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The Episcopal Church wrestles with a pro-slavery history on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line

The Episcopal Church wrestles with a pro-slavery history on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line

Left: Cathedral of St. John, photo Max Binder. Right: St. Paul’s Episcopal, photo Morgan Riley

The Cathedral of St. John in Providence, R.I., closed in 2012, will reopen as a racial reconciliation center and a museum focused on the history of slavery in Northern states.

The New York Times spoke to Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely about how his diocese is confronting a complex history.

From the article:

“I want to tell the story,” Bishop Knisely said, “of how the Episcopal Church and religious voices participated in supporting the institution of slavery and how they worked to abolish it. It’s a mixed bag.”

The idea for the museum came out in community discussions, and has been accelerated by the energy surrounding the nationwide protests against police violence and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. More information on the plans are available at the NYTimes site, and you can read about the idea behind this on an old blog entry at the Tracing Center.

In Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, another church wrestles with their legacy. St Paul’s Episcopal Church is discussing the Confederate imagery incorporated into their stained glass windows, kneelers, and memorial plaques. A catalog is here.

Some of the imagery recasts Civil War generals as Old Testament figures.

From the article:

Both men (Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee) are memorialized in stained-glass windows. One window depicts Lee as Moses, “in the attire of a prince turning away from the house of Pharaoh and dropping his wand of office,” according to a church history, “Windows of Grace, A Tribute of Love.” The book says the window is a reference to Lee’s decision to turn down an offer to command the Union forces.

Davis is portrayed in chains as St. Paul before King Herod Agrippa. “This biblical event alludes to Jefferson Davis’ own two-year imprisonment following the Civil War,” according to the book.

The article mentions other Episcopal churches addressing the same issues, and notes that nothing conclusive has been decided; St. Paul’s is working with a professional facilitator, and has established a process for the congregation and the vestry to work through before making any changes.

Is your church having these conversations? Are you thinking about your own history?


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Philip B. Spivey

I’m gratified to see that the Pandora’s Box of America’s original sin was cracked open a bit for this discussion—and nobody died. Rather, perhaps we all will come away the wiser.

Maybe the church corpus will do the same for itself. Perhaps the church corpus can lead the nation is this conversation. Maybe we’ll finally GET IT DONE.

Paul Woodrum

I find St. Paul’s is quite integrated, a good thing. If the congregation wants to change its Tiffany windows, that’s up to them. However, my point is you can’t change history. It is what it is. To ignore it or re-write it to what makes us comfortable in our day doesn’t help the arc of justice bend any farther. Truth comes through understanding, not avoidance.

As to slavery, sadly, it is the economic foundation, north and south, of this nation built on the social and moral claim that all people are created equal.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Great points, David. Of course, in Germany there was a de-Nazification process and some symbols and speech are illegal. The US did not impose a de-slavery process, not that I know what one would have looked like. But what we have is a re-writing of history in many ways, including those windows. Portraying RE Lee as Moses!

It goes beyond St. Paul’s because we are an episcopal church. We believe that all it’s members make up the Body of Christ. Those windows insult that body. So no, just like slavery wasn’t a “states rights” issue, neither should the decision on these windows be made without input from the larger body.

Paul Woodrum

Does “ALL people” include the white folks who founded, built, worshipped and worship at St. Paul’s, Richmond? I don’t know if the parish is integrated or not. If it isn’t, I suspect it has more to do with attitudes on both sides than a couple anachronistic picture windows. I do recall that when John Shelby Spong, Rector of St. Paul’s, became Bishop of Newark, he invited St. Paul’s African American sexton to come to Newark to be sexton and integrate Diocesan House staff, a move I suspect dis-integrated St. Paul’s. I always thought that was more insulting and pathetic than a piece of glass from another era could ever be.

I deplore the segregation in our church but think the solution is far more nuanced than rearranging the deck chairs, errr, stained glass windows.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Of course ALL people, including the founders of St. Paul’s, are created in the image of God. But it is not necessary to honor their grievous sin in perpetuity. Or to honor the heroes of their grievous sin forever. Especially when we are still striving to heal from their evil.

Those windows are propaganda, and they are a continued insult.

Perhaps St. Paul’s, and supporters of the windows, should take a poll of African American Episcopalians. If they overwhelming vote to take them down, are you going to respect their voice, or insist that that your “history” (quite revisionist) trumps their sensitivities?

Philip B. Spivey

Paul: Racial integration in our parishes is an entirely separate issue which has no bearing on whether TEC should condone portrayals of Confederate generals as heroes of the Christian faith.

Of course you, and many others in our church, will find no theological contradictions here and do hope that the windows will remain in place, un-chastened, just as they have up to now.

However, I think there are far more others in TEC who, like myself, believe these symbols have no place in the 21st century as anything more than reminders of time when our church gave succor to slaveholders and was enriched by them.

Paul Woodrum

The custom of using living people as models for historical characters has been pretty common for a few hundred years. In my first cure, a 19th century Blashfield painting above the altar, “The Angel of the Resurrection,” was reputedly a portrait of the founding family’s daughter (though I suspect the model was the artist’s wife) who died of consumption as a young woman. The altar guild always centered the altar cross right between her feet.

The only difference between this and St. Paul’s windows that nod to Confederacy leaders, once honored, as were Union leaders, in an attempt to reconcile a split nation, is shifting historical and political attitudes. Ironic as they may now strike us, they should be kept in situ as a caution of where we once were and as a measuring stick of where we now are and how far we still have to go.

These are in a different category than the Confederate Battle Flag revived in the 50’s and 60’s as a defiant symbol of racism and Jim Crow then being threatened by court ordered integration. We should be wary of both political iconoclasm and political correctness.

Cynthia Katsarelis

It isn’t about political correctness or iconoclasm. It is about whether or not ALL people are Created in the Image of God and if we are going to live with integrity into our Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of ALL people. It is about compassion for living persons who have suffered mightily

As Philip witnesses to us, I can’t imagine that our African American sisters and brothers would feel welcome in that church.

The moral, theological, and Gospel imperative to respect the dignity of our African American sisters and brothers trumps sentimentality over a massive human rights violation. If it is an important marker of where we were, then put it in a museum or display it on the church grounds with commentary.

This is about who we are and who we want to be, not who we were. And I can’t imagine being black and hearing white people defend this continued insult. Any African America who sticks around to Witness to us is a blessing.

Philip B. Spivey

Paul: This less about political correctness and more about placing an offensive symbol—a symbol of hate and oppression—in a sacred space; these symbols defile our sacred spaces. It’s about me, an African American, who disdains this symbol and doesn’t want to glance it when I raise my head from prayer.

General Lee and the bars and stripes have no place in a Christian house of worship. Any more than the Swastika or the visage of General George Armstrong Custer. Yes, they belong in museums.

Philip B. Spivey

Thank you for your witness, Cynthia. I pray your prayer, too. I agree, economics plays a central role as a stumbling block (Romans 14:13) to true justice in God’s Kingdom. Just mention the word ‘reparations’ and folks go into apoplexy.

Like love, justice is a verb; they require effort, action and sacrifice. Just like our Lord, Jesus.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Yes, reparations. If one really digs into it, it is hard to see justice and reconciliation without them.

I saw it best outside of the American context. We live in Bristol, England most summers and I looked into the slave trade from their end. Bristol is a port city and was pretty much at the heart of it. 20 ships a year left to get newly enslaved people, chain them in the hold, and take them on a 3 month journey to the New World. Some 10-15 percent of the people died and around 15 million slaves landed, that sounds like a holocaust to me. White people got massively rich. Lloyd’s of London? Barclay’s Bank? Made their fortune in the slave trade. Plantations run by the English made fortunes. When Britain outlawed slavery, they paid plantation owners £500,000 and the slaves nothing. Some of the historical info in Bristol is quite clear about the depth of cruelty (though they love to throw in anti-Americanism and illustrate how we were even worse, so they say).

The amount of wealth created by this horrific industry was huge, and it can be calculated, white people keep good books. I’m sure there’s a math that includes interest. If all of the newly freed slaves after the war had really gotten their 40 acres and a mule, that compensation would have been meaningful.

Meanwhile, we created a society that really helped white people enter the middle class, FHA loans, for one prime example.

I’m not sure what a massive capital investment in paying back wages would look like. Should it go to individuals or look more like a massive investment in schools and training programs and housing? I don’t what it looks like. I just know that there’s an outstanding debt and that it’s hard for those wounds to heal, and to move into a just and equal society without it.

Some of us white people love to tell our African American sisters and brothers that Jesus asked us to forgive and reconcile. We need to remember that Jesus clearly wanted us to pay just wages, and we haven’t. Justice is needed for reconciliation. The founding of America was a business endeavor, remember the Virginia Company? The Plymouth Company? The Dutch West Indies Company? Huge profits were made on the backs of blacks who were left out of the profits, to say the very least. The dynamics of this resonate to this very day.

Ditto debt relief for former colonies… another topic.

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