A giant walked in our midst. He was not a NBA giant physically, but of normal though wiry size. But intellectually and spiritually, we discovered his stature, and were challenged and changed by it.
He changed people's minds. When he came to the Interfaith Witness Department, those of us already on the team were pre-disposed to be suspicious and unwelcoming to him. Why? Because, instead of being chosen by our department head, Joe Dick Estes, he was recruited by the head of the agency, Arthur Rutledge. Thus when we first met him, we were cautious. But that attitude did not last long. Brownlow quickly expressed openness to us and to his new venture as director for Catholic studies, and became not only a valued partner, but leader among us and among Southern Baptists.
He never put himself forward, but always his Lord.
We quickly were amazed at his background in adult education and biblical studies as they were redirected to his new task of informing Baptists and Roman Catholics about each other.
His style was engagement. He was a model of conviction, but without compromise. He was an academic, but his focus was not limited to the academic. It expanded to the personal.
The 1960s were a grand time for the Home Mission Board (HMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), under Arthur Rutledge and Hugo Culpepper. To cope with diverse cultures and situations, HMB created three new departments: a Black Church Relations to deal with increasing outreach to African-Americans, a Christian Social Ministry department which dealt with physical and emotional as well as spiritual needs, and the Department of Work Related to Non-evangelicals, taking a European understanding of that term to address the multi-faith setting in which Southern Baptists increasingly found themselves. It focused on Baptist relations to Jews, Catholics, cults and sects, and non-Christian world religions. In 1970 the name was changed to Interfaith Witness. Later the Orthodox were added to the list.
In the Catholic world, the revolutionary reforms of Vatican II (1963-1965) were making their way into church life. There was a new focus on the authority of scripture, and a new emphasis on ecumenism. In addition, during the decade of the sixties the Catholic charismatic movement broke out with its stress on personal experience and the leadership of the Holy Spirit in worship and personal life.
Thus Brownlow came into this world at an opportune time. It was the right time, it was the right place, and he was the right man.
Served at Home Mission Board 1970-1981.
He helped set up a monthly Greek Bible study with Baptist pastors and the monks at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers, GA. One of the older monks was prompted to learn Greek so he could participate more fully in the discussions. These studies went on for over seven years.
Brownlow loved the Bible. Those were the days when new modern translations were coming out, Today's English Version among them. When Brownlow was speaking at a conference, the person next to me said, “Wow, what a fabulous translation he is using. What is it?” Mischievously I said,” When we take a break, why don't you go up to the speaker's stand and see?” He came back with wonder in his eyes, and reported, “It is a Greek New Testament; it is his own translation.”
Brownlow was a gifted teacher. He led multiple conferences on Witnessing with Catholics, and trained volunteers we called Interfaith Witness Associates to lead conferences.
Brownlow wrote pamphlets and books about his insights and suggestions to Baptist and to Catholics. The booklets included Interfaith Prayer and Bible Study, A Baptist View of Changes in Roman Catholicism, and How to Claim Your Privileges as a Christian. The books came later: Introducing Southern Baptists, published by a Catholic publisher, Paulist Press.
He was not hesitant to provide recommendations for what could be done to further the work of Christ and the ecumenism that would bring it about. This he addressed in. Harmony Among Christians, A Model Other than Structural Unity.
These works express his convictions, and continue to be useful for those who follow after him.
His research led him to attend meetings of the National Conference of Bishops in Washington, DC, and four meetings of the Synod of Bishops in Rome.
He interviewed Catholic theologians and bishops, and reported these in Baptist Press releases.
Brownlow was not only eager to become connected with Catholics himself, but also to help Southern Baptists and Catholics get to know one another in various configurations.
One of these was two-church conversations. In 1980, For example, 4500 people participated in these events, designed by him. They involved worship services both in a Baptist Church and then in a Catholic church, followed by a discussion period led by a Baptist and a Catholic speaker. Often it was a Glenmary Missioner, a Catholic home mission society.
A peculiar statistic about 1970 showed that there were 450 counties in the US without a Catholic church, and 450 counties without a Southern Baptist church. Both of these two mission agencies were devoted to changing that statistic. Of course they were not the same counties, but a desire for missions drove both groups. Over the years the Glenmary fathers had representatives that studied the SBC, and were liaisons with SBC. They became friends and colleagues of Brownlow in many of these conferences. And often they were present in SBC national conventions, complete with clerical collar. Names:
Frank Ruff, Robert Berson, Will Steinbacher, Joe O'Donnell, and Robert Dalton.
Another level of dialogue was on the state. Arkansas was one state where pastors from both sides gathered for worship and for fellowship. The bishop of Arkansas and the executive minister of Arkansas Southern Baptists swapped humorous stories to the great enjoyment of all the pastors gathered in a fellowship time after a worship and discussion time.
Formal dialogs with Southern Baptists were at first sponsored by the Ecumenical Institute of Wake Forest University in 1967. Joined by Belmont Abbey in 1969-70. The SBC HMB Department of Interfaith Witness picked up the Baptist sponsorship in 1971. The Catholic sponsor was the Bishop's Committee for Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs.
A series of five regional dialogs ensured. The printed papers given in these events become a source of information about themes and challenges.
Paralleling the ventures with Roman Catholics, Brownlow put together a conversation with Greek Orthodox pastors and scholars held in Garrison, NY. The papers of this consultation were published in the Greek Orthodox Review in 1977.
The Catholic two-church and regional events were so successful they were followed in 1978 by a series of national conversations. These were six two and a half day sessions twice a year. The papers from these talks were published in three seminary journals: 1982 at Southern, 1986 at Southwestern, and 1988 at New Orleans. These journals showed formal recognition of the scholarship of Baptists and Catholics, and outlined both agreements and disagreements over significant issues.
In 1979 Pope John II visited Washington, DC, and invited all participants in dialogs with Roman Catholic to be his guests at a celebration. Porter Routh, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, was on the dais as the Southern Baptist representative.
The national dialogs were so successful that the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) sponsored a series of international conversations 1984-1988. This broadened the Baptist participation to other US Baptist groups and international representatives. Although Brownlow had retired from the HMB by then, his pioneering efforts served as a model. Some of the US scholars, both Baptists and Catholic, were on the international teams.
This effort was stopped after 1988, partially because of the new conservative influences in SBC life expressed on BWA boards, but also because BWA went on to talks with other groups, like Mennonites, Reformed, Lutheran and Orthodox.
So what, in sum, was Brownlow's contribution to Baptist relations with Catholics, Orthodox and other Protestants?
He put a new face on Southern Baptists with these people. He was not the only Southern Baptist they knew, but he was credible interpreter and spokesman for Baptists.
He also put a new face on Catholics for Baptists. As the “Catholic watcher” for Baptists, many learned of Catholics and had a different view of Roman Catholics because of him.
During Brownlow's tenure, the Home Mission Board had the largest interfaith staff of any US denomination. The conservative swing in SBC leadership ranks had a tsunami effect on Interfaith Witness. The open windows swung closed. At the Home Mission Board, the Department of Interfaith Witness department was moved from the Missions section to the Evangelism section, and the name changed to Interfaith Evangelism. The staff numbers were sharply reduced and its programs cut.
Succeeding years in the SBC saw a reversal of some of the advances and open accomplishments of Brownlow and others.
Interestingly, however, the Baptist World Alliance announced that it has begun again to talk with Roman Catholics in international conversations in 2006.
A giant was among us. Aware of his stature, we honor him, we carry on his legacy, some of his dreams. A glimmer of the giant shines in this place, and in the hills of Colorado, and the halls of the monastery in Conyers.
But time will tell how significant was his life and his ministry, and today is such a time.