I am at the age when every year brings the death of someone precious to my life. Two of them in 2012 were Albert C. Winn and George B. Telford.
Having spent half my career in the North and half in the South, I have experienced no little distress when I mention the name “Al Winn” to northern Presbyterian friends to whom the name means nothing. I mourn this phenomenon, duplicated as it is when one mentions in some southern Presbyterian audiences names like Eugene Carson Blake and John Coventry Smith.
Al Winn was early-on one of my Presbyterian heroes. He enriched our summer youth conferences in Virginia’s Massanetta Springs with his quiet, firm teaching and preaching, always biblical and often grounded in his resonance for the Calvinist tradition. He would become a beloved Bible teacher in Davidson and Stillman colleges, the latter out of his devotion to educational excellence for young African Americans. He served as a lead pastor in a “larger parish” of congregations in rural Virginia. He joined the faculty of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and became its president. His service to the PCUS included a year as moderator. He never faltered in his public support of justice for African Americans. In his retirement he became a leader of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and wrote a book critical of the ease with which Christians accommodate to the rush of their country into war.
In the ‘60s, his path crossed that of George Telford, then Presbyterian University Minister in Auburn, Ala., and a colleague of John H. Leith. George arranged for white Presbyterian students of that university to meet with nearby black students for worship, dinner and conversation. At that, several elders in the Synod of Alabama charged him with “race mixing” and sought to have him fired. The synod appointed a committee to investigate the charge. With Al Winn as its chairman, George said, he knew how the investigation would turn out: it would affirm the unsegregatable communion of the saints.
Like Al Winn, George Telford was endowed with multiple talents. He catalyzed serious study of theology and ethics in his Blacksburg and Charlottesville congregations. He practiced Calvin’s high regard for the political vocation in his regular involvement in both denominational and public responses to the Civil Rights struggle. He honored the Calvinist administrative side of churchmanship in diligent partnerships with local ruling elders and by accepting election to major responsibilities in the senior staff management teams of the denomination, first in Atlanta and then in Louisville. He played a major role in the National Council of Churches, especially in its attention to political justice for both Palestinians and Israelis. At his death in February 2012, he was chair of our denomination’s ecumenical commission.
When I remember Al Winn and George Telford, I celebrate their models of ministry that integrated deep theological rootage, ethical witness, administrative vigor, collegiality and genuine piety.
For Al, that combination came to a climax when the southern church asked him to chair a committee charged with writing a fresh “Declaration of Faith.” The resulting work, of which he became principal author, summarized decades of new southern Presbyterian labor in biblical studies. The language of this confession included ethical dimensions lacking in the texts of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds: justice for women, the poor and our ailing earth environment.
The PCUS “Declaration of Faith” never made it into the new Book of Confessions of the united church of 1983. But the legacy of Al Winn’s witness comes to life every Sunday now when a Presbyterian congregation recites some portion of the “Brief Statement of Faith” that did make it into the book. The words of that confession are almost all derived from the longer confession authored so faithfully by Al Winn.
Thank you, Lord of the Church, for these two partners in the Gospel. We Presbyterians are what we are because of the likes of them, South and North.
DONALD SHRIVER JR. is president emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary (New York City) and author of “An Ethic for Enemies.”