by Kelly Wilson
Is liturgical worship welcoming everyone to the table?
In the last installment of the “Evangelical Shift” series, we talked about how liturgical worship connects people, how we believe that the presence of Christ is incarnate among us when we gather together, and how everyone is invited to drink from the same cup, both metaphorically and literally.
The modern-day Episcopal Church in the United States has progressive values, has dedicated itself to social justice issues for the last half century, and has made public declarations of repentance and lamentation for its past role in slavery and White power systems. The Episcopal Church is now headed by an African-American Presiding Bishop. So, it seems like a church that is set up to attract and embrace people of color.
However, congregations in Episcopal churches in America are still overwhelmingly White, even as the American population becomes more diverse. The demographics of the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches don’t reflect the full diversity of our communities.
This installment asks what we can do to make our claim that “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” radically true for everyone—including black churchgoers and other people of color. The first part of that conversation is looking at where American churches are, and where we have been, in our relationship to race.
Black Evangelicals in “the Diaspora”
This series began with an examination of a small group of evangelical and formerly evangelical writers and thinkers who found themselves “on the Canterbury trail,” eventually finding a home in mainline protestant churches. Most of the folks I talked with early on were white or from largely white churches.
This chapter will look more closely at the experience of black churchgoers and other people of color, particularly those recently coming from evangelical backgrounds, and their experience in approaching progressive churches and liturgical worship.
In March 2018, Campbell Robertson wrote an article for The New York Times about a “Quiet Exodus” of many black churchgoers who had, in recent decades, begun to find comfort and sanctuary in largely white evangelical churches. As the Times describes it:
In the last couple of decades, there had been signs, however modest, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America. “Racial reconciliation” was the talk of conferences and the subject of formal resolutions. Large Christian ministries were dedicated to the aim of integration, and many black Christians decided to join white-majority congregations. Some went as missionaries, called by God to integrate. Others were simply drawn to a different worship style—short, conveniently timed services that emphasized a personal connection to God.
And, according to the numbers, the under-the-radar movement toward reconciliation was starting to bear out in church attendance:
In 2012, according to a report from the National Congregation Study, more than two-thirds of those attending white-majority churches were worshiping alongside at least some black congregants, a notable increase since a similar survey in 1998. This was more likely to be the case in evangelical churches than in mainline Protestant churches, and more likely in larger ones than in smaller ones.
In an article on the website The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, entitled “After Lemonade: The Future of Black Christians in the Diaspora,” writer and teacher Dr. Esau McCaulley also talks about some of the influences behind black churchgoers entering into “white Christian spaces”:
These black folks were not the first to enter these spaces, but the progressive black tradition in white mainline churches was a foreign thing to them. Therefore, they did not follow their forbearers into white mainline churches. On the other hand, the black church experience was hard to come by on the college campuses where our adult faith decisions were made. To be honest, some of us were arrogant and unappreciative of the traditions that formed us. We left home looking for the promised land only to find ourselves out in the cold.
Nonetheless, a large number of us found ourselves immersed in white Evangelical spaces by conviction or circumstance. These spaces, if not exactly woke, were happy to have us. But the forever-present issues of justice strained the fellowship.
The New York Times article describes how political and social issues, particularly disparate reactions to police shootings of black people in America, were already cause for concern, even before the last presidential election:
Black congregants—as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere—had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than some deeper disconnect.
But for many black churchgoers, the election of 2016 was too much to bear. As the Times put it:
Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to N.F.L. players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.
In The Witness, McCaulley puts it more bluntly, saying:
If the shootings transformed happy conversations at the dinner tables into stilted talk with long pauses and a multitude of side eyes, the election caused us to pack up our stuff and leave. It was our elevator incident. The 81 percent became an immovable point of reference in the black Christian conscience.
When McCaulley talks about the “elevator incident,” he is talking about the infamous fight between musicians Jay-Z and Solange while Beyoncé (and the world, via security camera) looked on.
In his view, the white evangelical church, in its choice of bedfellows, has betrayed black churchgoers, and while the latter might rightly call out their pain as Beyoncé did on her groundbreaking work of art, “Lemonade,” he asks if the evangelical church will ever offer an apology as Jay-Z did through his heartfelt confessional album, “4:44.”
The New York Times tries to put the “exodus” in its proper context, in terms of scope, and recognizes that some churches are trying to talk about the divide:
It has been a scattered exodus — a few here, a few there — and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage. Plenty of multiracial churches continue to thrive, and at some churches, tough conversations on race have begun.
But for many for whom the breach is too painful, whose faith communities are not yet doing the work of reconciliation, staying in largely white evangelical churches isn’t an option. As McCaulley describes it:
Many black Christians, then, find themselves in the diaspora. We left the churches that raised us but no longer fit in the places that we have called home.
Whiteness, early America, and the Church
Since the beginning of American history, religion, politics, and the work of maintaining white power structures have been deeply entangled. This is true of the historical Episcopal Church, which has had many of its own racial sins to account for, as well as many of the evangelical movements that developed thereafter.
But if one looks back to before the American experiment even started, to the Church of England, from which the Episcopal Church is descended, one is reminded, that our mother church was also based not just in theology, but also in politics and ethnicity. The Church of England was, and to some degree, still is an unapologetically ethnic church—as in, the Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. As the Reverend Winnie Varghese, the Director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Church, Wall Street, says:
For those of us that are Americans, the idea seems strange, because we think of England as an empire, meaning they are somehow neutral and have to include everyone. But they don’t. They choose who they are. They are clear that this church came from this ground, that there were holy wells here and Druids here and other practices that we have acculturated into our church and that we still observe. The rituals they follow are of their ethnicity, of their language, of their music. They are very articulate about church rooted in the soil. For those of us who are Americans, Australians, Canadians—those of us who wiped out the indigenous populations—we don’t have that same context of the land. So we are making culture as we go.
Among the political and personal reasons King Henry VIII established the Church of England as being separate from the papacy, one of his arguments was that a church should be tied to the local land, people, and culture in which it is rooted, hence the strong sense of Anglo-Saxon culture infused into the Anglican Church.
Similarly, the early Episcopal Church in post-Revolutionary America created its own identity, tied to the political, social, and geographically influenced culture of its day. That early American church identity was intrinsically entangled with white supremacy, from the genocide and subjugation of the native people to the building of a slave economy that helped white settlers “subdue” the American soil.
In her article in Sojourners magazine entitled “How Evangelicals Became White,” the Very Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, Ph.D., Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary talks about how the earliest Americans, from the Puritans and Pilgrims to founders such as Thomas Jefferson saw themselves as a kind of “new Israelites,” of Anglo-Saxon extraction:
From its beginning, America’s social identity, with a legitimating religious canopy, was Anglo-Saxon. Even Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin envisioned America as a sacred witness to Anglo-Saxon character and values, if not people….
Jefferson’s proposed language for a United States seal affirmed this belief. As John Adams described it, Jefferson’s seal included “the children of Israel in the wilderness…and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” America’s democracy was conceived as an expression of a biblically ordained Anglo-Saxon mission.
When the American Episcopal church broke away from the Crown, it remained associated with white systems of power and a slaveholding economy. Several of the founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, counted themselves Episcopalian and unapologetically owned slaves. They wrote of the inalienable rights of every man, without recognizing the dignity and liberty of the Black men and women who had built the new nation.
Even today, a quarter of US Presidents claim membership in the Episcopal Church, showing there is still a connecting thread to royalty and to the original Anglo-Saxon power structures upon which America was founded.
It may seem that it was inevitable that a church denomination newly rooted in America and its white power structures would necessarily reinforce those structures in its theology, but history shows us that there were other possibilities.
Evangelicals who took a different direction
Whenever I have conversations about race relations in American churches with my evangelical friends and family (having come from an evangelical background myself), I am reminded that earlier in American history, before the Civil War, there were some evangelical churches at the forefront of early abolition and social justice movements, while the Episcopal church and other burgeoning mainline churches stood by or actively supported the white power structure of the time, not only failing to criticize slavery but sometimes even coming to its defense.
One denomination in particular that took another direction is the Wesleyan Church (the denomination in which I was baptized, years before being confirmed as an Episcopalian), which is an American Protestant denomination that broke away from the Methodist Episcopal church in the 1840s.
The “Methodists” had begun decades earlier as a movement within the Church of England, led by brothers John and Charles Wesley, and focused on personal piety, anti-elitism, and working for Christian justice in the world. The Wesley brothers brought their teaching to the Americas in the mid-1700s, and after the American Revolution, it evolved into its own denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church.
From its earliest days, the Methodist movement had been anti-slavery, beginning with John Wesley’s own writings. However, over time, and under pressure by a society in which slavery was still legal and seen as essential to the economy, many felt the MEC had strayed from its anti-slavery roots. The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church had broken away in 1796, founded by a group of free and enslaved blacks who had been treated poorly within the largely white MEC church. For example, although the MEC allowed black churchgoers, they could not take communion until all of the white congregants, even their children, had partaken.
By the 1840s, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) had grown into the largest denomination in America. By that time, there was enough tension around slavery and the rights of black Americans among white members of the MEC that a group of dedicated abolitionists broke away in 1842 to form their own movement. This new Wesleyan movement—which eventually birthed the Wesleyan Church—was built squarely around an anti-slavery (and anti-episcopacy) ideal.
The early history of the Wesleyan Church is one of bold and risky anti-slavery teaching, from John Wesley preaching in the slave port of Bristol, England, in the early 1700s to Micajah McPherson preaching on Freedom Hill in the 1840s, deep in slaveholding territory in Guilford County, NC. (McPherson was eventually lynched for his teaching, although surprisingly, he survived and continued to preach in NC after the event.)
Wesleyan ministers and congregations were members of abolition societies. Wesleyan Churches and colleges were stations on the Underground Railroad. These early evangelicals were an example of what it looks like to practice what they preached.
As with the Wesleyan/Methodist split, similar schisms were seen in other protestant churches at the time, largely along southern/northern lines. Divisions appeared within the Presbyterian Church and the Baptist Church (which created the Southern Baptist Convention, currently the largest Christian denomination in the United States.)
There was even a small group of southern Episcopal churches that tried to break away from the larger church at that time, but the Northern church refused to recognize the split.
One of the forces that helped keep the Episcopal Church together through and after the civil war was then Presiding Bishop John Henry Hopkins. Although a northerner from Vermont, Hopkins was sympathetic to the views of southern slaveholding states.
As late as 1863—fully 2 years into the Civil War and 20 years after the Wesleyans split from the MEC—Hopkins wrote a book called “Bible View of Slavery,” which defended the practice of slavery in Biblical terms, from Abraham all the way through the New Testament directives on how to be a good slave and beyond.
Although Hopkins and other leaders within the Episcopal Church were effective in serving the power structures of their day, we can be thankful that church leaders over time finally saw that the defense of white supremacy could not last, if the church was going follow the Gospel and be on the right side of history.
A new direction for the Episcopal Church
One can see an enormous shift in the Episcopal Church through the 20th century, which became particularly defined in the 1950s. I spoke with the Right Reverend Clifton “Dan” Daniel, who is the newest Dean at the Cathedral of St John Divine in NYC (where I also work and worship) about this massive shift:
The Episcopal Church hadn’t always been on the right side of the fence in terms of race and racism, but at the beginning of the late ’50s, we began to wake up as a church to say, “Now, wait a minute. There are some things wrong here. In the name of the Lord we follow, in the name of justice and truth and peace, we need to address these issues.” …And we’ve continued on that path since, thank the Lord. We have changed mightily over the years, and I believe in the leading of the Spirit, and I pray that we continue to follow that Spirit.
At the 1958 General Convention, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution that recognized “the natural dignity and value of every man, of whatever color or race, as created in the image of God.” That same resolution commissioned Episcopalians to work together for social justice, as represented in education, employment, and housing.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Episcopal Church continued to carry the mantle of progressivism and made a concerted, intentional effort to fight for civil rights and social justice. By some accounts, this shift in the Episcopal Church’s direction from catering to high society to working for the betterment of the community right outside cost the Church in membership, but the church has continued in this progressive direction in the years since.
Evangelicals change their focus away from social justice
The years after the civil rights movement saw many evangelical denominations withdraw from the “Social Gospel” and focus more inwardly on personal salvation and an eschatological worldview that resulted in less urgency for Christians to better the world around them as they held out hope for the next.
Those decades also saw partnerships between many Evangelical denominations and conservative politicians, whose socioeconomic focus was not on creating equal opportunities or fighting for social justice, but rather expecting people of color to assimilate to succeed.
As Wesleyan scholars Ken Schenck, Dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University and Jeremy Summers, Director of Adult Spiritual Formation of The Wesleyan Denomination write on the Missio Alliance website, even the Wesleyans changed their focus in the 20th century, falling in line with trends throughout the evangelical movement:
In the twentieth century…as the rest of Evangelicalism reacted against the social gospel, many grass roots Christians in the Wesleyan tradition found their intuitions turn against helping the needy, against helping immigrants, against anything associated with liberalism, including care for God’s creation. Many of us stood idly by in the civil rights movement, choosing to see protesters as law-breakers rather than standing by their side in the civil disobedience that was a hallmark of our beginnings.
It seems that for many in Evangelical circles, the civil rights movement had done enough to create opportunities for people of color, and there was no need to take on pervasive white privilege and systemic racism, even when it existed in predominantly white churches. The neglect of these issues has led to some of the big differences today between whites and blacks in their perceptions about the state of race relations in America.
It is heartening that the Times piece cited earlier in this article reports that there are evangelical churches working to have those hard conversations and are working to overcome the racism and white supremacy that they have previously ignored.
It is heartening to hear Evangelical voices like Shane Claiborne, Beth Moore, and others ask, where is our sense of Christian justice when it comes to racism, poverty, and sexism.
There is much good at the heart of the evangelical movement, in its commitment to an authentic relationship with Jesus and to one another, and my heart goes out to those who are actually doing the work to make that tradition inclusive.
At the same time, it is a huge challenge to get past those 81 percent who voted for an administration for whom “Make America Great Again” looks very much like “Make America White Again.”
But as history has shown us, there are so many possibilities. Churches can change, if they do so with intentionality, commitment, and the willingness to relinquish their power and be led forward by the Spirit.
What do we want to be?
It is against the backdrop of this history, of churches that were once the instrument of royalty and the weapon of slaveholders, of churches that could have taken a stand against injustice yet so often took a step only to stumble, that the picture we saw just a few weeks ago was so amazing: Presiding Bishop Curry—a Black Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church in America—preaching and sharing elements of liberation theology and teaching from the American historic Black church, right there in contrast all the trappings of the Royal Wedding in the heart of England.
So much of our church history was right there, in one image—where we were, where we are, as well as hints at where we could go from here.
I spoke with the Reverend Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation and author of “Radical Welcome” and “The Episcopal Way” (with Eric Law), about her first impressions, as a woman of color, on where the Episcopal Church is and where we are going:
What happened was that I fell in love with this church. I fell in love with the Episcopal Church, in my head, and my heart, and in my gut. Something just connected. The theology, the approach to God, the idea that you didn’t have to say no to your body, the queer spirituality that had shaped my entry into Christianity—they all had their home in the Episcopal Church. It was the space where, theoretically, liberation theology could best be lived in.
And then I got inside and I was like where are all the black folks? Where are all the liberation people? Because this is the perfect space for people who believe in liberation and a Jesus movement.
But what I realized once I got inside was that the Episcopal Church was torn between being a church of Empire, a church very squarely at the center of power, and a church with the frame suitable for liberation traditions. It made me think of what Cranmer said in the beginning of the first prayer books, when he says that we are not going to lean too hard in one extreme or another. We’re not going to cling to certain traditions or culture, but we’re also not going to embrace every change that passes our way.
We’re going to be the church of Via Media, the balanced approach that ultimately can be contextual AND catholic.
The Episcopal Church is a church that could be good at being both, if it decides it wants to.
In the next part of this chapter, we will continue the conversation with a panel of writers and clergy about what the Episcopal Church is doing, and what it needs to do, to be as effectively and radically welcoming to everyone, including people of color, even as we live into our own unique culture as a church. (And a few more Beyonce references than I was expecting.)
Featured panelists include Austin Channing Brown, Rachel Held Evans, the Reverend Dr. Michael Burdette, the Very Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, the Reverend Canon Altagracia Pérez-Bullard, the Reverend Canon Stephanie Spellers, and the Reverend Winnie Varghese.
Kelly Wilson is a writer and blogger living in New York City, where he also serves on the staff of the landmark Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. More of his writing can be found at www.kellywilson.com.