A lot of column inches were spilled over the sudden departure of Rev. Dr. Amy Butler from The Riverside Church in the City of New York last year. Most of them were about sex toys and a few about sexual harassment. But there is a much more complex story to tell.
From late 2018 through Spring 2019 I undertook a ‘deep dive’ with The Riverside Church in my capacity as a storyteller. I specialize in complex stories and my task was to help the church better understand itself in relation to its building and location.
This gave me the opportunity to meet a wide-range of staff and congregation, to plunder the archives and wander the vast labyrinth that is the Riverside building complex. By the end of this process it was a privilege to call many of the senior staff and lay leadership my friends. These are extraordinary people, for Riverside is an extraordinary church.
I should acknowledge up front: I’m not in a position to write with authority on the decision-making that led to Pastor Amy’s departure. There are internal processes unquestionably beset by internal factions, but anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Riverside’s history will know that this is simply the status quo. Riverside is a church that does politics in every sense of the word!
My times with Riverside were some of the most intriguing of my professional career. It is hard not to fall in love with the soaring gothic architecture, the striking artwork, and the views across Manhattan. I once snuck inside the bell-tower as the carillon was played and 70 single-cast iron bells intoned around me. I will remember the experience for the rest of my life.
But it is the people who make Riverside. Every class, race, gender and sexual orientation are present, day in, day out. It is a place of conflict, but also of community. For all its many failings it also achieves something of which much of America only dreams.
As someone who has found myself in the role of critical friend, I want to put this story in context. For me, this episode is about far more than Pastor Amy; it is about wider tensions that her presence exposed which are in turn about more than just The Riverside Church. These tensions tug along four lines: race, gender, theology, and ecclesiology. I will explore each in turn to try and make sense of what has happened to a church with a powerful legacy of prophetic activism and the most famous pulpit in America.
The story begins in the late 1920s when billionaire philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller Jr. is on the hunt for Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick. Rockefeller wants to build a new kind of church in Manhattan – interdenominational and international. Fosdick is like the anti-Billy Graham of his day; a mega-famous evangelist for the new Liberal Christianity that married Science with the Bible and encouraged critical thinking. Eventually Fosdick can escape Rockefeller no longer. The Riverside church is born, with Fosdick its first Senior Minister and Rockefeller its benefactor-in-chief.
Fast-forward two decades and Riverside has established a formidable reputation. Located just north of Columbia University in the Morningside Heights district of Manhattan, Riverside attracts the brightest and the best from among wealthy liberals intrigued by a new approach to religion. But down the street things are different.
I had the privilege of interviewing one of the ‘grandmothers’ of Riverside, an African-American who had lived in neighboring Harlem most of her life. She described how she would walk down Amsterdam as a child and look up the hill at the ‘white church’. That’s what they used to call Riverside then, because both its stone and its congregation were white.
Riverside is famous for its role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, most notably as the venue for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 Beyond Vietnam speech. It’s easy to forget now that his audience that day was predominantly white.
Imagine, then, what it meant when in 1989 Dr. James Forbes was appointed as Riverside’s first African-American Senior Minister. For black members who could remember, not much more than three decades previous, being prevented from sitting in the nave (they were quietly ushered up to the balcony instead), this was a truly momentous change.
But Dr. Forbes’ ministry was not just important for Harlem; it was also important for American Christianity. Here was a man with Pentecostal roots at the helm of America’s most important Liberal church. A new religious hybrid was being forged.
Over the following two decades the demographics of the church changed considerably. Riverside was not immune to the gradual decline affecting mainline American churches. But more significant was its identity. No longer was Riverside a church for Morningside Heights; now it was a church for Harlem.
After 18 years leading Riverside, Dr. Forbes retired. Dr. Braxton, also African-American, was appointed his successor but resigned just nine months into the job. Five years without leadership followed.
Take a walk through the streets surrounding the Riverside church and you will quickly become overwhelmed by Columbia University. Its $17bn endowment is hard at work at the western edge of Harlem, gobbling up and redeveloping land like The Blob. It’s part of a wider re-zoning schedule in the city, which allows for new private capital to ‘regenerate’ areas that are deemed to have lacked investment. As a result, Harlem is gentrifying rapidly. The iconic heart of black America is increasingly white.
2020 makes the symbolic 100-year anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance when the newly formed part of Manhattan exploded in a carnival of creativity. That Harlem only exists, however, because of the failure of Reconstruction following the Civil War. Measures to transfer land in the South to freed slaves were thwarted and the Great Migration followed. The sudden influx of African-Americans to Harlem was just one of many similar changes to cities all across the North-East. The Harlem Renaissance made it an icon for a black future everywhere, but also for the memory of a poisonous past.
It is not difficult to understand the dismay felt by some at Riverside when a white person stepped back into the pulpit. With Harlem slipping away it would have seemed that the gains for black culture at Riverside were to be lost as well. The systemic racism heaped on Harlem over generations is unyielding and Pastor Amy represented far more than her compassionate heart or courageous leadership could contain. Amy is no stranger to the complexities of race; her father is half-indigenous-Hawaiian and half-Chinese, and she has an adopted mixed-race daughter. But she presents as white, and each time she turned to face the congregation there are some who experienced it as a kick to the stomach and the soul.
For some people, however – some of them the very same people – Amy’s presence in the pulpit had, simultaneously, the exact opposite effect. It was no more unthinkable in Riverside’s early decades that the church could be led by a woman as it was to imagine an African-American leader. That it took 25 years longer to achieve at Riverside signals how male-dominated even a progressive church can be. Pastor Amy not only broke through the stained-glass ceiling, she made the voice of the church predominantly female. For Riverside, that was entirely new.
Along either side of the nave, about 30 feet up, runs the impressive triforium. In the 1930s, the Rockefellers and other wealthy families would sit there during the service, much like a box at a theatre. Legend has it that for the men of the triforium the most important part of a Sunday service was the ‘Peace’ (where congregants shake hands) as this was the moment it might be possible to slip John D. a business card.
With many of these men, Rockefeller and Fosdick founded the ‘Men’s Class,’ a study group whose identity was integral to Riverside for decades. Having fallen out of fashion, it was revived in recent years, though the racial makeup has changed dramatically in line with the congregation as a whole. It became, intentionally or not, a lightening rod for those antagonistic to Pastor Amy’s leadership.
The man who restarted the Men’s Class has been the subject of a formal investigation within the church after Pastor Amy reported that she and another female member of staff were subject to harassment. The church found the claims to be true, but the man in question was still able to get elected to a committee to which the other female staff member he harassed was accountable. The church council argued they are unable to prevent this situation due to the church’s bylaws. Getting the relevant bylaw changed was a sticking point in Pastor Amy’s ongoing contract negotiations.
This specific case of harassment, however, is only one part of a much bigger story. As with institutions all over America in the wake of #metoo, the church finds itself caught up in a much broader question about what counts as acceptable behavior and what processes exist to hold members and staff to account.
This increasingly became a theme for Pastor Amy. The politics of gender became a proxy for important questions about how we treat each other more generally. What standards of behavior are required to sustain a healthy community life? Can we not aspire to better?
In all of this, of course, Riverside is far from unique. It is, however, a church with a long history of very robust internal disagreement, partly shaped by its New York personality. What for some is unacceptable is for others part of the ultra-direct nature of life in a city that shows little mercy and demands a thick skin.
For a progressive church to use this as an excuse, however, is a fast-track to futility. Should black people get a thicker skin too? Not every comment sounds abusive in a vacuum, but when words occur within a context of repeated discrimination, meaning takes on new force. Many white people are blind to racism, regardless of their gender; many men are blind to sexism, regardless of their race. What persists, interminably, is privilege. For all it aspires to be different, Riverside still defaults to white and to male.
Shortly after Pastor Amy began her term at Riverside, the Washington Post ran an article asking if she could bridge the great divide in American Protestantism between Evangelicals and Mainline Liberals. Amy arrived at Riverside a self-confessed Evangelical, albeit one who had thoroughly reimagined most of its core ideals. Mainline churches had spent years in decline and Riverside had not escaped. As ex-evangelicals increasingly migrated to mainline denominations the question was whether Pastor Amy could help forge a new language and practice for 21st century American faith.
But the premise of the piece ignored one crucial fact. Under the leadership of Dr. Forbes the congregation had already lived through one of the most creative marriages in the history of American Christianity: of white Liberal Protestantism with black Pentecostalism.
The question should have been: how would Pastor Amy’s post-evangelical progressivism cohabit with that already-complex relationship?
Under Pastor Amy’s leadership, a decade-long decline was halted and the congregation began to grow again. But a lot of that growth was from disaffected ex-evangelicals, or people of no previous faith who found a new spiritual home. They are disproportionately younger and whiter and responded to Pastor Amy’s disarmingly open style. During her five years at Riverside she overhauled the staff team, and though the new team are diverse in many ways they are clearly weighted towards a ‘post-evangelical’ type of progressive Protestant culture.
The differences are nuanced, but the ‘feel’ is easier to discern. Though Evangelical and Pentecostal theology have significant overlap, the racially segregated nature of much of American Christianity means that ethnicity plays a big part in how that theology becomes part of a church’s culture. Riverside’s Liberal Pentecostalism drew on deep roots forged from struggle. For some, its post-evangelical progressivism feels shallow by contrast.
For Pastor Amy, however, the biggest challenge was something much more mundane. That she went by ‘Pastor Amy’ and not ‘Dr. Butler’ (as all her predecessors did) was not just a reflection of her Evangelical culture; it was a sign of a different relationship to the congregation and the task at hand. Yes she is an activist who will challenge societal injustice. But her focus, the site of what is in her eyes the greatest struggle, is community life together. For Pastor Amy, we don’t change the world just by standing up to our enemies; that’s the relatively easy task. It’s loving our neighbors that’s the real challenge.
Turns out she was right.
At least from one point of view. It’s easier to say, of course, the less you are personally threatened by enemies. The intersection of race, gender, and other identity markers with theology means that what matters most to a radically diverse church community is fiercely and continually contested.
Pastor Amy’s tenure at Riverside was not just about community, however. It was also about good institutional leadership, a subject about which she is both passionate and vocal. For all it is a church, Rockefeller’s legacy means it is also a major property manager and custodian of an $150m endowment. With a staff of 150 and a national platform, Riverside is a substantial non-profit organization.
One of the most curious features of Riverside’s history is that until the appointment of Amy Butler, executive leadership was almost entirely separate from the pulpit. Of all those famous preacher-leaders from Riverside’s history – Fosdick, McCracken, Campbell, Coffin and Forbes – not one of them had executive power in the church. In fact, two of them (Campbell and Coffin) resigned in frustration at their inability to get anything done.
Of course, the church had executive functions, but these were managed by committees of lay leaders and an Executive Minister, the background fixer who made sure everything actually worked and let the Senior Minister focus on preaching.
This is ecclesiological anathema to Pastor Amy, whose doctoral work was on how preaching intersects with institutional leadership. Riverside can hardly say they didn’t know what they were getting.
The fact is, by 2014, Riverside was struggling. After nearly five years without a Senior Minister the executive functions of the church were in disarray. Pastor Amy set about recruiting what has become widely regarded as a crack team to fix them. The church went through its first financial audit in 10 years. Senior communications staff told me that in the early days of Pastor Amy’s tenure they were trying to develop Riverside’s substantial national platform, but were constantly hampered by the failure of even the most basic processes, like getting an order of service printed for Sunday morning. It is beyond question that, institutionally speaking, Pastor Amy left Riverside in considerably better shape than she found it.
But the politics of church governance are not that simple. As an inter-denominational church, affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the American Baptists, the principle of congregational governance is strong at Riverside. The executive is accountable to the Church Council (and its various subcommittee), which is in turn accountable to the congregation. It is a very democratic ecclesiology.
There has been wide mistrust between staff and lay leaders over the course of Pastor Amy’s tenure, but the gulf had certainly narrowed. The executive aimed at much greater transparency, but transparency works two ways. While on one hand it helped restore trust in the staff, it also left fewer places for vested interests to hide. No subject at Riverside is more contested than the management of its money (Rockefeller’s spirit in the stone, perhaps). That one of the Executive Ministers (notably Riverside’s most senior black woman on staff) was the subject of repeated criticism by lay leaders over her attempts to make the church’s finances more transparent is a powerful example of the ongoing struggle for control.
The problem with all this, of course, is that nothing centralizes power more quickly than a crisis. Who sets the strategy, who decides on priorities, who manages the incomprehensibly complex workstream… if not the superstar staff team? The concern that the church might be losing the very thing that made it great – its self-organizing, messy, congregation-driven innovation – might not be without foundation.
Into the shoes of Rev. Dr. Amy Butler has stepped – for the time being at least – Rev. Michael Livingston, as interim Senior Minister. A white woman from the evangelical tradition with a strong executive leadership style has been deposed and replaced by a black man from the liberal tradition with a strong suspicion of executive leadership. Both are remarkable individuals, but this episode is not about them. It is about what they represent in the struggle for Riverside’s identity and future, opposite forces pulling simultaneously at all four of these tensions.
For me, the most emblematic moment in Riverside’s history is not Dr King’s speech on Vietnam, nor its decision to campaign on nuclear disarmament; it’s not the construction of an extraordinary building or the calling of an African-American, or a woman, to its pulpit. It is a lesser-known event – a long moment – that occurred in 1985. The Senior Minister, William Coffin, was away when Executive Minister, Channing Philips, delivered a sermon against homosexuality. It was very ‘the Bible says…’ – out of character for Riverside – and at the end a young ethics PhD student from Union got up and called those who disagreed with the sermon to join him around the altar. No moment has come closer to splitting the church in two, and the tussle had a strong racial dynamic. The people of Riverside, stuck at it, however, and four weeks later they had negotiated a ‘Statement of Openness, Inclusivity, and Affirmation of Gay/Lesbian Persons.’ The hero of the moment is not the statement, or even the process, but the culture. The relentless commitment to mutual respect despite angry differences is Riverside at its truest.
It is my view that the church has to find a new way to address the intersection of race and gender if it is to live up to its progressive ideals. Riverside is a church stacked full of remarkable, compassionate, thoughtful people whose historic reputation was forged through perpetual internal conflict. It has been Riverside’s capacity to not shy away from conflict, but to use the tension to collectively listen and learn, that marks it out as a great institution. They need that hard-won tradition now more than ever.