Sunday, September 27, 2009

Forrest Church is Dead

We liked his family name, but not too much else about him.

Oh, that's not true.  Exactly.  There was a lot to like about Forrest Church, longtime senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan.  He was, by all reports, a man of great intelligence, and a powerful preacher.  He stood up, publicly, for many of the right causes (at least in our eyes).  And even though he was an Unitarian (about which we will say much more in the coming weeks), it was Father A.'s experience as a pastor in NYC that many people found their way into the Church -- meaning the real, honest-to-God Trinitarian one -- after passing through a period of residency at All Souls.  So even if he didn't proclaim Christ, you could argue that he served as a useful warmup act.

But here's the thing.  In the Times obit, linked above, there is a brief remark:

While married to his first wife, Amy Furth Church, he met [Carolyn Buck Luce, who became his second wife]  as a member of his congregation. Their ensuing affair caused a public controversy, but the congregation voted overwhelmingly to keep him as senior minister.

Sounds almost trivial, doesn't it?  But it's not.  Those of us who lived, and especially those who ministered, in New York at the time are unlikely to forget this event.  When the high-profile leader of a major religious institution is publicly revealed to be carrying on an adulterous relationship with one of his members, it sends ripples out through every religious community. At least to some degree, it caused the faithful of many churches to question the  integrity of their own pastors. 

(For the record, in our synod, this behavior would be grounds for what we call, somewhat clinically, removal from the roster of ordained persons.  We'd defrock the SOB.  In fact, much of the Egg's contempt for pastors who huff and puff about leaving the ELCA for supposed theological reasons has to do with a couple of gents who were found to have done just such things, and who left before we could kick their sorry asses to the curb.  And remember that they joined just the sort of dissident organizations which now claim to offer some sort of moral high ground in defense of marriage.  Ptui!).

But the tale of Forrest Church gets worse.  As reported in the Times back then, Church not only carried on an affair with one of his church members, but he sent a letter to her husband, offering marital counseling.

Seriously.  As gross misconduct goes by a public figure, this may not quite rank with the crystal meth and callboys.  But as pastoral misconduct -- that is, a specific betrayal of one's duty to the flock -- it exceeds it, by a good mile or more.

So, sure, he was a passionate defender of good liberal causes.  But guess what?  They're dime a dozen.  Sure, he built a smallish congregation into a large one.  But guess what?  He was recruiting secular humanists on the East Side of Manhattan -- it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

No, for us, Forrest Church was in life and will remain in death a reminder of what Calvinism gets right, and the rest of us forget at our peril:  the utter depravity of human beings after the Fall.  In which he did not believe.


Diane said...

Forrest Church. I think I had him confused with someone else.

what a story! but I'll just confess here my own sinful nature: you kind of got me going with the little sidelight about people who left before we could kick them out, and now go around defending "traditional marriage."

I've been vacillating between anger and sadness re: the whole Lutheran Core thing lately.

Father said...

I vacillate too, but (defying physics) the pendulum swing through anger is longer and deeper than the brief trips through sadness.

Anonymous said...

That's a sticky situation. We're all prone to make mistakes, and this wasn't Forest's only one. But he counseled my wife through a downward spiral of alcoholism and arrested her fall with his loving words, and for that I, and our four children, will forever be grateful. And I owe him a debt of gratitude for showing me religion based on how to live a life rather than miracles.

Anonymous said...

That last paragraph is true brilliance! Bravo! web

bigassdick said...

I personally was baptized by Rev. Church, back when the adultery scandal had first broken out. An atheist myself, I have always derived amusement from hearing from my parents about my baptism. The couple my parents wanted to be my godparents were Orthodox Jews, and Rev. Church's church was about the only one in town willing to do a baptism for two rather un-religious parents and two Orthodox Jewish godparents. My parents were apparently shopping around for a church in NYC and were attracted to All-Souls because All-Souls were advertising a book discussion group for a Richard Dawkins book critical of theistic religion. The day I was baptized there were picketers outside the church calling for the Reverend's dismissal. My Jewish godparents asked my parents "What's up with you Christians?" To this day it's one of the funniest stories I've heard.

Father Anonymous said...

That story, sadly, illustrates everything both good and wretched about Church and his ministry, with a heavy emphasis on wretched.