This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1975 “Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation.” Some of us who were signers have been quietly reminiscing about the project. One of my fellow participants wrote me about it recently, referring to “the ‘historic’(?) Hartford conclave.” Putting the “historic” in quotes with a parenthetical question mark rightly distanced the Appeal from any status as a major ecclesiastical document. The Appeal may show up in an occasional footnote these days, but its actual theological content is seldom recalled.
I doubt that any of the nineteen of us who gathered in Hartford, Connecticut in January of 1975 thought of ourselves as participating in anything “historic.” Indeed, most of us joined the project in the spirit described by Peter Berger when he recalled in his recent autobiography that he and Richard Neuhaus came up with the first draft of the document one evening in Berger’s home, when “Neuhaus and I thought it would be fun to make a list of the major themes in mainline Protestantism that irritated us.” Most of us who accepted their invitation to help develop the document further shared the same combination of amusement and irritation.
The amusement aspect was on display in a delightful way at our initial meeting in Hartford in an exchange between Richard Neuhaus and William Sloane Coffin. (Coffin, incidentally, surprised many of us by his willingness to be a part of the group, and we were not shocked when, having signed the document, he later repudiated it.) At a point when we were discussing the heresy that “the world sets the agenda for the church,” Coffin wondered whether this wasn’t attacking a straw man. He could not imagine, he said, any serious thinker saying such a thing. Richard turned to him with the look on his face of someone about to deliver some tragic news. “Oh, Bill,” he said gently, “actually, you have said that kind of thing many times. Don't you remember?” Coffin thought for a moment, and then broke out with a wide grin. “Well, OK,” he responded, “in that case we should condemn it!”
But the irritation element also dominated at times. The strongest expression that I remember on that side of the mix came from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who reported that he frequently felt quite out of place as a Russian Orthodox representative in gatherings of conciliar ecumenism. “All they seem to want from me is that I bring a Russian dish to their potluck. But they do not want to hear anything from me about what I think about the overall menu!”
Hartford was all about the key items on that “overall menu,” and it clearly touched a sensitive nerve with those who were in charge of that menu. Their reactions to our Appeal expressed their own version of theological irritation, but without any sense of fun in formulating their responses to us.
In an important sense, the real legacy of Hartford was the coalition that had its beginnings there. Richard Neuhaus had been thinking much in this time of his growing disillusionment with both the secular left and the programs of the National Council of Churches, about the importance of bringing together folks from Lutheranism, Catholicism and evangelicalism, with his own blend of theological “fun” and irritation, into a new kind of ecumenical coalition. Initially, I was the only evangelical invited to participate in the Hartford project, but I succeeded in getting my friend Lewis Smedes invited. Post-Hartford, Richard kept at the evangelical connection, eventually taking one of the lead roles in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together projects. He understood well our evangelical resistance to much of what conciliar ecumenism has fostered. So he worked hard at engaging us in what Timothy George has aptly described as a new kind of “ecumenism of the trenches.”
My own engagement in the larger religious and cultural arenas owes much to Richard Neuhaus. I received a note from him—I did not know anything about him then—in 1971, asking whether he could publish an essay of mine in Worldview, the journal he was editing at the time. The essay was a paper I had delivered at a philosophy conference at Wheaton College, on obedience to divine commands. Someone who had asked for a copy of the paper sent it to Princeton University’s Paul Ramsey, who was on Neuhaus’s editorial board. Ramsey contacted me, asking my permission to pass it on to Neuhaus with the recommendation that it be published in the journal. It was published as “Commands for Grownups”—and I actually received a check (seventy-five dollars, I think) as payment from Neuhaus. The correspondence with Richard about that essay was the beginning of a forty-year friendship.
Richard took me on as a protégé of sorts, drawing me into his broad circle of fellow travelers. Part of his interest in me had to do with friendship: we simply liked each other. But he also saw me, a newly minted PhD in my early thirties, as someone whom he could cultivate as what he hoped would be the first of many evangelicals who could join his “public intellectual” circle of friends who focused on issues of church and society. Getting to know, through Neuhaus’s efforts, Paul Ramsey, Peter Berger, Avery Dulles, and many others opened up a whole new world of relationships and engagements for me. And my active participation in the Hartford project was my special initiation into that role. Journalists came calling, including a lengthy interview with Francine du Plessix Gray, for an article she wrote for The New York Times Magazine.
The Hartford Appeal may not have been a “historic” document, but for me it was a life-changing experience. It was not only my “coming out” experience as an evangelical who was joining a group of highly visible individuals representing a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, but I was joining them in what Richard Neuhaus would later describe in the first issue of First Things as “a real conversation, as distinct from intellectual chatter.” The new magazine, he said, was designed to promote an engagement “with the best that has been thought and said in the past,” as a way of countering the way that a fascination with “the contemporary” can foster “the crippling conceit of utter novelty.”
Convening the signers of the Hartford Appeal was an earlier effort by Neuhaus to warn against that very same “crippling conceit.” I am eternally grateful for having been invited to be one of those signers, and to stay with the conversation that Richard kept convening. May it continue!
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.