One of the most frustrating projects I’m working on is developing a theology that is grounded firmly in an explicitly Anglican tradition and Orthodox perspective. I find myself reading people like Ephraim Radner and Bishop George Sumner, people who see folk like myself as a direct threat to themselves and Christianity itself. I’m reading them because I think their effort to reorient the Episcopal/Anglican tradition in a faithful and Biblical way are essential to reform and renewal and ultimately the survival of this tradition. But when you see their utter disdain, contempt, and despair at the very thought of LGBT people being grafted into the people of God and having their lives fully included, it makes if hard to give the rest of their theological musings a fair hearing. Why have these people let the issue of sexuality become the seat and center of their theological resistance? Why not the abandonment of the Creeds or the neglect of the Thirty-nine Articles, or the devaluation of proselytization? Perhaps this is how freed slaves felt reading theology in the immediate aftermath of Emancipation. So frustrating.
This may seem a strange title. But it comes from an experience I’ve recently been pondering about the question of race relations in the Episcopal Church.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending my first Diocesan Convention for the Diocese of Ohio. I was there to help my parish historian setup and man a display tables on our local chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, and the table for the Commission on Racial Understanding. From time to time I’d stick my head into the proceedings, sometimes lingering for an hour or so before going back out to watch our displays and talk to passersby about the UBE poster boards. And on one of those occasions, I happened to be present for the discussion facilitated by the Commission on Racial Understanding.
The question before us was how we could promote Racial Understanding in the Diocese of Ohio. And their were a lot of interesting suggestions from my fellow conventioneers. One person suggested shutting down racist talk at the Thanksgiving Dinner Table. Someone else suggested that the Office of the Bishop send someone over from the Diocese to each parish and facilitate further discussions on the subject of race. Someone else proposed that local parishes enter into dialogue with the “local baptist church” to get to know what Black people really think.
These suggestions and the others I heard that day struck me as very…Episcopalian. Quite well meaning, but perhaps slightly missing the point. Because the question that I had as I heard these suggestions coming in was: How can you enter into deeper racial understanding if you don’t have anyone to talk to? And if you have to go talk to your “local baptist church” to find enough black people in your parish to talk to about race relations, doesn’t that reflect poorly on diversity in our Diocese and our Church?
And there lies the rub for me. There are few Denominations that I’ve seen that are more fully committed to Racial Justice in the US then the Episcopal Church. We are almost always in the trenches, always trying to conform ourselves and our members to high standards of sensitivity, awareness, and activism regarding matters of race in the wider socio-economic context in which we live. But we lack one thing: Black People.
African-Americans make up only 6% of Episcopalian membership in the USA according to a 2013 report from the Office of Black Ministries. Predominantly African-Americans are to be found primarily in 5 diocese on the East Coast. We are 13% of the US population as a whole. To reach that lowly percentage in our Church, the number of Black people in the Episcopal Church would have to more than double.
But these are just statistics. For me as an African-American man who will soon be confirmed into the Diocese of Ohio and the wider Episcopal Church, I sometimes wonder why Evangelism, and by this I mean seeking new members is such a no-no in our denomination. I question the commitment of my Church to Racial Justice and Racial understanding when many of the places where the Episcopal Church exists, yet refuses to ask people to join, are metropolitan areas where the surrounding population is heavily African-American.
Now this is how I feel. I’m well aware that the modern Episcopalian reticence to engage others and ask them to become Episcopalian is predicated on a number of considerations and concerns, race being the least of them. But this feeling, which many African-Americans in the Episcopal Church share, isn’t a widely known one because, frankly, there aren’t very many of us around to articulate and express it. Which leads us back to the issue of Racial Understanding.
If Episcopalians want to understand black people better, we have to ask them to be a part of our shared life together. As Christians, our communal life as the gathered body of Christ is the most important aspect of our shared life. It’s the place here we meet, share, work, pray, and go to God’s table of abundance to be fed together. Is there a better place for people of diverse backgrounds to engage in deeper understanding?
To many Episcopalians, the task seems daunting and perhaps a bit distasteful. Deep in the back of their minds, some may wonder if inviting others to join our Church might be nothing but an unwelcome annoyance to black people. They fear getting rejected or having uncomfortable conversations. Others may wonder if there’s anything to offer the African-American community.
To the first concern I say yes, you’ll get rejected sometimes, and you’ll have uncomfortable and awkward conversations and situations come up when you actively invite people to join your Church. But the fact is that if you don’t ask you won’t get. And if you do ask you will get. Many African-Americans are open to hearing what people tell them about God. And we’re willing to give other views a chance. As for the second concern,Episcopalians won’t convince everyone, maybe not even most Black people. But many will be convinced by the inclusivity, passion, commitment, beauty, humility, orthodoxy, and faithfulness to the love of God in Christ and through his people that characterizes the Episcopal Church at it’s best. It caught my attention.
And this isn’t completely theoretical on my part. I know it works because I grew up in thefastest growing and most racially diverse denomination in the US today: Seventh-day Adventists. Compared to Adventists, Episcopalians have an easier sell. Adventists are moderately conservative, theologically unique, and much less politically active and progressive than the Episcopal Church. And it too was founded by racially challenged white people from the Northeast. But they made a commitment early on in their history to reach out to the African-American community. And though they had many of the flaws in outreach prior to the Civil Rights movement that Episcopalians had, they kept asking. And it’s paid off for them. And if that example isn’t enough, the third most racially diverse religious group in the US as of this year are Jehovah’s Witnesses. A more extreme example.
The Episcopal Church has a lot to offer African-Americans, and it already has given our community much in education and talent. Many of the great minds of African American history and experience have been shaped in the Episcopal Church. And the Episcopal Church has even more to gain, not least in terms of greater racial awareness and understanding, by increasing the number of African American members. So, I’d encourage my soon to be official Church, to go out, reach out, and invite in your African-American brothers and sisters. You won’t regret it.