Some churches like other places are struggling with memorials to Confederate notables. The National Cathedral has debated two windows honoring Lee and Jackson. In Richmond, the Episcopal church traditionally called the “cathedral of the Confederacy” has removed some of its homage to Civil War southern partisans.
These controversies came to mind as I led our summer interns on a tour of beautiful Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. yesterday. Amid memorials to Methodist notables from the congregation’s history was a large marble remembrance of Justice Harry Blackmun. He authored the 1973 Supreme Court ruling creating a nationwide right to abortion, since which there have been 60 million American abortions. It was his most significant historical achievement, of which he remained proud until the end of his long life.
The New York Times described Blackmun as a “devout Methodist.” He was an active member and lay reader at Metropolitan Church, where his 1999 funeral seems to have honored his role in Roe v. Wade. It’s not unreasonable to assume that his denomination’s early initial support for abortion on demand, decided at the 1970 United Methodist General Conference, influenced Blackmun’s ruling. There’s an unconfirmed story that he wrote part of the ruling at the United Methodist lobby building on Capitol Hill across from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Perhaps with his own United Methodist Church in mind, Blackmun wrote in Roe: “It may be taken to represent also the position of a large segment of the Protestant community, insofar as that can be ascertained; organized groups that have taken a formal position on the abortion issue have generally regarded abortion as a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family.”
It should be noted that United Methodism’s 1970 pro-abortion shift was strongly opposed by the church’s most prominent theologian, Albert Outler of Southern Methodist University, and most prominent ethicist, Paul Ramsey of Princeton University. And in recent years the denomination has shifted in a more pro-life direction. But United Methodism, with other Mainline Protestant denominations that in the 1960s broke with historic ecumenical teaching on the sanctity of unborn human life, bears some responsibility for the cultural tide that facilitated Roe v. Wade.
Should Blackmun be honored in a church? In an ideal situation, would the marble paying homage to him be removed from the sanctuary of Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist? I wondered if Roger Taney, first Roman Catholic Supreme Court Chief Justice and author of the infamous pre-Civil War Dred Scott ruling, was similarly honored in any Catholic sanctuary. I cannot find that he was, but his gravestone in a Catholic cemetery hails him as a “pious and exemplary Christian.”
The ancient cathedrals, churches and abbeys of Europe are full of stained glass, statuary, plaques, engravings, and prominent tombs for often infamous monarchs, warriors, prelates and statesmen. They would not be so honored today, but their memorials of past centuries are left largely undisturbed, as art, as historical artifacts, and as reminders of human depravity. Sinners and saints both belong to the constellation of human history over which God presides.
Blackmun’s marble tablet in the wall of Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist is a tragic reminder that diligent churchmen can go horribly astray. And too often, in recent times, as across centuries, the church has enabled their errors.