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CLEVELAND – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a United Church of Christ minister known globally for his peace and justice advocacy, died April 12 at his home in rural Strafford, Vermont. He was 81.
“Bill was an exuberant prophet who had the unique capacity to love us toward our better selves,” said the UCC General Minister and President Rev. John H. Thomas. “His prophetic vision brought the imagination of the Biblical prophets and of Jesus to life in our time. He was urgent and clear, but never stern. His love for life in the world that is never blinded him to a yearning for life in the world that ought to be.”
From 1976 to 1987, Coffin was senior minister of one of the UCC’s most prominent congregations, The Riverside Church in New York City. More than 20 years ago, Coffin led Riverside Church in becoming the UCC’s first “open and affirming” church, a denominational movement that today includes nearly 600 congregations committed to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons.
Ordained in 1956 and long active in his support of the United Church of Christ’s justice and peace agenda, Coffin keynoted a UCC convocation in 2003 on how to revitalize its “just peace church movement.” One of the UCC’s most widely recognized clergy, he was a member of the United Church of Strafford.
“Bill understood that a minister was always pastor and prophet, and his gift for language reminded us that, at our best, pastors and prophets are always poets,” Thomas said.
During the 1960s and 70s, Coffin served as university chaplain at Yale where he spoke out passionately in favor of Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, Coffin headed the anti-nuclear SANE/Freeze campaign, where he became a major voice in opposition to the U.S. nuclear weapons buildup.
Coffin’s likeness and passion were later immortalized as the fictitious “Rev. Sloan” by cartoonist Garry Trudeau in his celebrated strip “Doonesbury.”
Last year, when major networks first rejected the UCC’s TV ad campaign as “too controversial,” Coffin authored a stinging op-ed column. “The UCC properly implied that millions of American Christians are at odds with the Christian Right,” Coffin wrote. “In reality, there are no biblical literalists, only selective literalists. By abolishing slavery and ordaining women, millions of Protestants have gone far beyond biblical literalism.”