If anyone has popularized liberal religion in the last quarter century, Forrest Church has.
Six years ago, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church sat in my office to talk through the ideas that later took shape in an essay he wrote for UU World’s Ralph Waldo Emerson bicentennial issue. An hour of Forrest’s undivided attention is hard to match, and that hour remains one of my favorite memories at the magazine. As a young editor, I was in awe of his literary output—he has now written at least twenty books—but he seemed so energized by my questions and so engaged by the assignment that I felt downright brilliant when we parted, even though he did most of the thinking and most of the talking.
(You can read the essay that grew out of our conversation, “Emerson’s Shadow,” and Forrest’s other UU World essays online.)
I first encountered Forrest’s central theological idea—that “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”—in the basement of a used bookstore in Salt Lake City, in Forrest’s introduction to a collection of essays by the great mid-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. Forrest’s definition grabbed me; I recall stumbling onto it as one of a handful of moments that drew me to embrace Unitarian Universalism.
Through his books, Forrest has ministered to thousands of people who have not heard his voice, seen his bright smile, or enjoyed the hospitality of his church. As co-author with the Rev. John Buehrens of the popular introduction to Unitarian Universalism, A Chosen Faith, he has welcomed many people to our liberal religious tradition and helped them understand it. The Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, which he has served for thirty years, named him “minister of public theology” last year, freeing him to spend more time writing. If anyone has popularized liberal religion in the last quarter century, he has.
When Forrest announced back in 2006 that he had cancer of the esophagus, the news hit many of us hard. When he visited the UUA staff last winter to promote his excellent book about the religious politics of the first five U.S. presidents, his cancer was in remission, and Forrest told me he was eagerly planning a second volume that would carry the story up through Abraham Lincoln. But in February, he announced to the people of All Souls that his cancer had returned, had spread, and is now terminal. An excerpt from his moving sermon “Love and Death” appears in this issue (page 18; see link below). Being Forrest, he has already completed a book on the subject.
The people of All Souls have been blessed by Forrest’s pastoral ministry, but through the printed word Forrest has ministered to countless others, too. I thank him for the ministry he has provided in these pages.
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Christopher L. Walton is editor of UU World. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah and is a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.