Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
They got the word at the White House Wednesday night, the good word, that is, according to St. Mark. And while most of the invited 300 clergy, lay people and just plain believers had gotten it long before, the setting and presentation were unique.
"It doesn't even sound like Mark," said the host, President Carter, during an intermission when he met actress Greer Garson, co-producer of the presentation featuring Alec McCowen in "St. Mark's Gospel."
"It sounds like he just came away from the place where it happened," Carter continued.
Where it was happening was the East Room. Gilt chairs formed a semi-circle around a stark platform on which the only props for McCowen's two-hour performance were a table, a pitcher of water and a glass and a paperback version of "St. Mark's Gospel."
"I feel safe," McCowen told the audience. "I have a president for my prompter - indeed, I believe I have nearly 300 prompters here."
Intended by the Carters to draw attention to the 38th annual National Bible Week, McCowen's interpretation first came to Carter's attention during a visit he made to Newcastle, England. News of it spread, the president said, by "word of mouth" and later, a friend of Mrs. Carter's sent clippings from London telling of McCowen's stunning success.
Rosalynn Carter had taken the lead in drawing up the guest list, getting some assistance from such family members as the president's sister, evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton.
Mrs. Carter said she had invited primarily "friends and religious leaders, a lot of good friends we had worked with." Not surprisingly, the Carters' own denomination, Southern Baptists, was heavily represented.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. John M. Allin, was present but the ranking Roman Catholic in the country, Cardinal Terence Cooke, was not.
"I don't think there's any problem that Terence isn't here," said the Rev. Gilbert Hartke, of Catholic University. "It's a great ecumenical moment."
There were Methodists, Presbyterians, Seventh-Day Advantists and several of Ruth Stapleton's evangelical friends, including the Rev. Francis McNutt of Merton House of Prayer, St. Louis.
Uppermost on many minds was the Guyana tragedy. What bothered McNutt was "the aspirations of those people seemed to be so good, like getting black and white people living together in a lind of commune."
But the absolute control the Rev. Jim Jones had over his followers was alarming. "They had a leader who didn't seem to be under anyone else. One of the things we try to do, in the communities we work in, is to submit ideas to other people. I try to listen," said McNutt.
Entertainment preceded dinner in an unusual change of signals to accommodate the large crowd. A buffet supper of roast sirloin of beef, green beans with almonds and pumpkin pie was served in the State Dining Room but also in public rooms on the lower level.
President Carter told Greer Garson that he had arranged for her to sit at his table and was curious if she had learned the gospel along with McCowen, whose New York stage run she and Arthur Cantor had produced. "I learned quite a lot of it," she replied.
Later, the Carters flew by helicopter to Camp David where 27 members of their family gathered yesterday for Thankgiving dinner.