Monday, March 1, 2010

A Life Worth Dying For: Forrest Church

In 1978 a group of us at All Souls Unitarian Church had some decisions to make. Our minister had retired. He had taken down the cross dominating the chancel, "For the repainting of the church" and in effect said "Goodbye. Have fun.

A candidate for a PhD at the Harvard Divinity School, Frank Forrester Church IV was suggested to the Ministerial Search Committee. He had a few deficiencies on his CV:
He had never preached a sermon. He had no interest in the ministry. He was the son of a famous Politician. He was young, and had a young family to support on the Upper East side in NYC. He had never led a divided church. His interests were in political and religious history. It seemed that his interest in a ministerial position was a stepping stone to national politics. Not necessarily a disqualifying or even a non-traditional expectation for All Souls ministers. We collectively took a deep breath and said why not?

As many such decisions it turned out to be an excellent choice for us. Forrest grew in the ministry and we grew both in numbers and in spirituality right along with him. He habitually stood on the front steps of the church in his “fuchsia dress” as he called his vestments and welcomed members and invited passers by on uptown Lexington Avenue to “Check it out” in the street vernacular of the time. It always got a smile if not a thoughtful look.

Early on he introduced us to the enduring theme of his ministry: Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die. He was an early adopter of the theme that birth and death were the bookends that gave meaning to our lives, and that we all should strive to live a life worth dying for. He was a Universalist theist and any afterlife did not depend on what we believed but how we lived. Afterlife was therefore an unimportant part of his message.

While he was clearly a theist. His God beliefs were always presented as his way of thinking that was just one of many. He knew quite well of my atheism but for him it was just another way to life a life worth dying for. In one of his early Cathedral of the World sermons, I somehow got the impression that some of the millions of windows through which the religious light shined were for atheists. It was clear that it was the light of God shining through those myriad windows but for Forrest it was no problem that it lit the way for atheists as well as the many varieties of theists that saw their God through their window. I think Forrest’s mission was turn All Souls into that Cathedral, and had he been of a different exploitive character he might have built it. I can see it now on Columbus Circle, “The Forrest Church Cathedral of the World” in gilt and glass to cause even Donald Trump to wear a green wig in envy. Not! I am pleased that Forrest was content with our brick and plaster Cathedral. It took a couple of services to fit us all in, but I think that was enough for Forrest, he seemed quite content when I had to leave in 1989.

I have no real personal knowledge of his later ministry so I cannot comment, although I was pleased to feel that Forrest remained a personal friend that I could make time to visit on my infrequent trips back to NYC. Someone else will have to pick up from here.

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