F. Forrester Church, 61

F. Forrester Church, 61; Influential N.Y. Unitarian Minister

For more than three decades, the Rev. F. Forrester Church was senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. He also wrote or edited 25 books.
For more than three decades, the Rev. F. Forrester Church was senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. He also wrote or edited 25 books. (By Mitchel Gray -- Unitarian Universalist Association)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Rev. F. Forrester Church, 61, a minister whose prolific writing and engaging sermons from the pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan helped to define Unitarian Universalism and relate its beliefs to the larger culture, died Sept. 24 of esophageal cancer at his home in New York.

Dr. Church, the son of the late Sen. Frank Church III (D-Idaho), was senior minister at All Souls for more than three decades. During his tenure, the liberal, affluent Upper East Side congregation, founded in 1819, grew from fewer than 400 members to more than 1,400.

Through his books, TV and radio appearances and newspaper columns, Dr. Church became a leading voice of Unitarian Universalism. He also led his congregation into areas of public service, including an AIDS task force formed in 1985, when the disease was little understood and greatly feared. In addition, he set up a shelter for homeless women in Harlem, helped organize 50 farmers markets in New York and started a scouting program for boys and girls at a welfare hotel.

Although he had little experience in the pulpit when he began at All Souls, he became one of the nation's most quotable preachers. Eight of his sermons were selected for inclusion in the annual anthology "Representative American Speeches."

"Forrest was one of an increasingly rare breed in America, a public theologian who could communicate complex religious ideas in accessible terms, without dumbing them down," said the Rev. Robert M. Hardies, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in the District.

He defined religion, for example, as "our human response to the dual realities of being alive and having to die." He also noted that "God is not God's name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each."

His preaching style, in the words of an All Souls online tribute, was "at once formal yet laced with irrepressible wit." He drew laughs even in the sermon in which he told his congregation that he was terminally ill.

"As much as anyone, and more than most of us, Forrest had the courage to dive into the mystery of life -- to luxuriate in uncertainty and cherish doubt, to wrestle with paradox and embrace irony," his successor at All Souls, Galen Guengerich, said in his sermon on Sunday. "In the pulpit, as in the rest of his life, Forrest held up his failures as readily as he celebrated his successes. He acknowledged his errors as readily as he trumpeted his awards. He dove full in -- nothing hidden and nothing held back."

Dr. Church wrote or edited 25 books, including "Father and Son: A Personal Biography of Senator Frank Church of Idaho" (1985), "So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State" (2008) and "Love and Death -- My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow" (2008).

Frank Forrester Church IV was born Sept. 23, 1948, in Boise, Idaho. He grew up in Bethesda and graduated from Walt Whitman High School. He received a bachelor's degree in history from Stanford University in 1970, a divinity degree, with honors, from Harvard Divinity School in 1974 and a doctorate in early church history from Harvard University in 1978.

When All Souls' search committee invited him to be a candidate for its senior minister position, he was not yet 30 and professed no interest in the parish ministry. He had been ordained but had little pulpit experience, intending instead to be a scholar of religion.

He won the job over 28 candidates because of the eloquence of his tryout sermons and was installed in 1978 as the congregation's ninth senior minister. The New York Times reported in 2008 that over the decades he blossomed "from a gangly, slightly awkward young minister to an authoritative yet avowedly down-to-earth leader."

That position of leadership was jeopardized in 1991 when he admitted that he was sexually involved with a woman active in the congregation, Carolyn Buck Luce. The congregation eventually voted to retain him as its pastor, rejecting demands from some that he resign. After his divorce from Amy Furth Church, he and Luce married.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, of New York; two children from his first marriage, Frank Forrester Church V and Nina Church-Adams, both of New York; two stepsons, Jacob Luce of New York and Nathan Luce of Golden, Colo.; his mother, Bethine Church of Boise; and a brother.

Dr. Church's cancer was diagnosed in October 2006, and he was told that he had three to six months to live. He stepped down from his senior post but remained a minister at All Souls, and he lived long enough to preach five "last sermons."

"After two or three poignant farewell sermons, I'm almost embarrassed this morning to be seen in public upright," he told the congregation on a Sunday morning in 2008.

In those final sermons, he often reflected on the importance of living each day with love and gratitude.

In his book "Love and Death," he wrote: "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."

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