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Yale celebrates life of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and mourns his loss

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

William Sloane Coffin, Jr.'s son David performs Sonata in A Minor:  Larghetto.Several hundred persons gathered at Yale University 's Battell Chapel on May 27 to honor the life and ministry of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the outspoken Yale chaplain who rose to national prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as mentor for a generation of civil rights and peace activists. Coffin, who served as Yale chaplain from 1958-75, died at his Vermont home on April 12 at the age of 81. He earned a B.A. at Yale College in 1949 and a B.D. from Yale Divinity School in 1956.

During his tenure in the Battell Chapel pulpit, Coffin frequently clashed with Yale administrators over his activism-such as his encouragement of students to resist the draft during the Vietnam War and to turn in their draft cards.

However, the admiration that hundreds of students and colleagues had for Coffin was eventually shared by Yale as an institution as well, culminating in the awarding of an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree to him in 2002. Also in tribute to Coffin, Yale Divinity School has established The Willam Sloane Coffin, Jr. Scholarship Fund, to be awarded to students exemplifying Coffin's prophetic style of ministry.

Some of the speakers at the public memorial service (click here to view video of entire service and here for BBC coverage of the service) described the Yale-Coffin relationship as a "lover's quarrel."

The Rev. Harry B. Adams '47 B.A., '51 B.D., the Horace Bushnell Professor Emeritus of Christian Nurture at Yale Divinity School who served as University chaplain from 1986-91, recalled, "Bill often described his ministry in this university with the assertion that he had a lover's quarrel with this place. He really cared about Yale and about its people.

"He supported the University with passion when he believed it was right, and he challenged it with equal passion when he believed it was wrong. But unlike many who challenge in order to destroy what they hate, he challenged to save what he loved."

Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh remarked, "Bill loved Yale and he loved America , but he saw his role not as celebrating them but as engaging them in a 'lover's quarrel.' The greatest act of patriotism, in his eyes, was to confront the institutions that you respect and the people you love."

Alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus sing at memorial serviceSaid Koh, "What Bill taught us, through a lifetime of brilliant sermons and courageous confrontations, is that it is the duty of establishment institutions, such as Yale, not to celebrate the status quo but to challenge it."

Coffin "challenged and loved" Yale, President Richard C. Levin said in his welcoming remarks to the audience, which included a number of Yale alumni who were on campus for Yale College Reunions 2006.

"While he was here, this pulpit belonged to him," said Levin. "And in the way a pulpit always belongs to a great preacher who inhabited it, it still does."

Though he commanded a national platform as his stage, Coffin will be remembered also by those who knew him as a pastor and friend who cared deeply about individuals.

"Bill's greatest impact came not from his stirring sermons or his high-profile stands but from his enormous capacity for friendship, doled out in countless private moments of counseling and compassion," noted Koh, who grew up in New Haven while Coffin was at Battell and became friends with him later in life.

The Rev. Bliss Williams Browne '71 B.A. recalled being pulled aside by Coffin one day 35 years ago as she was crossing the University's Old Campus to be asked, "Bliss, I think you'd make a good minister. Have you considered going to divinity school?

The brief conversation that ensued was life changing for Browne, who up until that moment had not considered the ministry.

"I took Bill's suggestion of ministry to heart," said Brown, who served as a Battell Chapel deacon under Coffin. "His enthusiasm for my going to divinity school made it irresistible to think about. He made Christian ministry, whether ordained or lay, compelling and appealing, attractive, as something vibrant and relevant and engaged and joyful and radical. Faith animated his life."

Browne is founder and president of Imagine Chicago, an innovative civic initiative which brings together generations and cultures and has inspired a movement of community activism on six continents.

Quoting journalist and Coffin friend Bill Moyers, Levin said the happiest moments in Coffin's life were not during the public displays of defiance and activism but, rather, "in the intimate setting of the pastor's calling, the moments when he was doing marriage counseling, baptizing a baby or accompanying people who have suffered a loss, the moments when people tend to be most human, when they are most vulnerable."

Coffin's family, including his widow, Randy, were in attendance at the service and at the reception following in the Berkeley College common room. Coffin's son David, a professional musician, performed the Sonata in A Minor: Larghetto , by George Frideric Handel. The Alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus, under the direction of Harald Hille '66 B.A., '70 M. Phil., performed two anthems that were among Coffin's favorites.

Others participating in the service included YDS Dean Harold Attridge; the Rev. Frederick J. Streets '75 M.Div., University Chaplain; Richard N. Rosenfeld '63; Linda Koch Lorimer '77 J.D., vice president and secretary of the University; Charles A. Pillsbury '70, student deacon 1970; the Rev. Philip Zaeder '58 B.A., '62 M.Div., associate university chaplain 1969-77; the Rev. Ronald T. Evans '70 B.D., student deacon 1967-70; and the Rev. Samuel Slie '52 B.D., '63 S.T.M., associate pastor emeritus, Church of Christ in Yale; and Russell Weismann, Battell Chapel organist.

Memorial Service