People Staff
July 08, 1974 12:00 PM

Episcopalians’ Rumpled Bishop

The Right Rev. John Maury Allin, ordained last month as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, has an answer for critics who complain that the order is too “Eastern parochial.” He thinks they’re absolutely right.

Therefore, Allin hopes to move the headquarters out of Manhattan to the Midwest, maybe St. Louis, Kansas City or Omaha. The move would be logical for a nationwide church, he believes, and is long overdue. “The Episcopalians,” he says wryly, “waited for a Pullman reservation before they took their message west.”

Born an Episcopalian in Rural Helena, Ark., Allin attended Southern Baptist Sunday school until he was lured back into the Episcopal church by an offer to sing in the choir. Later, as a seminary student, he volunteered for an assignment to a black mission in Mississippi. When he was chosen to head the national church, he was presiding bishop of the state. Although he considers himself a liberal “by Mississippi standards,” others view him as a stiff conservative. “I hate labels,” he says. “They are a divisive tool of the devil. I like to be liberal on some things, conservative on others.”

Allin has adopted a friendly ecumenical stance in dealing with the Catholic church, and he has also extended an olive branch to activists and women within his own denomination, some of whom have agitated for eventual female participation in the Episcopal priesthood. Observers within his church agree that the 53-year-old cleric, who inspires confidence with his country preacher’s rumpled informality, has a keen sense of what’s right for the moment. “Allin will be good,” says one. “He has an utter lack of pretension—rather a rare commodity among Episcopal leaders.” Allin’s own prescription for avoiding pretense is regular sessions on the golf course: “It helps me build humility.”

Presbyterians’ Joking Preacher

Some of these people were trying mint juleps for the first time,” says the Rev. Lawrence W. Bottoms, joking about his election as the first black moderator of the mostly white Southern Presbyterian Church. “Someone said ‘Bottoms up,’ everybody misunderstood, and I got a big vote.”

Humor is one of the 66-year-old minister’s chief oratorical weapons, and one he plans to use frequently within his 113-year-old church, which has about 900,000 members—only 7,000 of them black. “Early in life I learned that to allow people to see the truth,” he says, “you’ve got to relax them.”

During the racially turbulent ’60s, Bottoms was frequently criticized as being soft on segregation by his more militant black colleagues. Bottoms defends his record. In order to survive, he believes, the church had to appeal to the often less militant upwardly mobile and middle-class blacks, not merely the disadvantaged.

He was born in Selma, Ala., in 1908 to a middle-class family—his father was a schoolteacher. He gave music lessons to earn money to attend Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. He began his ministry in Selma, then eventually moved to Louisville where he was pastor of the Grace-Hope Church. In 1947 he was elected moderator of the Louisville Presbytery, then was head of the Kentucky Synod in 1963. He is pastor of a predominantly white congregation in Decatur, Ga., there celebrated for his ability to deliver free-wheeling sermons, often without notes. “He has a way,” says an associate, “of saying what must be said—and often making folks laugh about it.”

At the serious, if not sacred, installation rites in Louisville, his predecessor hung the ceremonial Celtic Cross on a chain around his neck. Bottoms spoke up loudly. “It always makes me nervous,” deadpanned the new moderator, “when a white man puts anything around my neck.”

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