I head down to Cape Cod this weekend to mourn the death and celebrate the life of my friend Gabe Fackre. Gabe was very important to my life. I knew him first as my seminary teacher, then my mentor, later a faithful colleague and a life-long friend. Most of all he encouraged me again and again in my ministry.
Gabe came to Andover Newton Theological School in 1970, the year before I did. It was really after seminary that we connected on a deep level. We were members of a covenant group of pastors and professors called the Highland Covenant, a group of about twenty of us, who met periodically at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church (where I was ordained). We prayed for each other and kept in touch with each other by way of round-robin letters.
But I really got to know Gabe through two of his important projects: the Craigville Colloquy and the Confessing Christ movement. When I say Gabe encouraged me in my ministry it was often because he talked me into something or he talked me out of something.
What did he talk me into? Let me count the ways. It was Gabe who encouraged me to attend the first Craigville Colloquy, where I ended up on the drafting committee of the First Craigville Letter to the Churches, a salient document in the United Church of Christ. That was a very significant event in my life.
It was Gabe who invited me to go with him to the very first Mercersburg Society Meeting. A van load of us (including Jim Crawford, Joe Bassett, Herb Davis, Horace Allen, and Ruth Duck) drove down from Andover Newton to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for that historic event.
It was Gabe who recommended me to be on the Committee on Ecclesiology for the UCC. Gabe got me involved with the Lutheran/Reformed dialog. Gabe encouraged me to publish a number of articles in journals. Gabe talked me into submitting and delivering two papers at Craigville. Gabe invited me to contribute to the book in his honor Story Lines. And it was Gabe who invited me in on the founding of Confessing Christ. Gabe also helped to get my book on the Atonement published and wrote an extraordinary Foreword to it.
But just as important were the things he talked me out of. For example, he talked me off a ledge more than once when I became frustrated with something the United Church of Christ was doing. I would call him up in a lather, and he would patiently listen while I ranted and then he would gently remind me, “You know, there are no ecclesiastical safe harbors, Rick.” He encouraged many of his former students in this manner.
Ordained in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, he was always loyal to the United Church of Christ. He spent his life advocating for the Christian faith, and for the “generous orthodoxy” he believed in. While firm in his beliefs he was a patient and humble conversation partner with those who disagreed with him.
I think in America he was often underappreciated as a significant 20th century theologian. On my sabbaticals in the UK I met several importand theologians who knew him and his work, such as Colin Gunton and Nicholas Lasch. Gabe’s books could be found in the theological bookshops in Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews. His long relationship with Eerdmans Publishing resulted in over thirty books. His narrative approach in his multi-volume The Christian Story has undergirded the theology of hundreds of his students and others.
One of Gabe’s important contributions was to be in dialog with Christians across the entire theological spectrum. He believed in what P.T. Forsyth called “the Great Church.” He often referred to himself as an “Evangelical Ecumenical” and at other times as an “Evangelical Catholic.”
In this regard I believe Gabe singlehandedly kept the United Church of Christ in the Lutheran Reformed Dialog and its subsequent agreement. As a united church we didn’t fit the same mold as a clearly confessional church. The Lutherans were suspicious of us because we couldn’t point to a body of binding confessions as they could. Likewise, the Presbyterians and Reformed Church in America weren’t convinced we were purely “Reformed” enough. Gabe carefully walked our conversation partners through our history and polity, pointing to our rich theological heritage and our many historical creeds/confessions and other theological statements. He also showed them the theology embedded in the Preamble to the UCC Constitution and other documents such as our Book of Worship and our hymnals. In the end we were accepted, and are in full communion with the ELCA, RCA and United Presbyterian Church. This may sound unimportant, but on a practical level in means cooperation between congregations in many communities, and on a symbolic level it embodies the UCC’s historical commitment to be a “united and uniting church” living toward Jesus’s prayer “that they all may be one.”
Finally I must say something about Gabe’s personal faith. A man of prayer, Gabe and his wife Dorothy were models of the devout Christian life. He would say that his Christian faith consisted of “core” and “care.” Core” was the foundational “Christian Story” and “care” was all that naturally flowed from it: his care for others, his concern for the poor, his work for civil rights and on behalf of justice and peace. I give thanks to God for this wonderful man and for all he has meant to me and to the church of Jesus Christ. May he rest in peace and rise in glory!
(Photos: “books” courtesy of Eerdmans, Gabe speaking at the Craigville Colloquy courtesy of Jane Ellingwood)