EULOGY: DR. ALAN DAN ORME
Given at his funeral, Sept. 3, 2015, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Athens, Ga.
We have a lot of people at University Church now (and more reading this) who did not have the privilege of knowing Dr. Orme when he was still himself. Because knowing something about the unique person Dan was is essential to understanding the nature, history, and personality of the church he founded, I would like to give a fairly full history of his life before saying a little about my own personal memories. I do this both to honor Dan and because I think knowing these things is very crucial at this point in the history of University Church, and may be instructive to his friends in other churches. These are things I have picked up from being his parishioner and his friend for the last forty years.
Alan Dan Orme was not raised in a Christian home. A mediocre student in high school, his only ambition was to work as a carpenter and build houses. He was saved during his time as a soldier in the Korean War, and returned to the states afterward with a new sense of calling and a new love of learning as a result. He enrolled in Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University), where he took a BS in Biblical Education, and then proceeded to Covenant Theological Seminary (B. Div., Th.M.) and the University of Georgia (MA in Classics, PhD in History with a concentration in Patristics). He was the most learned pastor I’ve personally known, but always wore his learning lightly. You could see it informing everything he said if you knew how to look.
After seminary, Dan was ordained in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (which later merged with the Presbyterian Church in America). He pastored a few small churches and then served as academic dean of Carver Bible College, a school for African Americans in Atlanta. This was at a time when “race-mixing” was still an evil epithet in the South. Dan basically didn’t care. He raised the academic standards there as much as he could, given the school’s budget and culture. He came to Athens in the late sixties to work on his advanced degrees at UGA. When he showed up in town he still had his army buzz cut. That, and a lot else, was going to change.
Dan and a small group of his fellow Christians (I think Darwin Smith is the only one left of that original group) were concerned that there was no church in Athens at that time that was both conservative and good at reaching out to the university community. They wanted a church that would be solidly committed to historic Christian faith without being implicated in what Mark Noll would later call “the scandal of the Evangelical mind,” and that would be specifically oriented to reaching out to the youth culture (hippies at the time) and meeting the religious needs, including the intellectual challenges, facing university students who were already believers. University Church was the result of that vision.
I did not become a member until 1976 when I moved to Athens to pursue my own doctorate after graduating from seminary, but I first met Dan while visiting a friend of mine at UGA in about 1970 when the church was in its infancy. It was meeting in a UGA conference room in Memorial Hall. There was no piano; music was provided by a guitar and a violin on the melody (classical hymns). The room had a long conference table surrounded by chairs. Dan improvised a pulpit by putting his brief case on a stack of books at the head of the conference table. Because most of the young people in the church at that time were hippies, Dan had let his buzz cut grow out. His hair was half way down his back; his classic goatee was already there, but black instead of the white we know now. He had on his clerical collar and black shirt with a big, gaudy cross on hippy beads hanging down the front, and an army field jacket thrown over the whole ensemble. Out of that bizarre looking person was coming careful exposition just like what Dan’s later congregants were used to.
Visually Dan had identified with his audience, but in the content and style of the sermon there was no effort whatsoever to be “relevant” or hip. Dan trusted the Gospel and the truth of Scripture to be relevant just because of what they were. There was a bit of wry humor that you would miss if you weren’t paying attention (most people were); the rest was straightforward teaching and application. There was, though, an earnestness about it, as if the person speaking truly believed that his and our understanding and following the Scriptures was a matter of life and death. I don’t remember the specific content of that sermon, but one impression from that day stayed with me. The sermon was from the Epistles, so it wasn’t about Jesus directly. But when Dan had occasion to refer to Him, there was none of the buddy-buddy shtick that was common in youth-oriented ministry at that time. Dan’s voice changed ever so slightly. A subtle emotional husk came into it, and he referred to the Savior as “the Lord of Glory” as if he had actually pondered the meaning of those words and fully meant them. I turned to my friend at the end of the sermon and said, “That man knows what it is to be a pastor.” Boy, was I right!
So when I came to Athens half a decade later, I already knew what church I was going to join. Dan told me he had assumed he would pastor the church until he graduated with his doctorate and then pass it on to someone else. He wanted to end up teaching church history in seminary. But the call to do that never came, and Dan was faithful to his charge for over three decades until his memory loss made it impossible for him to remain effective.
We all thought Dan deserved a larger audience, but he never acted as if he thought so. There was a basic humility about the man such as I have seldom seen in anyone so gifted. He was the founding pastor of University Church. He could very easily have become its little pope if he had wanted to. But he insisted from the beginning on shared leadership because he believed it was the right thing to do. His intellect was top notch. He read Greek fluently. We used to have a Greek reading group which he led, where those of us who had taken some Greek would take turns reading a verse and translating it (with Dan’s critique) to keep our skills up. His knowledge of church history was as deep and rich as any seminary church history professor I ever met. He focused particularly on the three periods he considered crucial: the Patristic era, the Reformation, and the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in early Twentieth-Century America. But he knew the rest well too, and it was a never-ending source of illustrations for his sermons. Yet despite his academic bent and real expertise in exegesis, theology, and history, he never used technical jargon or quoted anything just to show off. Most learned and least pretentious—it is a rare combination. Too rare.
Too rare, I say. I was in 1976 a hot-shot seminary graduate who thought I was the most brilliant theologian since Calvin. Dan gave me a chance to preach sometime that first year. I quoted several theologians that nobody had ever heard of or cared about precisely because nobody had heard of them and because their names were hard to pronounce, just to show off how learned and brilliant I was. “Stop by sometime next week,” said Dan in his inimitable upstate-NY twang. I did. “What did you think of the sermon,” I asked, expecting him to be properly impressed. “Do you have any idea what a jackass you are?” was his response (I quote it precisely). I didn’t. He explained it to me. And then he asked me to preach again, very soon after that. I was, shall we say, somewhat less of a jackass that time. It was exactly what I needed. If I have learned anything at all about how to take intellectual gifts and use them for the actual edification of the church, I learned it from Dan Orme, who taught it to me by precept, by example, and by rebuke—and by loving patience and giving me a second chance that I frankly did not deserve.
There were other aspects to why Dan is my role model and should be yours. He was willing to let Scripture rather than cultural expectations set the agenda for the church. I think we start at 10:00 as much because it isn’t 11:00 as because Dan realized that the New Testament program for the church could not be realized in one hour. But the things I want to close with are more issues of character. Integrity, intelligence, humility, faithfulness, and tough love may not be what the church thinks it wants in a pastor, but they are what it truly needs. I learned what little I know of these things from Dan Orme. I’m glad some of you got to see them in him too.
A member of University Church from 1976-82 and an elder from about 1979-82, Donald T. Williams returned to U.C. in 2,000 after several years of planting a church in Toccoa, Ga., where he serves as R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College.
To visit the church website, go to http://www.theuniversitychurch.org.