A lifetime of faith
Frances Taylor Gench on experiences as seminary professor, church leader, person of faith
February 18, 2014
To say that faith runs in the Rev. Frances Taylor Gench’s family is a massive understatement. She’s a fifth-generation Presbyterian minister and has been married for more than 31 years to the Rev. Roger J. Gench, senior pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Her “experience of Christian grace” began before she could even consciously form thoughts about her infant baptism.
“[It started] with a wet forehead, in a moment in which my parents claimed God’s covenant promises on my behalf, dedicated me to God, and promised to pray for me, teach me the doctrines of the Christian faith and strive to bring me up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” Gench said. “Those who pledged on that day proved faithful to their promises, for my pilgrimage has been marked by constant, steady nurture in the Christian faith — both in church and in home — that continues even now into my adult years.”
That path took her to Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania and now Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., where she’s been a faculty member since 1999. She serves as the Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at the seminary.
“My primary role is in the seminary classroom, where it is my privilege to engage ancient biblical texts in the company of lively, interesting, intelligent, faithful people — to think together about the difference they make in the way we think about God and God’s way with the world and our own human possibilities. And I actually get paid to do this!” Gench said. “My goal is to nurture love for Scripture and to equip seminarians for ministry by helping them learn to read biblical texts in a disciplined, careful, faithful manner and to find their own voices as interpreters of Scripture.”
She also has in recent years led three Union Presbyterian Seminary travel seminars to Ghana to learn from the people, churches, and culture there and to gain experience of the mission of theological education in an African context.
“Presbyterian life in Ghana is vibrant and flourishing, and fellowship with Ghanaian brothers and sisters in Christ has broadened our understanding of the global church, deepened our passion for effective ministry in the church and the world, and is shaping our seminarians profoundly as future church leaders,” she said.
In addition, Gench serves as a parish associate at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and was a member of the PC(USA) General Assembly’s Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church from 2001-2006.
“Twenty Presbyterians as different from one another as we could possibly be — 20 Presbyterians who under ordinary circumstances never would have dreamed of hanging out together — found ourselves involved in a challenging learning experience in the art of listening,” she said. “Every one of us entered our journey together with trepidation, not at all sure it would be a joyful part of our service to the church.
“But it turned out to be the most powerful experience of the Holy Spirit I had ever had, as a genuine sense of community formed among this very diverse group. We turned out to have much more in common than we had imagined as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ.”
One of the most important aspects that emerged from the experience was a renewed sense of the vocation of church — our participation, by divine grace at work among us, in the cosmic, reconciling purposes of God, Gench said.
She said, however, that in a life filled with faith, there have been some “rough moments” in her relationship with the Bible, particularly during her teenage years, when she began to study the Bible with real seriousness and found herself tremendously insulted by what she thought at the time to be Paul’s view of women.
“My solution to this problem at the time was to take my Magic Marker and clearly ‘X’ these portions out of my Bible — I even took the scissors to Ephesians 5,” she said. “Wrestling with Scripture eventually took me to seminary, where I found myself largely reconciled to the apostle Paul — who, much to my surprise, turned out to be more of an advocate for the freedom and equality of all people in Christ than I could have imagined — and then on to graduate school and a vocation in teaching.
“I am grateful to God every day of my life for the enormous privilege of serving the church at Union Presbyterian Seminary. The U.P. Sem. classroom is holy ground where we wrestle with biblical texts, refusing to let them go until they bless us — until we have discerned together a word in them from God.”
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Even though her faith in God and fellow Presbyterians is strong, she believes there are challenges for the church. Among them is the ongoing challenge of communal discernment as the denomination continues to engage matters of faith and life that deeply divide members.
“That communal discernment inevitably evokes conflict, of which we ought not to be afraid, for conflict is often the place of God’s guidance and activity among us,” she said. “In the midst of communal discernment and the conflict it evokes, the challenge is learning to live more faithfully with our disagreements — to forbear with one another.
“I believe that the peace, unity and purity of the church are God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ and that our ongoing struggle to live into the fullness of that gift is integral to our mission. Indeed, the quality of our life together — our ability to make visible the unique relationship that exists by God’s grace among us — is our most compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”
Gench said she sees it every day in the students of God she helps mold.” I find that it is impossible to feel pessimistic about the future of the church when you sit in a seminary classroom every day with the extraordinary, gifted women and men whom God continues to raise up for ministry in the PC(USA).”