Over the weekend the Rev. Thomas Gillespie Ph.D., immediate past-President, of Princeton Theological Seminary passed away. If you want the formal notices and full biography you can read ones from Princeton and the Presbyterian News Service. I knew President Gillespie only through the good fortune of meeting and working with him on two different, and very Presbyterian, occassions. I found him to be a most gracious and humble individual, full of life and good humor, and truly a pleasure to work with. As you will see, both of these were formal occassions so he may have been on his best behavior. None the less, I came away from each with a very high regard for the gentleman.
In reading the Princeton news piece I did have to chuckle. Our Presbytery has a good-hearted standing joke about which is the best seminary – one of the two in our Presbytery, Fuller or Claremont, or Princeton. Well, Tom got his M.Div. from Princeton, his Ph.D. from Claremont, and then returned to Princeton as president. He covered the bases.
The first time I met and worked with Rev. Gillespie was when I was a commissioner to the 209th General Assembly (1997) and on the Theological Institutions Committee. One afternoon our committee broke up into a number of groups to meet with the presidents and students from the PC(USA) seminaries. It was a good discussion, lively and open, and a great chance to hear this informal reporting from our schools. I have to admit that I don’t remember who the other seminary president in our group was but I do clearly remember Rev. Gillespie and his participation.
The presidents met with us for much of the committee time, particularly since we were dealing with the tricky question of denominational doctrine in tension with academic freedom. In no small part it was Tom Gillespie who helped us navigate that issue and use the presbytery overture as a starting point for compromise action by the Assembly.
The second time I worked with Rev. Gillespie was almost a decade later when I was the Moderator of Presbytery and he was the preacher for an installation. In my time as Moderator he was probably the best known pastor that I shared the pulpit with at an ordination or installation. As we were preparing for the worship service he and I had a brief but wonderful conversation about the presbytery, our mission programs and what else what happening. He was not an “ivy tower” academic but showed a genuine concern for what was happening in the churches around the country. But the most enduring thing to me was his positive affirmation of my leadership position in the presbytery and his comments about the nature of shared leadership between teaching and ruling elders. It was clear from working with him that day that ruling elders are just as important in the Presbyterian system as the teaching elders and his affirmation of my work in the church is something I have carried with me since.
I give thanks for his life and the brief times that we have worked together in the life of the church. My deepest sympathies to his family and prayers in this time of loss. If others have had the same experience as I have the PC(USA) is a better denomination because of how he has encouraged and contributed to it. Godspeed.