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Installing a Pastor (& Maurice McCracken)
I recently (Fall 2003) attended
the installation ceremony of a new pastor
at Balmoral Presbyterian Church, in Memphis, Tennessee.
ceremony of the Presbyterian Church - U.S.A. is an impressive and
solemn ceremony, with elaborate and sonorous phrases, as well as some
that sound more contractual, taken from the Book of Order of the
Presbyterian Church. But I was startled at some of the memories
summoned forth, of the circumstances under which I became aware of
Book of Order, more than 40 years ago during my formative days in
Having been raised by religiously knowledgeable
Jewish parents, I was at first somewhat out of place at Kenyon College,
an Episcopal college northeast of Columbus, Ohio. But it was
completing a mathematics major there that I developed my rather
eclectic interest in religion, and especially in religious toleration
and interreligious cooperation. And one of the main influences on that
was the Rev. Maurice McCracken (1905-1997), of Cincinnati, Ohio.
There was a divinity school attached
to the college in those
days, and I think it was some of the divinity students who invited
Rev. McCracken to speak at Kenyon in about 1961. He was a Presbyterian
minister from the poor West End of Cincinnati, the inner-city
neighborhood in the flats beside the Ohio River.
I'm not the right source for an accurate
history of this
remarkable man, and my undergraduate memories don't yield precise dates
and sequences. But I visited him several times in Cincinnati, attending
his church there, and corresponded with him for about ten years.
He was a tireless worker
for integration and for nonviolence.
He was a wonderful guide to me when I was wondering what an
undergraduate could do about these issues, and often had useful and
moderate advice for college-age activists. His invitation to
Kenyon came about, I think, because he had integrated his church in
Cincinnati, shall we say, "prematurely," and was having great
difficulties with his Presbytery (the local Presbyterian governing
body.) His church in Cincinnati was one of the few racially
groups I knew in 1962.
His stance on pacifism was
more extreme, and it was a
remarkable and exceptional privilege, as I turned 18 and the Vietnam
War developed, to be able to talk with someone whose position was far
more radical than mine ever became. It was easy to find people
the right" to talk to, but there were in those days very few on my
left with whom I could discuss all options calmly and with mutual
McCracken, I learned,
went so far as to advocate refusing
to pay federal taxes, as a means of war protest. I believe he tried
to live on an income too small to incur a federal tax.
As the war
grew and the church of which he was the pastor became more radical,
he even advocated tax refusal to his parishioners. At this point
the United Presbyterian Church felt it had little choice: he was
defrocked by the national organization.
Many in his congregation
were not willing to simply let him
go and find another pastor. In the Presbyterian Church the building
is owned by the governing body, not the individual congregation. The
Presbytery demanded possession of the building.
McCracken's followers bought an
old house across the street,
to serve as a new church. The downstairs served as sanctuary, with
the pastor's residence upstairs. There was just enough extra space
for me to unroll a sleeping bag on my visits. The people were
warm as ever, and always had thoughtful ideas for an undergraduate
from a largely white college wondering what to do about the issues
of the day.
The Presbyterian Church
caught up with these people quickly,
I think, on civil rights issues, and never went to the extreme
McCracken went to in his pacifism. But watching a new church set up
was a valuable educational experience for me. Some of the fondest
memories of my college days are of traveling all the way from
northeastern Ohio to Cincinnati to attend that church, the first
truly united and warm interracial group I had encountered in those
rocky days of the Civil Rights movement. (I've remained Jewish,
and also felt free to attend interesting churches, ever since.)
And I'm reminded of all
this today since it brings to mind
the first time I ever heard of the Presbyterian Book of Order – as
church members talked about what features from that book would -not-
be used in installing Maurice McCracken as pastor of the Community
Church of West Cincinnati, on Dayton Street.
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