At the time of his death on September 24, 2009, Forrest Church was one of America's pre-eminent liberal theologians. UUA executive vice president Kay Montgomery called him "the most quoted Unitarian Universalist of this era." After thirty years as senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, he served the church as minister of public theology. Church wrote or edited more than 24 books, including Father and Son: A Personal Biography of Senator Frank Church of Idaho, God and Other Famous Liberals, The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State, and most recently Love and Death—My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, published by Beacon Press in 2008. His latest book is The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (Beacon Press, 2009).
As newspaper columnist, visiting scholar, chair of the Council on the Environment of New York City for ten years, and media star through broadcast interviews beyond number, he gave liberal theology its contemporary credentials as a viable way of religious life for the American soul. Educated at Stanford University (A.B., 1970), Harvard Divinity School (M.Div., 1974), and Harvard University, where he received his Ph. D. in early church history in 1978, Church was a contemporary exemplar of our liberal tradition of the learned ministry.
Forrest Church was a self-proclaimed 21st-century liberal Universalist evangelist. According to Church, "a twenty-first-century theology needs nothing more and requires nothing less than a new Universalism." Nothing less will do, Church insisted, because we live in a world "where togetherness is no longer a luxury but a necessity;" where "we are thrown together by realities [e.g., a global economy, global communication systems, and global nuclear and environmental threats] that shape our common destiny" and yet "centrifugal forces spin us farther and farther from one another, fracturing the one world we now experience and jeopardizing our common welfare." According to Church, the only way we can make good on our theological heritage as Unitarian Universalists in the face of this new century is to proclaim a Universalism fit for the challenges of the 21st century. To this end, Forrest Church invoked the broad spirit of our Universalist forebears for his 21st-century inclusive faith, while at the same time reaching beyond the doctrinal Protestant Christian limits and divisiveness of American Universalism's original creators.
Forrest Church was the son of Frank Forrester Church III, who served as the United States Senator from Idaho for 24 years, which included most of his son's youth and all of his adolescence. As he freely confessed, he often boasted in his adolescence that he would die before he was 25, which is the age at which his father was expected to, but didn't, die of cancer. Church writes that although his father "survived his first bout with cancer, I seem somehow to have interiorized it. Perhaps... I viewed my own impending death as a sacrifice due the gods in exchange for my father's life. More likely, I merely enjoyed basking in the pathos of my mortality. Besides, since I was going to die before turning twenty-five, I could live a life of abandon in the meantime, untethered to future responsibility."
Diagnosed himself with cancer that went into remission after his esophagus was removed in November 2006, Church announced to his congregation in February 2008 that tumors had returned and his life would be measured in months, not years.
Death has always been central to Church's theology. As he put it: "I didn't become a minister in any meaningful sense until I conducted my first funeral. Of all things I am called to do, none is more important, and none has proved of greater value to me, than the call to be with people at times of loss. When asked at a gathering of colleagues what gives most meaning to my work, I replied that, above all else, it is the constant reminder of death. Death awakens me to life's preciousness and also its fragility." Moreover, Church's fundamental definition of religion marks death as well as life as its defining prompt. He said:
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are not the animal with tools or the animal with advanced language; we are the religious animal. Because we know that we are going to die, we question what life means. Death also throws meaning itself into question, for some people rendering it moot. Yet, for most of us, knowing that we are mortal inspires a search for answers that will remain valid in spite of our mortality. If religion is our response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.
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Last updated on Thursday, February 7, 2013.
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