Recently I received an unsolicited book in the mail. As a minister and as a blogger, I sometimes receive unsolicited books in the mail, usually on topics in which I have no interest, and I generally toss them straight into the recycling bin. Upon opening the envelope, I read the title of the book, Being Alive and Having To Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church, and having no interest in Forrest Church I headed for the recycling bin. But before I tossed the book, I thought to myself, “I wonder if the author dared tackle Church’s sexual misconduct?” The author did dare, so I decided to read on.
Dan Cryer, the author of Being Alive and Having To Die, portrays Forrest Church as having come from privilege. The son of Frank Church, a prominent U.S. Senator, Forrest Church could trace his ancestry back to the Mayflower through both his mother and his father. He grew up in large part near Washington, D.C., in a county with the highest per-capita income in the country. His father went to Stanford University, and that’s where Forrest received his undergraduate degree. Although he was estranged from his father during the late 1960s, as were so many upper middle class young men of his generation, he once avoided arrest because U.S. Forest Service troopers liked his father’s pro-conservation initiatives in the Senate. Forrest Church continued following his father’s footsteps: his father had gone to Harvard Law School, and after a year at Pacific School of Religion Forrest transferred to Harvard Divinity School.
He married Amy Furth when they were both undergraduates at Stanford. Cryer’s descriptions of their marriage makes Forrest Church sound like a male chauvinist pig, e.g., “…the young husband did have a bad habit of wounding Amy by making important decisions without consulting her” (p. 65). Beginning in 1976, Church began having affairs with other women, although he himself “declined to characterize these as ‘affairs'” (p. 188). After he was called to the prestigious pulpit of All Souls Unitarian in New York (in “that nation’s wealthiest ZIP code”[p. 110]) in 1978, the affairs continued, though not with members of the congregation. By 1991, the marriage of Amy and Forrest Church “had been shaky for a long time” (p. 187). It was in that year that the whole thing blew up.
Forrest Church had begun a serious affair with a member of his congregation, Carolyn Buck Luce, in 1990. He was infatuated with Buck Luce, and they began having secretive sex in a friend’s apartment, even though both were still married, and both had school aged children at home. Church publicly announced to his congregation that his marriage was ending, but he did not announce that he was sleeping with another member of the congregation. Rumors began to spread. Things quickly got ugly, not least because Amy was the well-liked director of religious education at All Souls. This passage from the book gives a small sample of the ugliness:
To the board of trustees, Amy insisted that her husband ought to be forced to take a leave of absence. Hearing this demand, Church shouted to [associate minister John] Buehrens that “someone had to control that woman.” (p. 192)
The conflict went well beyond staff. The church’s scholar-in-residence, Louis Pojman, passed out copies of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) ethical guidelines, which even at that time prohibited sexual practices which endangered the integrity or professional effectiveness of a minister (pp. 194-195). The congregation became divided, and in a recall vote 136 people voted to remove him as minister, while 370 voted to affirm him as minister (p0. 206-207). “Several hundred” people eventually left All Souls (p. 211); I note in passing that surely their departure represented an endangerment of Forrest Church’s professional effectiveness.
And the conflict spread beyond the walls of All Souls. John Buehrens was running for president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and while campaigning he was asked about Church’s lack of sexual discretion. The New York newspapers picked up the story, not just the tabloid scandal sheets, but even the New York Times. Finally the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer picked up the story, running it under the typically lurid headline “Preacher’s Love Triangle Sparks Unholy Scandal in the Pulpit” (p. 212). Yes, it turns out that some of those stories in the National Enquirer are actually based on fact.
Cryer displays an obvious bias in favor of Forrest Church; this is understandable given that Cryer has been a member of All Souls since 1994, so Forrest Church was his minister, his pastor. Nevertheless, Cryer is objective enough to point out that Church made serious mistakes and did damage to the congregation and to the people around him: those several hundred people who left All Souls; the serious damage to Church’s wife and family, particularly his son. Cryer also points out how Church damaged the larger cause of liberal religion, by allowing religious conservatives and others to mock him, and liberal religion (e.g., pp. 202-203).
Perhaps most damning, Cryer indicates that Church never really felt any real remorse, as in the following passage where Lee Barker is getting ready to represent Church in an ethics hearing before the UUMA:
Previously, Barker had been worried that his “client” [i.e., Church] would seem anything but humble during his interview. He needed to project that he had “learned his lesson.” Barker’s advice: “Don’t defend what you did. Because he was kind of in the mood of ‘Well, you know, it wasn’t so bad.’ I remember going to a restaurant before we went into the meeting and saying, ‘I’m just going to kick you in the shins if you don’t appear chastened enough.’ He was able to pull it together, but I actually remember having to interrupt him with kicks a couple of times.”
Church got off with a “slap on the wrist” from the UUMA (p. 218). And denominational headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) apparently did even less: even though Church himself “admitted that he had broken the letter of the denomination’s ethical code,” Cryer does not report any action taken by the UUA against Church (pp. 214-215).
Cryer also documents two other serious weaknesses that Church had. First, there’s Church’s long-standing alcoholism, and the “ego and hubris” (p. 247) that allowed Church to remain in denial about his addiction for a long time. Second, there’s Church’s workaholism that led him to do things like write three books in one summer, at the expense of time spent with Amy and their children. While it would be difficult to prove a causal connection between the alcoholism, the workaholism, and the adultery, Cryer allows us to infer that there was some kind of connection.
At the same time, Cryer points out Church’s many strengths. When Church was called to All Souls, average attendance was about a hundred (p. 111), and by the time he left there were several times that number. Church could be an excellent pastor, with the ability to touch the lives of people in need. Church’s sermons and books have provided inspiration to many people, and he was a charismatic, well-known, and media-friendly public advocate for liberal religion.
At the end of the book, Cryer attempts to show how Church repaired some of the damage he caused to his congregation (it was not clear to me to what extent Church repaired any damage he caused to his family), and how Church finally confronts his own death with something that can be called grace. As a Universalist myself, I want to believe the upbeat tone of these last three chapters: knowing too well all the stupid things I have done in my life, knowing that I have the potential to do things that are even more stupid, I want to believe that we can all be redeemed. But these last chapters read more like hagiography than biography, and I think we’ll have to wait for a more objective book to assess what happened in Church’s life after the sexual misconduct.
Until that more objective biography is written, Being Alive and Having To Die remains an excellent case study of a prominent instance of sexual misconduct by a liberal religious clergyperson. We watch the rise of a charismatic man, a public intellectual and a gifted minister, who is dogged by addiction to alcohol and work, who neglects his family and and displays “emotional naivete,” and who eventually winds up committing serious sexual misconduct. We watch with something of horror as the situation explodes, hurting many people. And we watch as people struggle to deal with a difficult situation. This is an excellent book for anyone who is trying to better understand how clergy misconduct happens.
Being Alive and Having To Die can be pre-ordered online from the independent cooperative Seminary Coop Bookstore. Friends don’t let friends buy from Amazombie — buy from an independent bookstore instead!
Updated 10/21: Several typos fixed; factual error corrected and citation added regarding All Souls attendance. Thanks to Scott Wells for the link to the New York Times article.