Race and The Episcopal Church: Too Little, Too Late?

By | May 31, 2020

With much of the United States in turmoil over the death of African-American subjects in police custody, faith communities need to ask the questions, “What is our responsibility in this? Are we culpable?” In the case of The Episcopal Church, the answers to these questions are not good.

Consider: It now has been more than 50 years since Freedom Summer and other high water marks of the civil rights movement. That begs the question: Why are we still confronted with race riots and other manifestations of racial conflict? Should we not have moved beyond these issues?

To be sure, many Episcopal clergy were and are advocates for racial equality. And I suspect that the vast majority of Episcopal laity say they support racial equality.

The Racial Makeup of the Church

Yet when one looks around on a Sunday, Episcopal churches are overwhelmingly white. That’s the case even in many urban churches. And Pew Research reveals that the denomination is just 4 percent African-America, while 90 percent of adult members are white. That contrasts with the US population as a whole, in which 66 percent of adults are white.

Yikes.

Of course, one can easily fall prey to the whole chicken-versus-egg issue. Given that 35 percent of Episcopalians are 65 or older, compared with just 18 percent of the population at large, one might readily shrug the matter off as a relic of bygone trends.

There’s a hint of the answer, I suspect, in the demographics of young people in The Episcopal Church. Persons under age 30 comprise just 8 percent of the church, versus 22 percent of the population as whole. In other words, young people, who overall are famously inclusive, aren’t particularly interested in this ostensibly inclusive denomination.

Hmm.

Another hint can be seen here in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Five years ago, the diocese held listening sessions on the issue of racial reconciliation. Many, myself included, spend a good bit of time and effort compiling data, collecting feedback, and more. Five years later, we have seen absolutely zero outcomes. Yes, the diocese recently began soliciting applications for the Ministry of Reconciliation — whatever that may be in the mind of the diocese — but the application form has been on the diocesan website for many months, replete with its proclamation that the deadline to apply expired on March 11, 2020.

That’s typical of many such initiatives. For example. the diocese still has not honored General Convention’s request to adopt the new model Safe Church standards. Tellingly, the request that the drafters made that dioceses be required to audit their compliance and report results to the national church was quietly tabled. Are you surprised?

Similarly, the task force on bullying posted materials to the diocesan website, then quietly went away. Nor did the diocese subsequently display any real appetite for the issue—indeed, when I brought the topic up directly with Bishop Shannon Johnston, he pointedly grimaced and changed the subject.

My conclusion? The Episcopal Church talks a good game and overall means well. Indeed, the church had a highly visible presence during the alt-right demonstrations in Charlottesville. But it’s best at these sorts of emblematic displays of solidarity. Indeed, the last online published edition of the Virginia Episcopalian, dated August 2017, covers the events in Charlottesville. Since then, silence. Even the unrest sweeping the nation has not been enough to elicit a response from the diocese.

Where Next?

It’s a safe bet that, with chaos erupting throughout the nation, we will at some point hear more from The Episcopal Church about racial equality. But with just 1 percent of the population self-identifying as Episcopal, the reality is no one cares what the church thinks. And as the 17th largest mainstream denomination, what little attention organized religion garners these days in the media isn’t likely to accrue to the church.

Moreover, with all evidence suggesting that The Episcopal Church will, for practical purposes, cease to exist within 30 years, the church is fast running out of time.

Indeed, it’s the passage of time that most clearly underscores the dilemma facing the church. Almost 60 years after the civil rights movement, the denomination has managed a woman as presiding bishop, and one African-American. While church members may regard these as great accomplishments, the reality is that corporate America has made much more progress towards shattering the glass ceiling and welcoming African Americans as leaders. In other words, the church is late to the game — a day late and a dollar short, if you will.

Similarly, few parishes make much effort to reach out to non-whites. Yes, if you show up you will be welcome, but how many churches engage in active outreach to the African-American community? I don’t know the answer, but neither have I yet bumped into a church that does.

Rather, parishes often seek diverse internal candidates for discernment committees, vestries, and other leadership opportunities. That’s all to the good, but if one’s efforts at inclusion only look inward, not much will change.

Governance is Problematic

By now, you’ve probably realized that issues of governance are threaded through the issues discussed above. My suspicion is that, with the church trying to hew to the via media, it is difficult at all levels for the church to exercise any real leadership. The via media instead becomes the via admodum — an exercise in the lowest common denominator.

Similarly, the curious structure of The Episcopal Church, hierarchical yet highly distributed, doesn’t help. In fact, the church far too often tries to have it both ways—it’s hierarchical when it comes to the Dennis Canon and church assets, but bishops and other leaders wring their hands and say there’s nothing they can do when there are confronted with disciplinary issues arising on the local level. How does that work? Even the national cathedral claims to be a national institution for purposes of state purposes, yet entirely private when it comes to paying the bills.

Nor are truth tellers and other prophetic voices welcome in The Episcopal Church. One has only to look at my long-simmering dispute with Episcopal priest Bob Malm, and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s utter unwillingness to address Malm’s perjury and other misconduct, to realize just how badly skewed the church’s priorities are.

Given the many problems in The Episcopal Church, there is little reason to conclude that it will be successful in turning around its current decline, or in addressing the festering issue of race relations in the US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.