines Center will “provide a sanctuary, a context in the heart of the urban center,” Thompson said, “where those who are spiritually seeking can connect with God and develop spiritual practices,” based on the teaching and compassion of Jesus.

If Christian churches are going to look like this place, will they still be churches? And when we are talking "Eastern religions," are we talking the churches of the East or other world religions?

The lengthy article mentions how it’s named after John Hines, a former bishop of Texas who was elected as presiding bishop in 1965. I wonder if Hines, who was mainly known for his work on race, social justice and opening up the ranks of clergy to women, would approve of this spiritually eclectic place. I only met the man once, but he didn’t seem the type to be into labyrinths and a place for what the article describes as “spiritual seekers who don’t respond to traditional church service and want to design their own faith practices.”

The article, which reads like a promo piece for the new center, chose some interesting people to interview about the place. One is a professor of Asian theology and Christianity at Yale Divinity School who had no connections to Houston that I could figure out. Another was from the Jung Center of Houston and a third was a religion professor at Rice University.

OK, let's state the obvious: Why no one from Anglican or Episcopal traditions? Or is this Hines center so removed from anything remotely resembling the faith of those who created The Book of Common Prayer that liberal and traditional sources linked to Episcopal life (Houston has lots of both) are irrelevant?

Here’s more on what the center will include:

A permanent labyrinth stained and etched into the middle of the terrazzo floor will be the central image. A large, intricate wooden Celtic cross, a symbol of both the continued Christian tradition and the willingness to branch out beyond ordinary bounds, will hang on the two-story wall to the back. A movement studio will offer yoga, t’ai chi and sacred movement classes.
The mezzanine level, which features large windows, will house an art studio. There’s also room for a prayer space, lounges for one-on-one spiritual-direction sessions, a lending library and showers.

 All that’s missing here is an internet café. We learn later that the cathedral polled downtown residents –- many of them Millennials, of course –- to learn what would attract them and the Hines Center is what they came up with. I’m curious as to what the cathedral hopes to get from this new place, in terms of membership and finances.

A few other things don’t quite work, such as the including of quotes by a Thomas Moore near the end, with no hint as to who this person is or where he lives. Surely we are talking about the former Catholic monk (his wife is a yoga pro) who has become a well-known author of books on vague spirituality? Midway through the piece, the writer throws in several paragraphs about Community of Faith, a large church north of Houston that has nothing to do with the Hines center and kind of cluttered up the article.

As for the lead sentence, which teases the reader to think this is yet another piece about Joel Osteen, the final product disappoints. Was that a search-engine thing to promote clicks?

I know that media in Houston adore anything having to do with Lakewood, but that’s no reason to mix that megachurch with something that’s spiritually alien in comparison. More revealing is the Center's Facebook page. "Religious Center," it says. "Yoga and Pilates." Is this how desperate churches have become? The only way to attract new blood is to offer spiritualized fitness classes?

The Hines Center raises more questions than it answers. I wish the Chronicle had explored at least some of them, among both fans and critics of the project.

Photo of the construction of the Hines Center's labyrinth is from the Center's Facebook page.

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