The Presenting Issue 50 Years Ago


By John B. Chilton

Fifty years ago the consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, were taking hold and racial tensions were high. This was certainly true in the State of Virginia. And the Diocese of Virginia. So, as is often the case with a divisive issue, the matter was referred to a commission. In January 1959 the Council of the Diocese of Virginia passed a resolution forming a Racial Study Commission charged with investigating racial problems within the Church. The commission had 30 members, equal numbers lay and clergy, three women, three blacks, a geographic balance, and with a representation of views from across the spectrum. Its report, The Race Problem and the Church, was submitted to Council the following year.

One section of the report seems especially germane to the presenting issue of today:

The Last Six Years

In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that public schools could not be segregated on the basis of race. The effects of this decision in the State of Virginia and within the area of our Diocese are known to all. Certain of these effects on the life of our Church require mention here.

We are acutely aware that every position taken by Church members in the political, legal and social struggle revolving around the public school issue is reflected within the life of our Diocese. We have tried to consider frankly the resulting fears, accusations and points of view. We believe that there are deep problems within the life of our Diocese. Primary among these is the deterioration of communication, not only between the races but also within the white race, where friends have ceased to discuss racial matters with other friends whom they know to take an opposing point of view.

“Lack of communication” is a hackneyed phrase but no other seems to do so well. By it we mean that often there exists an unwillingness or reluctance or inability to discuss. Lack of communication may also involve the conscious or unconscious lack of knowledge of facts. It likewise may be due to fear of scorn, ridicule or bitterness. We feel that lack of communication is a serious hindrance to the solution of many of our present difficulties in regard to racial matters.

Frequently, actions of the Council are not adequately communicated to the laity throughout the Diocese. As an illustration, many lay people were unaware that all distinctions of race were removed from the Constitution and Canons by the Council in 1949. In addition there has been division between laity and clergy, accentuated by resolutions and letters to newspapers. There have been assertions that the “authorities of the Diocese” are trying to lead us toward integration. There have been pronouncements and actions by the National Council which disturbed Church members in Virginia. Fear has been expressed by some white people that an effort was under way to abolish Negro congregations, leaving only white congregations with which the Negroes might worship. There has been a deep-seated fear that bringing whites and Negroes together will eventually lead to intermarriage.

We have examined, studied and discussed each of these and many other problems which have been brought to our attention. We have sought to understand what the Negro wants, his humiliation, his hurts, and his struggles – as interpreted to us by the Negro members of this Commission. In the sections that follow we state a few of the conclusions that we have reached.

(The Race Problem and the Church, pp. 19-20)

As the Commission underscores elsewhere in its report, while its members formed genuine bonds of affection and respect, the Commission remained deeply divided – a division that existed in the Diocese as a whole. It made few recommendations, and fewer firm ones. Given its composition it would be surprising if it were otherwise,

One area in which it did take a position was Church camp and conference centers, and there it advocated a retreat, perhaps reflecting blowback from the 1954 public school desegregation order. Certainly, a majority of the Commission concluded that the Diocese’s Department of Christian Education had gotten out ahead of the Diocese. The result was a compromise that called for segregated and desegregated camps and conferences. Again, from the report:

Camps and Conferences

We have given thorough consideration to the development of the policy of racial desegregation at the Camps and Conferences conducted under the auspices of the Department of Christian Education in our Diocese. We find that there is wide disagreement on what is best for the total life of the Diocese in the matter.

While the authority for determining how the facilities at Shrine Mont and Roslyn may be used, rests in autonomous bodies, the Council does determine policy as to Diocesan Camps and Conferences. Therefore, we respectfully submit the following recommendation to the Council:

We have found with great sorrow that at this time there are deep differences among us about the desegregation of Diocesan Camps and Conferences. Some of us feel desegregation was a step forward, others that it was a step backward. Still others feel that the change was made in a way that evoked deep and serious misunderstandings that have injured the unity of the Diocese. In the solidarity of Christian brotherhood, therefore, and with real suffering on all sides, we recommend that both segregated and desegregated Camps and Conferences be provided at this time. We are aware of the difficulties of administration that such a policy presents, but we believe it can be done on an alternating basis if necessary. This recommendation is motivated by a genuine concern for all of the children of the Diocese.

(The Race Problem and the Church, pp. 26-27.)

Despite that recommendation, camps and conferences were not re-segregated. And, with the passage of time, racial concerns in the Diocese subsided. They have not entirely disappeared, and the work of racial reconciliation continues although with ebbs and flows.

This episode in the history of the Diocese of Virginia is an object lesson for the church. In the years that followed, external and internal forces have created new divisive issues in the church with which we are familiar: women’s ordination, prayer book revision, same-sex marriage, and gay bishops. Parallels are there to ponder. Fear. Mistrust of bishops or of the national church. The pain of dialog. The friendships that can result in spite of deep differences. And despite engagement and listening, the flawed compromises that can result.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist on a busman’s holiday. He has taught at the University of Western Ontario, the University of South Carolina and the American University of Sharjah. He is keeper of The Emirates Economist, a weblog on economic events in the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf.

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John B. Chilton
John B. Chilton

I appreciate your reflections, Don.

As I have reflected on the document that line about intermarriage is the one that everything else seems to revolve around. So much else becomes clear with it there.

The part about camps and conferences underscores this. The more I read the report, and surrounding documents (reports of council in preceding years) the more I am convinced that what drove the creation of the commission was the narrow issue of the integration of camps and conferences for children and youth. (This began in 1954 or 55). The fears about intermarriage were adults' fears about how integration might change their children, how their children might change in their attitudes towards members of other races -- including the possibility they might fall in love. Extending integration beyond what the Supreme Court required would give the church's implicit endorsement to intermarriage.

The parallels with the acceptance of homosexuality as normal and not sinful are clear.

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Donald Schell


What a startling, important reminder you offer us here. It's like re-reading a personal journal from thirty years ago. The same person writing, but also (thank God) how we've changed. And knowing past change and old fears and certainties that we've grown beyond makes the present look different.

One thing that strikes me is the Virginia group's honest acknowledgment that,

"There has been a deep-seated fear that bringing whites and Negroes together will eventually lead to intermarriage."

Honesty is a gift, even when it's embarrassing or is spoken from a place that seems to be quite stuck. Knowing the truth, as Jesus says in John, makes us free.

That a deep-seated fear of intermarriage lay beneath resistance to church and societal acceptance of people of color resonates significantly with all the succeeding church issues (except Prayer Book reform) - ordination of women, ordination of gay clergy (the Denver GC stage, priesthood), same-sex marriage and gay bishops.

On this I disagree with our Presiding Bishop and other leaders I respect and admire who have suggested that the debate about Gene Robinson has gotten us stuck on talking about sexuality. I think that 'stuckness' is the persistence of the Holy Spirit and that she's leading us painfully into new territory and new discoveries of our humanity.

Thinking back over the fifty year frame you offer (and a perspective not quite there, but to similar scale in thirty-six years of priesthood) I see the church finding its way to reconnecting body and spirit in both theology and practice. 'Reconnecting'? Well, God didn't separate body and spirit, and neither did our actualy lives, but our thinking was less than honest to the whole of human experience.

Yes, black and white people sharing community life may fall and love and choose to marry.

Yes, baptized women and LGBT people may hear the Spirit whispering priesthood (or the community's discernment that they have those sacramental gifts and that kind of leadership),

Yes, if God made some people LGBT, the church has got to ask how to bless and encourage life-supporting, holy relationships, and

Yes, if we're ordaining 'practicing homosexuals' priest, it's wildly inconsistent and clericalist to pretend that some of the people we ordain priest won't live the gifts that move us to call them to episcopacy.

The line connecting these struggles is so clear and consistent that it makes me wonder what nerve or what fears around issues of sexuality and human identity we touched in Prayer Book reform.

The Spirit-imposed theme of the last two generations of church life has been - telling the truth about our experience, and living into the universal wholeness and holiness, body and spirit, of God's blessing of human creativity and love.

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