As he captains the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the coming year, it seems fitting that the Rev. Herbert D. Valentine will use a gavel made with wood taken from the two Pride of Baltimore clippers.
The executive presbyter of the Baltimore Presbytery since 1977, Valentine was elected moderator of the 2.9-million-member church yesterday at its 203rd General Assembly. More than 5,000 Presbyterians from some 11,000 churches in the United States and Puerto Rico are attending the assembly, which began this week at the Baltimore Convention Center and continues through next Wednesday.
Valentine succeeds Price H. Gwynn 3rd of Charlotte, N.C. The moderator's role is to preside over the General Assembly and the denomination during his tenure.
A native of the San Francisco area, the 56-year-old Valentine was chosen on the second ballot by 51.26 percent of the 598 "commissioners," or elected church representatives, who are voting on denominational policy matters during the nine-day assembly. A majority of the vote total is required for election.
The new moderator finished ahead of the Rev. J. Howard Edington, an Orlando, Fla., pastor, who received 37.11 percent of the vote, and the Rev. William G. Gillespie, a St. Louis pastor with 11.13 percent of the tally.
The Rev. Terry Shoener, an official of the Baltimore Presbytery, joined Valentine on the Convention Center dais after the election and presented him with the gavel. Shoener joked that Valentine now stands at the helm of "an old tub plowing through rough waters," but then spoke seriously of the gavel as a symbol of the ship of the church, the cross and "the wood of new life for the church and its missions."
In his brief remarks after the election, Valentine said he was "very humbled and very surprised."
"I am sure that my seminary professors are shaking their heads right now," he said to laughter from the large crowd of commissioners and observers in the convention hall. "If you see a turtle on top of a log, you know he got there with help. That's been the case with my life, and with my election today."
Actually, Valentine couldn't have been too surprised because he was nominated for moderator last November. And, according to a member of the local committee that nominated Valentine and lobbied commissioners to vote for him, he has been preparing since February for the commissioners' questions for the nominees, which were asked from the floor just before the vote.
The committee member, the Rev. John Sharp of Govans Presbyterian Church, said the group had peppered Valentine with the kinds of questions he might have expected from the commissioners, just as a presidential candidate's staff might prepare him for a debate.
All the preparation seemed to pay off. During the question period and the nominees' remarks to the assembly, Valentine clearly appeared more confident and authoritative than his two opponents. He looked relaxed and cracked several jokes, such as when he said the church may be troubled now but has always "had its Maalox moments."
The consensus view of Valentine is of an aggressive, passionate and caring leader who isn't afraid to step on toes when he wants an important job done.
A former Baltimore pastor, who is in town for the assembly and asked not to identified, said Valentine can "sometimes hurt people's feelings, but for good reasons, namely to complete a task that he thinks is important."
"In his zeal for the good of love and justice, Herb doesn't always fit the stereotyped role of the soft-spoken pastor. The strength of his commitment, his progressive rhetoric and his political savvy are of the sort that can result in some hurt feelings," the former pastor said.
At a news conference after his election, Valentine suggested he won't alter his blunt style.
"I will continue to speak directly to problems, which has been my habit for 30 years," he said.
Certainly many church members have hurt feelings over the controversial report on human sexuality that will be discussed during the assembly. Critics of the report say it goes too far in advocating sexual freedom while ignoring biblical guidelines.
Despite the controversy, the election of the progressive Valentine over the more conservative Edington indicates that the current assembly wants to keep the dialogue open on this painful and potentially divisive topic, says Sharp.
"Herb has used the imagery of drawing larger circles to embrace everyone in the church, and that means drawing circles that include even those who have closed themselves off into small circles. His election, I think, affirmed the strength of our church's diversity," Sharp added.
At his news conference, Valentine spoke of the hurt feelings and church members closed within small circles.
"Society is in a chaotic state these days, and a lot of people long for a place, an institution, of stability. So, when they see their church start to deal with sensitive issues, some people get frightened and angry about the fact that we even talk about these things," Valentine said.
He added, "It's very natural to feel anger. The point is, we have to learn how to deal with the anger in healthy ways and channel it into something positive. I'm proud of my church, though. We're trying to wrestle with problems that affect everyone in our society. To ignore these problems is to turn away from the biblical ideas of our church."
As moderator, Valentine will spend a lot of time at the national church office in Louisville, Ky. However, he said, he will continue to serve as executive of the local presbytery. "The Baltimore Presbytery is very well-organized, and I trust my people implicitly to keep things running while I'm away. Plus, we'll be able to communicate between Louisville and Baltimore by fax and computer and phone, so it'll work out fine. They can manage it," said Valentine, who was joined at the news conference by his wife, Marilyn, and their daughter, son and infant granddaughter.