Gerald Ford: Repairing Another Breach

CBS News producer Ward Sloane looks at Gerald Ford's attempt to heal his beloved Episcopal Church.

President Gerald Ford lived a wonderful life. By all accounts he was a man of faith, and his actions as a public and private figure certainly seem to bear out those accounts. It is, perhaps, why, when he stunned the country and granted a disgraced president an unconditional pardon he was able to go out and play golf later that afternoon. That is the mark of a man who is comfortable in his own skin and confident in his judgment.

Watergate was a big breach. Somebody had to take hold and move the country forward. Gerald Ford decided he was that man.

Historians are rewriting their own histories of Gerald Ford, exonerating him for his once-unpardonable pardon. See Richard Reeves, who wrote "A Ford, Not a Lincoln." Politicians, too, are changing their minds, even Democrats. See Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy.

And now there is another Ford stunner.

I refer to the eulogy given by Gerald Ford's rector at the State Funeral in Washington's National Cathedral. I suspect that it was not lost on the Rev. Dr. Roger Certain that the pulpit in which he stood is in fact the most influential pulpit of the Episcopal Church in the United States. It is a national house of prayer, but it also the national home of the Episcopal Church.

Here is what he said:

Early this past summer, as I prepared to leave for the general convention of the Episcopal Church, President Ford's concern was for the church he loved. He asked me if we would face schism. After we discussed the various issues we would consider, particularly concerns about sexuality and the leadership of women, he said that he did not think that they should be divisive for anyone who lived by the great commandments and the great commission: To love God and to love neighbor. He then asked me to work for reconciliation within the Church. I assured him I would, just has he had worked for reconciliation within this nation 30 years ago.

Though understated, these are strong words in a debate that has increasingly grown angry. Across the country, conservative congregations are leaving the church over the issue of homosexuality — specifically their ordination as priests, the blessing of civil unions and installation in high church offices. Some also have issues with women — specifically ordination and installation in high church offices.

The debate is very emotional and very divisive. For the Episcopal Church today, homosexuality is as divisive as it gets. The role of women comes in a close second. The backroom politics are destructive and are taking place in vestries from local parishes right on up into the office of the Presiding Bishop, the chief executive of the national church.

The CBS Evening News reported on nine Episcopal churches in suburban Virginia that voted to sever their ties to national church over these issues.

I think it is striking that Mr. Ford was still trying, even in death, to find common ground. As another Republican once famously said, "a house divided cannot stand." Mr. Ford seemed to be signaling that this current debate is serious business for Episcopalians.

I don't know if Mr. Ford instructed Rev. Certain to make these remarks or if the family approved them. They sure sound like the Gerald Ford we have all come to admire in the week since his death. Maybe it will take another 30 years for the both sides of the debate to come around to Mr. Ford's prescience. If these remarks were planned by Mr. Ford, I suspect he knew what kind of audience he'd have and the hallowed place in which they would be spoken. (I have no idea what Mr. Ford thought about homosexuality, but he apparently told Rev. Certain that the issue wasn't worth splitting up the church.)

In church, as in politics, Mr. Ford reminds me of someone the prophet Isaiah had in mind when he wrote: "Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell." — Isaiah 58:12