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William P. Thompson, Presbyterian
and ecumenical leader, dies at 87

‘Stately clerk’ had long and distinguished career

by Jerry L. Van Marter

William Thompson's presidency of the National Council of Churches USA.

LOUISVILLE — William P. Thompson, 87, a towering figure in Presbyterian and ecumenical circles in the last half of the 20th century, died on April 27 at Plymouth Place, a Christian retirement community in suburban Chicago. He had been in declining health for several years.

A service for Thompson is scheduled for 3 p.m. on May 13, at First Presbyterian Church in LaGrange, IL, a Chicago suburb.

 Thompson, a lawyer who spent most of his legal career in Wichita, KS, was a protégé of Eugene Carson Blake. He was elected moderator of the General Assembly in 1965, and one year later succeeded Blake as General Assembly stated clerk.

As stated clerk of the northern “stream” of Presbyterianism, he worked tirelessly for Presbyterian reunion with his counterpart in the southern church, the Rev. James E. Andrews. Ironically, Andrews died last month, leaving the church without its two most historically influential leaders.

Reunion occurred in 1983. For one year, Andrews and Thompson served as co-interim stated clerks, vowing that neither would be a candidate in 1984, when the first stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would be elected. But both men were drawn into the heated race.

Andrews won. Thompson then retired.

Thompson, a brilliant legal and organizational thinker, led the Presbyterian church through the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, anti-Vietnam War movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the battles for women’s rights and gay rights in the ’70s and ’80s.

For years after the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America adopted a policy barring the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians, Thompson was one of its staunchest defenders. However, in retirement he changed his mind, and repeatedly expressed regret for his earlier stance. In 2001 he received the Lazarus Award from the southern California-based Lazarus Project, which advocates “a fully inclusive church.”

Thompson also followed Blake’s lead into the worldwide ecumenical movement, continuing his predecessor’s deep involvement in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. He was instrumental in the merger of several Reformed groupings into the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1970, and then served as the alliance’s first president from 1970-1977. He was president of the National Council of Churches from 1975 to 1978.

In 2000, he and his wife, Mary, established the William and Mary Thompson Ecumenical Scholarship Fund to develop leadership for the global ecumenical movement.

General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick issued the following statement shortly after Thompson’s death:

        The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has lost one of its greatest and best leaders in the passing of William P. Thompson. Speaking on behalf of the staff of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), Presbyterians worldwide, and the ecumenical community of faith, I add my condolences to his wife Mary and the entire Thompson family.

        Those who worked with Bill called him a “living legend.” He provided leadership to the church in a variety of capacities, which included serving first as Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and later as Stated Clerk of the same denomination; and as president of both the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the National Council of Churches in Christ. He teamed up with Jim Andrews, his counterpart as Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, to work to bring to reality the 1983 reunion to form our present-day PC(USA).

Bill had a deep interest in Presbyterian history. During his tenure, the OGA’s Department of History was transformed from a limited denominational national library and archives into a comprehensive ecumenical resource center.

        Bill was a recognized leader in the ecumenical movement. He was tireless in his advocacy for human rights, and he used well his skills as a mediator and reconciler.

        I have lost a good friend with the passing of Bill. I will especially miss his wisdom and keen insight. He truly loved this church.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:6).


 

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