REV. FORREST CHURCH
September 23, 1948 — September 24, 2009
The cause was complications of esophageal cancer, which first struck him three years ago. Despite invasive surgery that led to a year of remission, and then two years of punishing chemotherapy and experimental treatments, Forrest preached monthly – often to an overflowing sanctuary – and wrote two books during his final illness. The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology, the last of the 25 books he wrote or edited, was published in November, 2009 by Beacon Press.
In his three decades at All Souls Forrest “proved himself to be a great parish minister, public minister, and public theologian,” in the words of the Distinguished Service Award the Unitarian Universalism Association gave him in 2008. The citation added, “All of this has been made possible by his great spirit, which has propelled his ministry in all its myriad and wonderful forms.”
Forrest’s All Souls ministry began in an unlikely way. When All Souls’s search committee invited him to be a candidate to succeed the Rev. Walter Donald Kring as senior minister, he was not yet 30 years old and had no interest in the parish ministry. He had been ordained but had very little pulpit experience; he was finishing his doctorate at Harvard and had set his sights on being a religious scholar. But during candidating week, he heard a call to the pulpit for the first time, won the job, and was installed as the 190-year-old congregation’s ninth senior minister.
When Forrest arrived at All Souls, church records show, it was not uncommon for fewer than 100 persons to attend Sunday worship; the professional staff consisted of Forrest and part-time directors of religious education and of music.
From the start, the growth was volcanic. For years now, it’s not been uncommon for more than 1,000 persons to attend Sunday worship; and All Souls has more ministers now than there were total staff members when Forrest arrived. Under Forrest, All Souls became not only a very large church but also the flagship pulpit of Unitarian Universalism. Forrest became the most widely heard UU voice of his generation, in books, newspaper columns, on television, on WQXR, as a frequent contributor to UU World, and in lectures from coast to coast and abroad.
One reason the young Forrest drew the public eye is that he was the son of a well-known United States senator, Frank Church of Idaho, who showed up for services not infrequently. But the bubbling vitality of the growing congregation attracted more attention as All Souls became a significant presence in New York City.
In 1983, five years after being called, Forrest became president of the Yorkville Emergency Alliance and drew All Souls members into community involvement that grew to take myriad forms. Forrest told an interviewer that none was more meaningful to him, or had a greater impact on All Souls or the city, than the work of the AIDS Task Force the congregation formed in 1985, when AIDS was little understood and widely feared. The task force placed 10,000 bus and subway placards with messages such as “AIDS is a human disease and deserves a humane response.” The National AIDS Interfaith Network gave All Souls its Outstanding AIDS Ministry award.
And then there was the power of Forrest’s sermons, eight of which were selected for inclusion in the annual anthology Representative American Speeches. Despite his inexperience as a preacher when called, he quickly mastered the craft. He found that he had a knack for reducing complex theological ideas to a crisp sentence or two, which made him perhaps the most quoted Unitarian Universalist preacher of his generation: UUs everywhere, and many in other denominations, know his definition of religion as “our human response to the dual realities of being alive and having to die” and its corollary, “The goal of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”
Other thoughts that spread far and wide after Forrest first spoke them from the All Souls pulpit include, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” And “the opposite of love is not hate but fear.” The mantra – “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are” – has inspired thousands. His words flowed with precise ease, his style distinct: at once formal yet laced with irrepressible wit. He drew laughs even in the sermon in which he told his congregation that his cancer had reappeared and that he was terminally ill.
His sermon title that day became the title of his book Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, which he wrote after he received this diagnosis. “Time and again,” he wrote in its introduction, “I return to the abiding theme of love and death. I have preached on this theme more times that I can number. . . . Variations on the theme of love and death sound from my heartstrings.”
Of his other books perhaps most familiar to Unitarian Universalists is A Chosen Faith, with coauthor the Rev. John A. Buehrens, his former All Souls ministerial colleague who went on to be elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Forrest also edited 10 books, including the Beacon Press edition of The Jefferson Bible, which has sold more than 100,000 copies. Several of his books explore the intersection of religion and American history, including The American Creed: A Biography of the Declaration of Independence (2002) and So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (2007).
Television discovered Forrest early on; he was interviewed by Bill Moyers and Tavis Smiley on PBS, on the Today Show and on CBS Sunday Morning; he was Dan Rather’s companion CBS’s broadcast of the national memorial service for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The New York Times and other major newspapers have published his op-ed columns, and he contributed a regular column to The Chicago Tribune and The New York Post.
Within our faith, his almost annual addresses at General Assemblies routinely drew hundreds of listeners. Among the many positions held were chair of the UUA Grants Panel, member of the President’s Council, chair of the Harvard Divinity School Alumni Council, and service on the boards of Union Theological Seminary, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and Starr King School for the Ministry, the UU seminary in Oakland, California. He received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism in a ceremony at the 2008 UUA General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale. Other major awards included honorary doctorates from Starr King and from Meadville Lombard Theological School, the UU seminary in Chicago; the Four Freedoms Award from the Roosevelt Institute; and the Art Buchwald Spirit Award from the National Hospice Foundation. In Forrest’s honor, the Heart and Soul Fund established the Forrest Church Humanitarian Award. Its first recipient, honored in February 2009, was Bill Clinton.
As his many books illustrate, Forrest’s success in the parish did not crowd out his early ambition to be a scholar. His address, “Our Universalist Mission: Proclaiming a Theology for the 21st Century,” presented at the 2001 General Assembly in Cleveland, advanced theological understanding enough so much that Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary dwelled on it in his definitive book, The Making of American Liberal Theology, 1950-2005.
Forrest took much pleasure from his service from 1998 to 2006 as chair of the New York City Council on the Environment. Among city-wide environmental programs for which he was responsible were New York’s 50 Greenmarkets.
Forrest stepped down as senior minister after recovering from his cancer surgery and was given the fitting title of Minister of Public Theology. He was succeeded by the Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich.
Frank Forrester Church IV was born September 23, 1948, in Boise, Idaho. He majored in history at Stanford University, graduating in 1970; received a Master of Divinity degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard Divinity School in 1974, and a Ph.D. in early church history from Harvard University in 1978, with a dissertation on the Gospel of Thomas. His first marriage, to Amy Furth, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Carolyn Buck Luce, of Manhattan; his mother, Bethine Church, and brother, Chase Church, of Boise, ID; his son, Frank Forrester Church V, and daughter Nina Wynne Church, of New York; and his stepsons Jacob and Nathan Luce, of New York.
—written by Tom Stites