Robert McAfee Brown
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…
It is hard if not impossible for many of us, who studied at the feet of Professor Robert McAfee Brown, to hear these words spoken with anything other than his own excitement, spirit, and love.
Over time you will sift out for yourselves, at whatever age, the teachers who have not only informed but have formed you. Information is good. Transformation is really good. In that spirit it is hard to hear Ephesians 4 and to face the fact that our teacher Robert McAfee Brown is not here any longer to recite the passage.
We washed up on the venerable shore of Union Theological Seminary in the autumn of 1976, there to stay for the better part of three years. Dr. Brown came and left in the same time period, three short years. He was a Union man. He said, often, ‘you can always tell the Union people’. He meant by that the emphasis in life not only on a deep personal faith but also on an active social involvement. We here would quote Mr. Wesley, ‘there is no holiness save social holiness’, and add, ‘you can always tell the Boston people’.
President Shriver somehow convinced the Browns, Bob and Sydney, to come back from the sunny west coast to their alma mater, Union, where 2o years earlier they had come of age with Tillich, Niebuhr, Knox, Terrien, Heschel, Fosdick, Steimle, Scherer and all. Perhaps they felt they owed it to their forebears. The match lasted only briefly, but for those of us there in the same brevity, it was a brief shining moment. A transformational moment
The first Christmas, in what was to become a series of jovial parties, Robert McAfee Brown brought a stack of telegrams sent ostensibly from the North Pole. They played on ‘Claus’, one being a commendation of Union for affirming the ongoing ‘claus struggle’—workers of the world unite.
One spring he preached at the wedding of friends in James chapel, citing Jeremiah and ‘the old paths’. Strikingly, for that setting and those days, and much to my appreciation, he warned the couple that many things they could share with others, but not the most intimate things–‘dining room but not bedroom’ was the way he put it. I can hear the sermon as if it were given this morning.
The next autumn he invited about 10 couples to have dinner with him and his wife Sydney in their apartment along Riverside Drive. The Browns had invited also as their guest a relatively young Jewish scholar, recently connected to Boston University, but living and working also in New York. Brown was to provide later a new and moving introduction to a short book many of us have used and reused in teaching over decades. The book: NIGHT. The scholar: Elie Wiesel.
You see how information pales before transformation, how life stands out from work, how hospitality invades ingenuity. You see all too easily what homiletically the sermon is up to. You are, or will be, many of you, teachers and preachers still in 2060, but remembering perhaps the influence of Brown, born in 1920. Kierkegaard was right about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Mark that. We want to connect you, a generation behind us, with others, a generation ahead. The past is not dead, it is not even past.
Robert McAfee Brown is a model for many because he was an unapologetic generalist, in the forest of specialists. For him the fun of the university is the universal part. Oh, he had many specialties, over the year: theology, church history, world religions, liberation theologies, and others.
But Brown was a model because he continued to evolve, change and grow year in and out, decade by decade. He would celebrate the life of this University if he were here. He would attend the annual honored University Lecture, participate in the University Faculty, celebrate at University Commencement, Baccalaureate, Matriculation, attend University Chapel worship on Sunday, and read BU Today, day by day.
I see him walking the quadrangle. I peer at him in the refectory. I hand him in memory a book he has requested from the library stacks. I admire still their happy marriage, which lit and warmed and brightened just by manner of being, happy. I rue the lasting awfulness of death that takes such a life out of life–at least this life. I am grateful for the wealth of teachers and teaching I was given, whose full merit I could not appreciate, and whose full measure, I have not taken even to this day.
His wife Sydney Thomson Brown wrote: “Grounded in the traditional, the traditional never contained him.” (Memoir, 121).
The Ecumenical Revolution
At last, in the final year, there was a place in a class with Professor Brown. It was titled for one of his other specialties, and one of his books, THE ECUMENICAL REVOLUTION. Brown had been a protestant observer, in some ways THE protestant observer, at Vatican II. For the rest of his life, he exuded the spirit and theme of that remarkable Council: aggiornamento.
Now, Boston. Over the last several months we have faithfully, culturally remembered other anniversaries: I Have a Dream, the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, the death of JFK, and even this week the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. What have we remembered about Vatican II? James Carroll did write a compelling column in the fall, and a few others have done similar things. But in the main? We have missed the anniversary.
A thunderous silence somehow has hidden, this year, a great anniversary. A celebration that should have already begun. A festival! Yet, I have not heard or read a single word of it. Vatican II? Of this celebration, I hear nothing. Somebody needs to be throwing a party, a thirty year birthday party, a festival! So, rather than curse the media darkness–a not unenjoyable pastime–I today light one candle, one birthday candle.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism…
These years mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, 1962-1965. In the fall of 1965, Pope John the 23rd’s great three year meeting came to an end. So much went off-track in the 1960’s that we sometimes throw out the baby with the bath water in our generational sifting. We forget people and moments of genuine courage.
One Lord, One faith, One baptism…
Pope John 23, that happy, rotund, gracious, thankful Italian pastor, had an inspiration late one night in 1959. From the corners of the earth, he would gather church leaders, including non-catholics, to meditate on Paul’s teaching about “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”. The Council opened in the autumn 1962 and ended in the autumn 1965. The Bishop of Rome felt that the time had come for “aggiornamento”. A renewal. An updating. Change. Times were changing, and the church, he felt, would need to change with them. And yes, my teacher, Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian, attended and wrote the best available summary of the council, The Ecumenical Revolution.
Venerable, conserving, religious, beloved institutions can change to serve the present age. If you wonder whether anyone, anyway can ever bring renewal, updating…change (ooh…) then I see this birthday candle lit today. We remember R. M. Brown’s stories about John 23 and recall that fifty years ago a then 700 million member venerable, conservative, religious, beloved church—threw the windows open!
One Lord, One faith, One Baptism. One God and Creator of us all who is above all and through all and in all!
Aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change–can even come to big institutions, even churches, with the right leadership.
John 23 championed principles of change: constant reformation, study of the Bible, collegiality, religious freedom, the role of the laity, diversity, ecumenism, dialogue, and mission.
Here is the good news, from Ephesians, and from the portly Bishop of Rome, 1964: the church can change, and in so doing, can gain its life by losing it.
The pronouncement of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the lasting ultimate victory of substance over form!
After all, Ephesians 4: 1-7 was written by a student of St. Paul, as the early church was moving from diversity to unity, and finding its way toward an ecumenical shape, at the end of the first century.
I’m waiting for an invitation from somebody to attend a party! I hear nothing. As Gabriel Vahanian said at the time of those courageous council leaders, “the Catholics have become the real Protestants today.”
Three applications—serve, listen, change.
First. With all Christians, we serve one Lord. Aggiornamento today should mean for us, the freedom to serve.
An old documentary film depicts Mother Teresa visiting the tenderloin, red-light district of San Francisco. Teresa and three other Sisters of Mercy are shown touring one of the houses in this area, which they have bought to use as a haven for battered women. The contractor, who has recently renovated the beautiful 19th century great house, proudly guides the Saint of Calcutta through American opulence. He shows her the great hall, the carpeted rooms, the fine draperies, the posted beds, the ample lighting, the mirrors. He hopes she will admire the repairs to the porcelain in the baths. He has donated some of his labor and is clearly honored to be with this great woman. During the tour, Teresa says nothing, jotting a few notes.
As they return to the front door, the contractor asks Mother Teresa whether she will need anything else. The film focuses on her face, as she gives a quiet response. She thanks him for his work. She compliments the beauty of the house. She expresses admiration for such finery. Then she says: “the mattresses can stay. Everything else must go: the drapes, the mirrors, the beds, everything.” The contractor takes notes to undo his handy work, but cannot resist asking the saint at the end: “Mother, Why?” “Because, we are here for people. We cannot let any distraction interfere with our connection to these for whom Christ died. What matters is their healing, their life. We must not let anything get between us. We’ll keep the mattresses.”
Pope John Paul II once said: “You need courage to follow Christ…especially when you recognize that so much of our dominant culture is a culture of flight from God…” And Pope Francis: ‘who am I to judge?’
Paul Baumann: “In the emerging struggle against the spiritually stultifying effects of technological society, Protestants and Catholics need to join forces.”
Service can unite where doctrine divides. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Let your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Second, with all Christians we hold one faith. Aggiornamento today should mean for us the freedom to listen to others’ journeys.
One summer we shared a late Sunday dinner, with two very close friends, children of Vatican II, Catholics from the north country. It was a good dinner. Fish, potatoes, sunset, candles, and the quiet rosy warmth of friendship. When dusk comes, what do you have anyway, but your faith and your friends? Over dessert, we talked religion, which often we do. Coffee and dessert came, but the real end of the conversation eluded us. I wanted to know what worship meant for my friend. It was important to me, and maybe for that reason, I at last could hear her response. I had entered that prized moment when one suspends disbelief. What of the mass, the weekly eucharist, the liturgy? “I just feel so thankful”, she said. “I go to communion and I just feel so thankful.” In a quiet voice, with a full heart, she spoke God’s truth.
What a joy to see windows opened, and saving renewal occur. We know this well on a personal level, and hear it in each others’ stories.
In therapy, a man has the hurt of 20 years exposed to the healing light of acceptance. A clean wind blows upon his heart.
In surgery, a woman has the disease of a decade removed through the light of skilled hands. A clean wind blows upon her body.
In work, a man has the opportunity to fail, and does fail, and has his real calling suddenly exposed through the light of grace. A clean wind blows upon his life.
In marriage, a couple finally faces the truth: this is not going to work without some change. The anger of so many fitful nights is exposed. A clean wind blows upon their future.
Aggiornamento is real hard. And real good.
In fact, this year, our musicians are leading us home. Piece by piece they are presenting the Bach B Minor Mass. John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on Bach ‘like other biographers, ponders whether the work is Lutheran or Catholic…If Bach had lived longer it is likely that he would have created a definitive fair copy of the Mass…There he might have confirmed the Catholic nature of the whole…Bach’s music sets in order what life cannot’ (G Stauffer, NYRB, 2/20/14, 25).
Third, with all Christians we share one Baptism. Aggiornamento for us should mean the freedom to change our minds.
After fifty years, I think the church of John the 23rd still has some things to teach us all, especially bout Christ transforming culture–that is Augustine of Hippo. About feeling thankful. About the physical body, and respect for the body. About the Body of Christ, the church. About natural and moral law.
And so I light a birthday candle today. I am so thankful that I grew up in a time of aggiornamento–renewal, updating, change.
So I was advised by Raymond Brown, S.J., for eleven years was served by a Roman Catholic secretary, have shared countless weddings and funerals, enjoy the opportunity to teach, still, in a Jesuit school, am grateful for BU Professor Jay Corrin’s new book on liberal English Catholics in the 1960’s, and enjoy the fellowship of many traditions in the Boston Ministers’ Club. Without the Catholics in my life I would have been much less of a Protestant!
You know, life is a smorgasbord, and some of us are going hungry. I mean, others, different others, can teach us, show us, and help us. But we have to have the courage to think again, think twice, and change the mind.
I think of those who have given up their churches for the sake of the larger church. The leaders in Canada in 1925 who gave up the name Methodist and became part of the United Church. The leaders of the EUB in this country who gave up their name and history to become part of the United Methodist church. I remember my dean and friend, playfully asking, in one letter: “Is God a Methodist?” Maybe if we are really thankful for what counts we will become freer about what counts a little less. We may be able to move out of our religious families of origin with a little more ease.
“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”
We have a number of listeners to our broadcast in Albany, NY. The downtown churches there, some five of them or so, share the challenges of urban ministry, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist. Older buildings, smaller congregations, aging roofing, uncertain boilers, many empty pews. Twice each summer, though, and three times again during the year, all five come together in one sanctuary: the place is full, the hymns are sung well, the fellowship is warm. You wonder whether what they are doing now and then might well be done every week, and not just in Albany?
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.
Let our prayer be that of Thomas Aquinas:
Give us, O Lord,
steadfast hearts which no unworthy thought can drag downward
unconquered hearts, which no unworthy purpose can wear out
upright hearts, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside
Bestow upon us also, O Lord our God,
Understanding to know you
Diligence to seek you
Wisdom to find you
And a faithfulness that will finally embrace you
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(St. Thomas Aquinas)
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel