The Reverend Forrest Church, acclaimed author of more than two dozen books and longtime minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, died on September 24, 2009, following a three-year battle with esophageal cancer. He was sixty-one years old. Church is survived by his children, Frank, Nina, Jacob and Nathan, and by his wife, Carolyn Buck Luce.
"I join thousands of Unitarian Universalists and Americans in mourning the loss of Forrest Church,” said Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Peter Morales today. "We have lost a brilliant and articulate thinker, a champion of democratic values, and a compelling advocate for liberal religion. More importantly, we have lost a kind, thoughtful, and loving spirit. What courage and grace he showed in his final years. Even as we feel our loss, let us be grateful for his enduring legacy.”
The son of former U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) and grandson of former Idaho Governor Chase A. Clark, Forrest Church earned his Ph.D. in early church history from Harvard University in 1978, and began his career at All Souls that same year. Selected from approximately twenty-five applicants for the position, Church was twenty-nine years old. He served All Souls from then until his death.
During Church’s tenure at the congregation, All Souls flourished. Over the past three decades, membership at All Souls has more than tripled. With over 1,400 members, All Souls is one of the largest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association today.
As All Souls grew, so too did Church’s prominence as a public voice for Unitarian Universalism and for social justice. He was a strong proponent of both religious and political liberalism. In 1985, he led All Souls Church in learning about AIDS and providing direct services to AIDS sufferers. New York reporter Bernice Kanner wrote that year, "The mobilization of All Souls was among the first religious responses to the disease.”
In 1986, Church told the Boston Globe, "…generally, politicians try to change society for the betterment of the individual. I like to change the individual for the betterment of society.” Through his work as a minister and a public intellectual, Church profoundly influenced both individuals and society.
Church reached a wide audience through the approximately two dozen books that he authored or edited in the course of his career. He published his first book, Father and Son: A Personal Biography of Senator Frank Church of Idaho, in 1985. His other prominent works include Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (1989, co-authored with John Buehrens), The American Creed (2002), So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State (2007), and Love and Death (2008). Church’s final book, The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology, will be published by Beacon Press in November.
At the UUA’s 2008 General Assembly, Church received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, the most prestigious award given by the UUA. "Let us never forget what a privilege it is to be part of this great movement and to pronounce its saving faith: one Light (Unitarianism) shining through many windows (Universalism),” Church remarked upon receiving the award. "Let us continue our quest together, with awe and humility, with saving openness and saving doubt, never forgetting to honor those who charted our way.”
New York Times reporter Cara Buckley talked with congregants at All Souls in the fall of 2008. "They spoke of Mr. Church’s gift with words, his ability to connect with others and his seemingly endless capacity for empathy and compassion,” she observes. "Unitarian Universalism is a theologically liberal religion, and to many, Mr. Church embodied the very best of the religion.” His friend, NBC newsman and former Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw said, "Forrest Church made all of our lives so much richer with his friendship, his faith and his optimism. He was a leading citizen in the world of all of God's children.”
Church spent his final years reflecting on the importance of living each day with love and gratitude. He writes in Love and Death, "The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for…The one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”
All Souls has posted a web page in tribute to Forrest Church; all are invited to view photos, post remembrances, and more. Those who wish to make a donation in Dr. Church's memory may do so by contributing to the Forrest Church Fund for the Advancement of Liberal Religion. Galen Guengerich preached a sermon on Sunday, Sept. 27, in honor of Dr. Church: Amen. I love You. (pdf) The sermon is also available on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2.