Protestant Icons Post Job Vacancy Signs

The Christian Century, September 4, 2007 | Go to article overview

Protestant Icons Post Job Vacancy Signs


When Bob Edgar announced that he was stepping down as head of the National Council of Churches, someone suggested that he might apply for the soon-to-be-vacant pulpit across the street at the historic Riverside Church. Or perhaps a better fit might be yet another nearby position on Manhattan's Upper West Side--the soon-to-be-vacant presidency at Union Theological Seminary, where Joseph C. Hough Jr. is retiring.

As it turned out, Edgar, a former Democratic member of Congress, returned to Washington to head the public advocacy group Common Cause.

The departures of Edgar from the NCC, Hough from Union Seminary and James Forbes from Riverside are leaving three venerable--some might say vulnerable--icons of liberal Protestantism with "Help Wanted" signs on their doors.

While coincidental, the three vacancies have made for a unique situation for the church organizations sharing the same neighborhood. It so happens that Forbes studied and taught at Union, Hough regularly worships at Riverside, and Edgar occasionally preached from Riverside's pulpit.

Union has produced generations of leaders for pulpits like Riverside, the soaring Gothic church built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1920s. The NCC, meanwhile, emerged in the 1950s to push publicly the progressive social justice message taught at places like Union and preached at churches like Riverside.

The three institutions once helped define the American Protestant establishment, just as resurgent conservatives have since redefined the U.S. religious landscape.

For his part, Hough, 74, says the change simply represents "a passing of the baton from one generation to another." (Forbes is 71 and Edgar is 64.)

All three men say they're optimistic that liberal Protestantism--the interwoven mix of Christian gospel, political activism and the quest for social justice--may actually be reemerging as a serious force.

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