c. 1998 Religion News Service
INDIANAPOLIS _ When Paul A. Crow Jr., became an Eagle Scout, he wanted his friend, Mug, to be there. The award was to be presented to the 13-year-old at his church, First Christian in Lanett, Ala. Mug, a Roman Catholic, happily accepted the invitation.”The day before, he said, `I can’t come. My priest says if I go in that building, it’ll be a mortal sin,'”recalled Crow in his soft Southern accent.
At the end of the year, Crow will retire as the chief ecumenical officer of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
His office in the Disciples headquarters is filled with photographs of and with popes, a variety of Eastern Orthodox icons and numerous other treasures from his 45 years in the ecumenical movement. It’s been a career replete with deep theological discussions and high-level meetings with popes and patriarchs and other Christian leaders of every stripe.
Still, Crow traces his desire to bring churches together to his Eagle Scout experience more than half a century ago.”Ecumenism has never been for me a kind of theoretical vision; it’s been very much related to my own life and my own experience, watching how the divisions of the church really do hurt people’s lives,”he said.
Crow had earlier career prospects _ to play baseball for the New York Yankees and to be a research chemist. The latter almost became a reality, as he had a job offer from DuPont Pharmaceuticals. Then, between his junior and senior years at the University of Alabama,”I had a moment of truth in which I suddenly decided I’d been called to the ministry,”he said.
So, instead of DuPont’s labs, Crow went to Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky. After serving as a minister of several congregations in Alabama, Kentucky and Massachusetts, and earning an advanced degree at Hartford Theological Seminary, he returned to Lexington to teach church history at his alma mater.
Leaving Lexington Theological Seminary in 1968 to serve as general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, an effort that at first envisioned the merger of many of the major mainline Protestant denominations, was a difficult decision. However, he reasoned, COCU would lead to a united church within five or six years, and then he would return to teaching.”That began a new phase of my ministry,”Crow said. The COCU process has been anything but short or easily accomplished.”The genius of COCU is that it seeks to be a church `truly catholic, truly evangelical and truly reformed’ … which says it’s rooted in the tradition, but it’s also contemporary. It seeks to embrace a diversity, and yet it seeks to find how that diversity can live in unity and in communion. COCU has the most adequate vision for the American churches, in my judgment.” He also pointed to the fact that three of the nine churches involved in COCU are African-American.”One of the deepest scandals of American Christianity is that the church is divided along racial lines,”he said.
Crow remains hopeful for COCU, although it has been a point of controversy for many churches who fear such union will compromise their identities and the goal itself has been modified to reflect that reality.”There is more commitment to divisions than to unity,”Crow said.”The denominational pattern is just embedded in the American Christian psyche.” The Rev. James O. Duke of Fort Worth represents the Disciples on COCU’s Committee on Theology. He described Crow as”wise and experienced, a combination which is rare and precious.” Duke said he has found a good example in Crow’s resilience at times when COCU agreements came very close to passing, but didn’t. While his own emotions were on a roller coaster ride,”Paul had a perspective about the debate process. He’s the master at it.” It was dialogue, rather than debate, that Crow sought for the Disciples with the Roman Catholic Church more than 20 years ago. By this time, he had taken his current position as president of the Disciples’ Council on Christian Unity.”I concluded in my first six months in this office that any church that’s not in significant dialogue with the Catholic church is on the fringes of ecumenism,”he said.
The Disciples and the Roman Catholic Church”have more in common than we ever dreamed of,”he added.”Roman Catholics have discovered that we are a church deeply committed to Christian unity. They’ve also discovered that we are a eucharistic church, that the Lord’s Supper is the central defining moment for Disciples.” Brother Jeff Gros, associate director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs of the National Council of Catholic Bishops, has known Crow for more than 30 years. He said that it’s difficult for the Vatican to understand relatively young, American-born churches such as the Disciples.”His work to build a bridge there has been very important,”he said.
First with his writings, and then in person, Crow has been a mentor to the Rev. Thomas J. Murphy, ecumenical officer of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.”I think there’s a respect between (Catholics and Disciples); there’s a continuing challenge and tension to share positions,”he said.”It’s not a debate. It’s a reflection of respect and desire to bring people closer together.” Crow understands the ecumenical movement as a process:”It comes with detours, delays and deep spiritual crises along the way,”he said.”We’re at one of those moments. I accept that.” Some of his most painful moments have been when people have been willing to jettison Christian unity in favor of other goals, he said. He fears losing the Eastern Orthodox churches to the ecumenical movement, whose gifts and traditions he deeply values, over differences about how unity should be pursued. During stressful times in the office, he studies a colorful batik wall hanging which bears the message,”We struggle in Christ.” Crow and the Rev. John Thomas, ecumenical officer of the United Church of Christ, represent their denominations in the ecumenical partnership the two share. Thomas said that Crow’s passion for history helps put present ecumenical work in context.”You have to recognize you’re part of a chain of people across time making this happen,”Thomas said.”It doesn’t all get done in your lifetime.” Crow’s wide-ranging friendships, which he has been willing to share, help maintain his clarity of vision, Thomas added.
There is more unity among Christians now than 25 years ago, Crow said, adding that in retirement he plans some writing projects which reflect on the history and present state of the ecumenical movement.”We do need to give people the sense of hope that remains,”he said.
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However, he added with a smile, his two major goals are playing with his grandchildren and planting a flower garden in the back yard of the home he shares with Mary Matthews Crow, his wife of 43 years.
Crow will present the prestigious Peter Ainslie Lecture Nov. 8 in Indianapolis. The annual lecture on global ecumenism will be at 4 p.m. EST at Christ Church Cathedral, followed by a reception and dinner in Crow’s honor. The Rev. Peter Ainslie was the founder of the Disciples’ Council on Christian Unity. For more information, call (317) 635-3113, ext. 273.
DEA END CROWE