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Presbyterian ethics professors mark major transitions

Five Presbyterian ethicists are remembered for their steadfast and numerous contributions

by Christian T. Iosso | Special to Presbyterian News Service

During its meeting earlier this month, the Society of Christian Ethics remembered five Presbyterian ethicists who died in 2023. (Photo by Ray Roberts)

The annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in Chicago, Jan. 4-8, showed a great generational transition in the professors who teach religious ethics in seminaries, divinity schools, colleges and universities. The SCE is an ecumenical professional association of almost 1,000 members, including as many as 90 Presbyterians in recent years.

This year, a Presbyterian, Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters, an expert on globalization and reproductive rights at Elon University, became President-elect. Another Presbyterian, the Rev. Dr. Preston N. Williams, long-time professor at Harvard Divinity School and founding director of its W.E.B. DuBois Institute, won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in political, economic, and bio-medical ethics and volunteer service, including for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

At the same time, the meeting included Memorial Minutes for an unprecedented five Presbyterian members who died during 2023, including 99-year-old Dr. Edward L. Long, a co-founder of the Society, its historian, and a contributor to many General Assembly policies on war and peace.

The Presbyterian ethicists have an association, the Social Ethics Network, which meets in connection with the SCE meeting. This meeting also marked their change in leadership, with outgoing co-chairs Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and Dr. James Calvin Davis, of Middlebury College, welcoming a four-person team of successors: the Rev. Dr. Aaron Stauffer, of Vanderbilt Divinity School; the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the PC(USA)’s Center for the Repair of Historical Harms; Dr. SueJeanne Koh, of the Humanities Center at the University of California, Irvine; and Dr. Tanner Capps, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

The Social Ethics Network also continues a long informal relationship with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, as many of the Presbyterian ethicists have volunteered or consulted over the years on studies for the General Assembly. The Rev. Dr. Dhawn Martin, an ethicist with congregational, seminary, and university experience, became Coordinator of the Advisory Committee in May of 2023, and thus coordinates with the Social Ethics Network as well.

The five distinguished Presbyterians remembered at the Society of Christian Ethics Meeting were:

  • Dr. Edward Leroy Long, Jr., who taught at Oberlin College and Drew University and authored “A Survey of Christian Ethics” among many books, in addition to his contributions to General Assembly policies, such as “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling” (1980). The Rev. Dr. Mark Douglas, professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, presented his remembrance.
  • Dr. Lois Gehr Livezey, who taught at Princeton and McCormick Theological Seminaries and authored several works in urban ethics, in addition to collaborating on “Turning Mourning Into Dancing” (a General Assembly policy on domestic violence), among her denominational contributions. The Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso, Coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy from 2005-2020, presented her remembrance.
  • Dr. Franklin I. “Chris” Gamwell, longtime professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, co-founder of Protestants for the Common Good, and contributor to ecumenical and Presbyterian thinking on metaphysics as well as political and governance ethics, was remembered by Dr. Joseph Pettit, professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
  • The Rev. Dr. Dieter T. Hessel, Director of the Committee on Social Witness Policy (1986-1990), after long service starting in the Board of Christian Education in Philadelphia and continuing in the Program Agency in New York, authored and edited many books, going back to “Reconciliation and Conflict” (on the Confession of 1967) and including pioneering works on environmental ethics. Peters presented Hessel’s memorial minute.
  • Dr. William F. May, who taught biomedical, professional, and political ethics at Indiana, Georgetown, and Southern Methodist Universities, author of “A Physician’s Covenant,” “Beleaguered Rulers,” and “Testing the National Covenant,” among other works, was also active in The Hastings Center in bioethics and the American Academy of Religion. Dr. Robin Lovin, his successor at Southern Methodist University, presented the memorial minute.

Within the eco-system of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it is impossible to quantify the impact of those five productive scholars on the thinking of ministers and members, on the quality of the General Assembly’s witness, and on the teaching of the professors now rising in leadership. This brief report could not mention many others present. The reading of the memorial minutes (all available on the Society of Christian Ethics website) took a brief slice of time from the discussions of academic papers and current challenges, such as the devastating war in Gaza, refugees and the climate crisis. Yet the proceedings of that academic society remind us that the church is a community of friendship, memory and hope for each one of us.

In conversation after his Lifetime Achievement Award, Williams recalled the Presbyterian scholarship for travel he had received as a student from the former Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, and the example he and his wife, Connie, now appreciate from Grey Panther Maggie Kuhn, whose pioneering challenges to age discrimination were edited by Hessel, then at the beginning of his career. Alongside those very Presbyterian memories, we may apply Lovin’s words about May in gratitude for the larger work of Christian ethics: to “le(a)d [its] audiences to understand the stabilizing power of moral philosophy and Christian theology in a world that all too often seems disoriented and demoralized.”

The Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso serves as interim minister of the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church in Union, New Jersey.

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