The Episcopal Church and Race: Looking at Larger Lessons

By | August 12, 2021
Episcopal Church faces dire future, even as it dithers

Not long ago, the Episcopal church launched an audit of race and racial reconciliation in the church. The resulting report was damning, utterly expected, and something the church desperately needed to hear.

And while the church, in true TEC fashion, lumbers along in sharing the remarkably unremarkable results, it misses the larger points. These include:

  • The fact that the church needs a report to tell it what is obvious on its face speaks to a remarkable lack of introspection. Yes, in such situations, having a third party point things out is helpful, but any knucklehead can look across the nave on a Sunday, even in many urban parishes, and see that there are zero African-Americans. Zero. And spare me the “they prefer to worship with their own kind,” bit. Heard it before, don’t accept it. And to its credit, the report flags this issue, referring to it as “disconciousness.”
  • The report flags what I’ll term the bureaucratic PC of the church, aka hypervisibility. In other words, many African-Americans feel like they are on committees to check the box, and my experience tells me this is well-founded. Indeed, how often do we see church committees (don’t get me started) with two big donors, one elderly individual, one Hispanic person, one black person, one college-aged individual, one retired priest, and one LGBTQUIA+ person? In other words, it’s all about being PC, and not about the unique gifts and experiences involved. And for the record, I am not advocating against inclusion, but rather for inclusion based first and foremost on skills. Just because someone, for example, is LGBTQIA+, does not mean they are inherently qualified to sit on a committee.
  • The other trend many reported was the flip side of hypervisibility, which is invisibility. Passive-aggressive, thy name is TEC. And once the obligatory minority groups sign on, far too often they are marginalized and their voices ignored. Been there, done that, have the t-shirt to prove it, thanks. To quote one participant in the TEC study on racism:

“So I say, if  this faith wants to finally get to true culture shift, you  have to provide an environment where you’re able to speak truth. I think what upholds this system is that it’s like only certain types of people get let in and it’s the people that  are all thinking alike.” – Person  of Color, Diocesan Leader

  • Transactional, versus transformational. Yup. Just like the tweaking around the edges going on in many dioceses, even as they slide over the cliff into post baby-boom oblivion, it’s not only rare to see transformational change in the church, it’s resisted fiercely. Just look at the fact that the church continues to cling to the Madmen-era heap of church headquarters, often referred to as 815. A colossal and creaky dinosaur, the place gobbles up a huge portion of the church budget and serves zero useful purpose. Yet the matter has repeatedly come up at GC, with the House of Deputies voting to sell the place, while the Bishops voted to move from the building. Neither has happened. Why? And how can the church expect folks to take it seriously in light of this dithering?
  • Leverages of power. Women and minorities of every ilk see this far too often in the denomination: Folks love it when we are brought in to clean up messes, whether they be broken boilers or toxic churches. But if we point out an inconvenient truth, like the church is headed over a cliff, folks rush to the attack. Or, per my previous point, we’re told, “We’re moving on,” and ignored.
  • Bullying and bad behavior. On this issue, I’ll let the report speak about this all-too-common experience in the church:

I experienced bullying and intimidation by the Bishop, Canon to the Ordinary and President of the Standing Committee.”  –  Person of  Color, Diocesan  Leader

  • It’s running out of time. Folks, if this were chess, we’d be hearing the word “check,” right about now. And if the church isn’t careful, the next phrase will be “check mate.” Having spent the last 50 years engaging in infighting, endless committee meetings, and producing mountains of paper with little to show for it, the church as we know it is down to its last few Easters. Even Episcopal News Service is reporting this—so why are folks ignoring the facts?

In Other Words

All of this is a long way of illustrating the underlying point, which is that the lessons of the racism report apply across all of TEC, and across all the denomination’s efforts at inclusion.

Indeed, the fact that the church is still struggling with gender and sexual harassment speaks volumes to the problems within the denomination. The church plays passive-aggressive on all fronts, remains fond of shooting the messenger, and loves study groups over actually doing something.

And above all, TEC is profoundly resistant to change, at every level.

None of this is news, and it is simply shocking that anything thinks that it is. Sort of like looking in the mirror in the morning and saying, “Wow. I have two eyes.” Well, yes. Thanks for the update.

As an openly gay individual, I’d also note that the church loves to trade on stereotypes, whether it’s that I’m good at decorating (not), or the earnest older lady who asked me, as between me and my spouse, who is the husband. (I resisted the urge to respond by saying, “It depends on who’s paying the bills that month.)

In other words, those study groups, resolutions at General Convention, and reports that took almost two years to produce aren’t doing a whole lot of good.

Looking Forward

As the church, true to form, dithers about over race and becoming beloved community, I challenge it to do two things:

  1. Quit bloviating and actually do something. By any measure, the church has less than 20 years left, and in many dioceses and parishes, far less. Act now, before you cannot act. Or, to use a phrase from law enforcement, “Someone’s gotta do something.” Don’t sit on your hands.
  2. Don’t limit it to race. The church needs to engage in truthtelling on every front, and at every level. It needs to take a close look at its priorities, its past conduct, and its path forward. It needs a sense of urgency, and to take a revolutionary approach. Just like climate change, we are nearing a tipping point. The church cannot afford to hide in its stained glass tower any longer and pretend that things are fine. They are not.

In short, to use the old AT&T slogan, the future is one of “boundless opportunity.” But the church’s habit of pining for the good old days and brushing off evidence that those days are over may well prevent it from being part of that future.

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carlton kelley

Yes! We think that by including others, we have changed something – nothing has been changed