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Famed Unitarian preacher Forrest Church dies at 61

(RNS) The Rev. Forrest Church, perhaps the nation’s best known Unitarian Universalist preacher, died Thursday (Sept. 24) after a three-year battle with cancer that shaped his final years of ministry into an extended reflection on death and dying. Church, 61, had been pastor of New York’s Unitarian Church of All Souls for more than 30 […]

(RNS) The Rev. Forrest Church, perhaps the nation’s best known Unitarian Universalist preacher, died Thursday (Sept. 24) after a three-year battle with cancer that shaped his final years of ministry into an extended reflection on death and dying.

Church, 61, had been pastor of New York’s Unitarian Church of All Souls for more than 30 years, transforming a once-sleepy parish of 100 worshippers into a flagship pulpit that regularly attracted crowds of 1,000 or more.

Church died of esophageal cancer, a condition that caused him to step down as senior pastor in 2006 and take on the title of minister of public theology. During his illness, he wrote two books, including his most recent, “Love and Death.”

His 25th and final book, “The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology,” will be published in November.

“I skipped shock and disbelief and anger and resentment,” he said of his illness, in an interview last year with the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” “I went directly to acceptance.”

The key, he said, was being able to settle unfinished emotional business.

“The only way to reconcile yourself, make peace with yourself, make peace with your neighbor, make peace with God, find salvation, is to break through and love — to forgive and to love.”

Church, the son of the late Idaho Sen. Frank Church, was barely 30 when he was tapped to lead All Souls in 1978. He had little pulpit experience and was still finishing his doctoral degree but accepted the call as All Souls’ ninth senior pastor.

He quickly distinguished himself as a sought-after preacher and author, and led All Souls toward a more public presence, especially around the issue of HIV/AIDS in 1980s. “AIDS is a human disease and deserves a humane response,” read the 10,000 New York City bus ads sponsored by the congregation.

“My father wasn’t beloved because he was a larger than life pulpit-legend,” wrote his son, Frank, on All Souls’ Web site. “It was because he battled and accepted his failures, successes and his humanity with such transparency and inclusion that despite the obvious pain, suffering and trials he endured, he was healed emotionally, spiritually, and personally by everyone around him.”

Church is survived by his wife and mother, a brother, two children and two stepchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday (Oct. 3) at All Souls.