The Unretirement of Reverend Wright

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Chicago Tribune / MCT / Landov

Reverend Jeremiah Wright in 2006.

When Sen. Barack Obama severed ties with his Chicago church, most political observers saw the move as a way for the candidate to insulate himself from the controversies stirred by its retiring pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. But Trinity United Church of Christ does not have that kind of insulation. According to sources within Trinity, Wright, 66, who began the process of retirement two years ago, is resisting fully relinquishing his duties as senior pastor, hanging on to power in the church he helped build.

Wright was officially to have stepped down last Sunday, June 1. And from the pulpit at 7:30 a.m. that day, Wright's hand-picked successor, the Rev. Otis Moss III, preached what should have been his first sermon as senior pastor of Trinity, one of the Chicago's largest congregations and among the most influential religious institutions in America. Instead, on church bulletins on June 1, Moss was identified simply as "pastor" rather than "senior pastor," even as Wright assumed the title "pastor emeritus." Indeed, Trinity members familiar with the developments say that on May 27, Moss was summoned to the church's massive brown sanctuary for a meeting that included Wright, several church board members and other senior leaders. According to those sources, Moss, 37, expected the meeting to finalize transition plans. Instead, Wright suggested the board merely declare Moss "senior pastor-elect" because the younger cleric needed "supervision" — effectively ensuring Wright remains Trinity's preacher-in-chief. Wright's essential argument hinges on a technicality: Moss is an ordained Baptist minister who has yet to be fully ordained in the United Church of Christ, the predominantly white protestant denomination of which the roughly 8,500-member Trinity is the largest congregation.

As news of the situation traveled through the congregation, many Trinity members were baffled. "Two years ago, you felt God gave you the vision to bring Rev. Moss here," one Trinity member said this week, referring to Wright's explanation for hiring Moss. "Now," the same member added, "why are you second-guessing God's vision, and saying Rev. Moss isn't qualified, that somehow he needs to go through more hoops?"

According to Trinity members familiar with the situation, after the May 27 meeting, Moss was ordered to tell the first person he hired — his head of communications — that she could no longer serve in the paid pastoral staff position. At least one other Trinity staffer has also been relieved of her duties in recent days. One source familiar with the situation said of Wright and the dismissals, "He doesn't have to run it by the board."

Sunday June 1 lacked the fanfare that often marks the official start of a pastor's tenure. In fact, Wright didn't even show up, for reasons church officials have so far declined to explain. From the pulpit on Sunday, Moss didn't address the unseen drama, and later that evening he left for a vacation. "He has inherited this mess," one Moss supporter observes, "and his priority is to help a congregation heal and move forward. Hopefully Wright will let him do that." "The church is splitting," says one Trinity member. "It's sad, because this is a case of the older leader not being prepared to pass the mantle to the new leadership, and all that the new leadership represents."

Church officials have been evasive if not obstreperous in clarifying the precise timelines for the transition from Wright to Moss. Trinity's spokeswoman, Donna Hammond-Miller, responded to questions on the matter by e-mailing a reporter the church's already widely circulated response to the Obama family's departure. Pressed further on Sunday morning in between church services, Hammond-Miller said: "Those questions won't be answered at this time." When asked to help clarify points for the sake of accuracy, Hammond-Miller responded, "That's your problem, not mine." When queried by TIME again on Wednesday on the same issues, Hammond-Miller said, "They're not responding to those questions. That's the pastor's choice."

Officials at the United Church of Christ's national headquarters in Cleveland are aware of the leadership tension at Trinity. However, they say, individual U.C.C. churches are autonomous and the national body can do little to intervene. Barbara Powell, a U.C.C. headquarters spokeswoman, noted that "Trinity didn't follow the normal U.C.C. guidelines for the [pastoral] search" (Wright handpicked Moss, apparently without a formal search committee), but said it was hard to imagine that Moss wouldn't successfully complete the ordination process.

At several points in recent years, Wright has openly contemplated his retirement. But the rift between Wright and Moss was unexpected. In early 2006, Wright announced that Moss would be his successor. It was an interesting choice, considering Moss's pedigree: His parents were civil rights movement activists married by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his father is a prominent Cleveland minister. Educated at Morehouse and Yale, Moss had since 1997 led an Augusta, Ga., congregation, boosting its membership from 125 to some 2,100. In a January 2007 interview with Trumpet, a Trinity-affiliated magazine, Wright recalled introducing Moss to the congregation. "I had prayed to God to send someone to God's church. God answered my prayer in Otis," Wright told the publication. "Don't think," he added in the interview, "I would turn over 36 years to someone I didn't have complete confidence in."

In accepting the Trinity job, Moss apparently bypassed an opportunity to assume leadership at his father's church. Moss moved his wife and two children to Chicago, where he was to serve as an associate pastor at Trinity during the two-year transition. By most accounts, Moss quickly energized Trinity, particularly with his easy, unself-conscious references from the pulpit to both hip-hop culture and deep biblical scholarship. However, in an August 2007 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, Moss seemed to foreshadow his troubles in Trinity. The generation gap plaguing such institutions, Moss said, is "a gap of language, values. It's a gap in the best tactics on how to transform the black community. It's an intellectual gap in many ways. There has to be a dialogue between those generations [so] that you don't cast aside one generation or the other, or one generation doesn't demonize the other."

The church became an issue in the presidential campaign after Wright's videotaped comments on 9/11 and bitter aspects of the black experience in America were propagated widely over the Internet. In response, Obama delivered his widely praised March 18 speech on race, in which the candidate repeatedly referred to Wright as his "former pastor." Then came Wright's fiery April 28 speech and haughty question-and-answer session at the National Press Club, in Washington. The next day, Obama denounced his "former pastor" outright. Attempting to quell the anxiety at Trinity, Moss wrote a "Declaration of Interdependence," which began: "We pray for our pastor. We pray for our member, who is a public servant.... We, the community of Trinity, are concerned, hurt, shocked, dismayed, frustrated, fearful and heartbroken." Now, without Obama in the church, Moss must deal with the formidable figure of Jeremiah Wright alone.