Friday, May 2, 2008

The True Believers in Catholicity

One of the students in my class wrote his final paper on black Episcopalians in the U.S.

In his paper he described the historic commitment of American Anglicanism to the institution of slavery. He described the traditional emphasis on segregated worship and the exclusion of blacks from the ranks of the clergy. He described how, even as black Episcopalians later were admitted to the ordained clergy and as some even rose in the twentieth century to the rank of "Suffragan Bishop" (a kind of assistant bishop), they experienced intensely racist attitudes, and tended to be treated as servants and second-class citizens at best. Some white Episcopal priests and bishops openly admitted to being members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Things gradually got better in the 1960s, as the Episcopal hierarchy sought to reform church practice in response to the Civil Rights movement. But, my student wrote in his paper, despite the election of black bishops (including Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Anglican communion) black Episcopalians have observed a less inclusive environment since the 1980s and 1990s, and have wondered if some of the progress in terms of racial equality since the '60s has been lost.

Historically the only way to be a black Episcopalian was to assume a posture of submissiveness and humility. Black Episcopalians were squeezed from all sides. They suffered racism from white Episcopalians. But they were also criticized and questioned by non-Episcopalian blacks, who accused them of being "Uncle Toms," who questioned their faith and thought something was wrong with them, or who suggested that the only reason they affiliated themselves with the Episcopal Church was for the selfish goals of economic networking and social advancement.

But black Episcopalians themselves insisted it was something else. It was their commitment to a quaint Episcopalian notion called "catholicity." This was the belief that Christ's Church is universal. That it embraces all believers. That the Church on earth is the visible, this-worldly, temporal manifestation of a communion that is eternal and without end, and in which all faithful have a full and equal place, regardless of the color of their skin. Their membership was a sign and a witness of this truth, and a manifestation of the love of God for all people, which black Episcopalians demonstrated unstintingly even toward their white brothers and sisters who looked down on them and discriminated against them.

When I read about this long and abysmal history of Episcopalian racism, and the fact that even the relatively few glimmers of hopefulness since the 1960s seem to have dimmed in recent years, at first I was depressed.

But as I reflected on it, that sense of depression lifted, and I considered the fact that when, in the Empire of God, future histories of the Episcopal Church in America are written, Christ and the angels and all the saints will look back on this history, and they will say, "There were Episcopalians who truly believed in catholicity. If there was ever a true Episcopal Church, these were it."


Anonymous said...

a few years ago (okay, 12 years), i worked for a few months in northern mississippi.

i was invited to a local church's christmas program and was surprised (shocked?) to see that out of several hundred people, there was just one african-american, a young woman who had come with white friends.

naive that i was/am, i just didn't expect to see so much institutional/economic segreation.

the lds church down the road met in a "triple-wide" and had one or two black families very sunday.

J G-W said...

At Stake Conference two weeks ago, an African American woman was sitting behind me, and through the whole conference, I heard her saying "Amen!" and "Yes!" and "Yes, Lord!" to everything the speakers were saying in that "Black Church" style. I can't adequately describe how delightful it was to hear that happening in a Mormon meeting house.

In the two and a half going on three years I've been attending my downtown Minneapolis ward, I've seen quite a few African American members come and go. In fact, it seems that the majority of investigators the missionaries have brought in have been African American, African, or Afro-Caribbean. But unfortunately it seems no African American members have consistently stayed active in the ward or received any ward callings.