Today is the feast day of William Wilberforce, who probably will stay in the revised Lesser Feasts and Fast proposed by the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who will probably not. Both are called Prophetic Witnesses, which means they were in some way called by the Gospel to be social reformers. William Wilberforce was instrumental in the abolishment of slavery in Great Britain and the Commonwealth (1834) after over 40 years of struggle. Ashley-Cooper was also busy, fighting for laws to protect women and children from long hours and dangerous work in the mines, and boys as chimney sweeps, whose work was far from romantic and regularly led to fatal lung diseases and cancers. He also exposed the horrendous conditions in insane asylums, which were no asylum for any living being. He fought to halt the British opium trade. He was an avid evangelical Anglican, opposing the Oxford movement, and he advocated the relocation of Jews to their Biblical lands prior to the Second Coming of Christ, which he believed was imminent. His tenure in British political life was the second half of the 19th century. What both he and Wilberforce have in common is an evangelical zeal, for the good and sometimes not so good. The problem with reformers is that they wish to reform. Along with laws protecting the meek, poor, unclothed, hungry, are laws for decency and proper behavior, and that brings a new kind of oppression. But both were driven by their Christian faith and compassion for those whom they saw in their misery. And both held some strange ideas. They were human.
Wilberforce started life as a bona fide 18th century rake, enjoying all the sensory pleasures of the body, mind, and spirit he could pack in. Gambling, drinking, and, doubtless, affairs, he was welcome into the salon of Madame de Staël, where he was known for his wit and singing voice, and he even joined the court of France at Fontainebleau, and hobnobbed with Benjamin Franklin. And then he had a conversion experience.
Whether it was reading The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge or the memory of his Methodist aunt which opened him to the Spirit, he found himself more and more drawn to Scripture and devout introspection. He was guided by the Anglican evangelical, the Rev. Mr. John Newton, and was convinced that his vocation was to remain in politics and work as a reformer in Parliament. He was known for his charity, sometimes beyond his means. For all the good he did, including being a founding member of the Church Missionary Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, he was something of a misogynist and his campaign for a variety of anti-vice bills, Sabbath laws, prosecution of brothel keepers, and the like, targeted the poor, not the rich, for which he was roundly criticized. It is always a mixed bag, reformation. Discernment in the heat of conversion is often on the thin side.
As in the Victorian era, we are in a time of social change, technological change, religious experimentation, loss of faith and secularization. I suspect that if I were to say “Missionary Society” today to any group of good Episcopalians in Berkeley I would be greeted with a cacophony of “white privilege”, “colonialism”, and a variety of epithets about racism. And there would be some truth to that, but not entirely. I watched the discussion and passage of a resolution on a live feed from the 79th General Convention regarding the Episcopal Church’s support of the mission to the Anglican Church in South Sudan. Which is run by the people of Sudan/South Sudan, but developed from the 1899 English mission by Wilberforce’s Church Missionary Society. Why are we still involved in Africa at all? Why are some U.S. Dioceses still sending missionaries to South Sudan, especially since the Diocese of South Sudan severed relationship with the Diocese of Indianapolis in 2016 when their (female) bishop supported same sex marriages? The resolution says, “Since the outbreak of war between rival South Sudan leaders in 2013 and the breakdown of social order and economic activity, the South Sudan Council of Churches, in which South Sudanese Anglicans are active, has offered constructive mediation between deadlocked factions and mutually fearful ethnic groups. Episcopal Relief and Development and Anglican Relief and Development in the United States continue to supply economic aid and training through provincial and diocesan channels.” TEC, the Anglican Church, and other churches are the only agencies that are working for resolution and reconciliation of the two sides in this war. Those “bad” white missionaries did impose dress and social codes, but they also opened schools, orphanages, hospitals, and taught the Gospel of Jesus, a Gospel of social responsibility, of love, of equality. Often tribalism brings division as well as ethno-cultural identity; here the Nuer and Dinka, closely related peoples, are killing each other.
Walking the narrow path of the Way is never easy. Easier to take a stance on one side or the other. Easier to pray for our enemies with words like, “God, make them think the way I do, because I am clearly in the right.” Never, “I understand them.” But Jesus called us to love one another. That means radical reconciliation, total forgiveness. I hear and see so much “forgiveness” and niceness masking loathing and self-righteousness. And we know what Jesus said about the Pharisees with their fine manners and loud prayers. Those “others”, the biblical literalists, those dissenting bishops, they also pray and believe they hear the Holy Spirit, and, like it or not, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us argue it out as the Church has always done, in the great Early Church Councils, in the Reformation, and today. If we, as a Church, as Christians, can’t come around to living in Jesus, we will destroy the Church. We should trust the Holy Spirit for we have come far.
The regular Gospel reading for today’s Daily Office is from the Passion narrative in Matthew (27:24-31). The people have chosen Barabbas. Like Pilate, they, too, have washed their hands. Barabbas is easy to understand. He wants a revolution, vengeance. But the only vengeance they got was the murder of the Messiah, the destruction of the Temple, and enslavement of Jews to build Roman monuments. Can we turn and follow Jesus, our Saviour, even when the urge is to wave posters that don’t proclaim the Gospel? To shout slogans? It won’t be easy. It means putting aside our differences. It means being willing to forgive wrongs, because God loves us and the other, and only our Love can bring us to reconciliation with God. Let us learn from William Wilberforce and Anthony Ashley-Cooper, two white male landowners with noble titles who stepped up to serve the poor, insane, enslaved, downtrodden, and didn’t do it perfectly, but they did it.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.