Speech to the United Black Episcopalians 46th Annual Meeting and Conference
I am honored by this opportunity to speak to you today. Thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality. It is a privilege to be with you and to be present as you renew your commitment to the ministry of social justice.
General Convention is just one year away, and many in this room have served in the House of Deputies. Will those who are deputies, alternate deputies, or former deputies please stand as you are able? I especially want to recognize Diane Pollard of the Diocese of New York who has been a deputy to 13 General Conventions, and Sandye Wilson from the Diocese of Newark who has been a deputy to 11! Finally, I want to make sure you know, since his name was just mentioned, that Justice Thurgood Marshall served as a deputy from the Diocese of New York.
This summer, it feels to me like the saints of social justice are very close to us. Forty years ago this summer, just up the road in Philadelphia, eleven women who had been called by God were ordained Episcopal priests by three bishops who were willing to risk ecclesiastical discipline and the derision of their colleagues in the cause of justice.
A fourth bishop, the Rt. Rev. Antonio Ramos, who is today the retired bishop of the Episcopal Church of Costa Rica, attended the ordination and joined in the laying on of hands. He issued a statement afterward in which he said that the ordination “stands as a prophetic witness on behalf of and for the oppressed.” It would, he said, “be characterized as an act of disobedience, ecclesiastical disobedience on our part, willfully done to abolish a system of canon law which is discriminatory, and which can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ.”
“To abolish a system that can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ.” That sounds to me like a good definition of what the ministry of social justice is all about.
So the saints of the Philadelphia Eleven, both those who still walk among us and those who have gone before, are close by our sides this summer.
Even closer to us here today are the saints of Freedom Summer—the summer of 1964. In fact, some of those brave women and men walked among us about three miles from here at Boardwalk Hall, which was the site of the 1964 Democratic Convention.
At that convention, as many of us saw last week on PBS’s documentary Freedom Summer, the delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party demanded to be seated as the delegation from Mississippi. They had followed the party’s rules and been elected in compliance with them. On the other hand, the Mississippi Democratic Party’s delegates had been elected in primaries and caucuses that excluded black voters. So both parties had to testify in front of the Credentials Committee here in Atlantic City, and the testimony was carried live on national television.
You can imagine that this made some people in the Democratic Party very nervous indeed. Especially when Rita Schwerner was called. Rita’s husband, Michael Schwerner had been killed with two other civil rights workers when they went to Philadelphia, Mississippi to investigate the burning of a church. Rita didn’t back down easily. When she was invited to the White House after her husband’s disappearance, she said, “Mr. President, this is not a social call. I’ve come to find out where my husband is.” She demanded that Lyndon Johnson send 5,000 federal marshals to Mississippi to search for the missing men. He reported to J. Edgar Hoover that she had acted “worse than a Communist.”
And then came the testimony of the incomparable, indomitable Fannie Lou Hamer, a former Mississippi sharecropper. Her powerful witness so frightened the men in power in Washington that Lyndon Johnson held an impromptu press conference at the same time as her testimony to force the television networks to break away from her descriptions of the terror that white segregationists were visiting on black people in Mississippi who tried to register to vote.
That didn’t work very well; her testimony was played over and over again on the news and she became a nationally known spokeswoman for the movement overnight.
Now some people who were perhaps a little bit averse to conflict were having a very long summer and, at this point, by the end of August, they were beginning to realize that the problem was not going to go away quietly.
So they wanted a compromise. The Credentials Committee recommended that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party should get two seats while the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party got 68 seats. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party voted no unanimously. I think they probably voted “Hell no!” As Mrs. Hamer said, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us is tired.”
So here we are in Atlantic City, surrounded by this cloud of witness from the summer of 1964 and the summer of 1974. What do we know from them about renewing the ministry of social justice in the Episcopal Church?
- From the Philadelphia Eleven and the bishops who participated in their ordination, we know that sometimes what God requires of us is to abolish systems that can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ.
- From the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, we know that we need to know the rules, use the rules to advance the cause of justice and equality, and demand that others play by the rules.
- From Mrs. Schwerner, we know that sometimes people who don’t want to relinquish their power will call us impolite or uncivil when we speak truth.
- And from Mrs. Hamer, we know that we have not finished our work until everyone can sit down, together, at the same table.
- What do we want the restructuring of the Episcopal Church to accomplish? What do we want it to avoid?
- What is important about the work of General Convention? What is essential, and what can we afford to change?
- What makes you proud of the Episcopal Church’s social justice ministry? What do you think we need to do differently?
- How can General Convention do a better job in advancing the ministry of social justice?
We know these truths, and sometimes we manage to put them to good use. In the last fifty years, our beloved Episcopal Church has made a good deal of progress toward becoming more just, more inclusive, more like the kingdom of God. But too often we have advocated only for justice in our own leadership structures and not enough for justice in the world around us. Too often, we find ourselves stuck in old dichotomies about race and class and gender. Too often we fall back on our unquestioned assumptions about one another. Too often those of us who benefit from white privilege allow it to blind us to the systemic racism in our church and in our world.
We have a lot of work to do in renewing the ministry of social justice. One year from now, many of us will be at General Convention in Salt Lake City, and that will give us the opportunity to get some important work done. At this General Convention, in the midst of the debate about the structure of the church, we’ll have the opportunity—I would argue that we’ll have the obligation—to ensure that our church is structured to do the work of justice in the church and the world.
We all know that we live in a new economy and that we’re going to have to change and to let go of some things. At some level, most of us know that the church many people once knew is coming to its end. For some of us, it is an occasion for grief. For some of us, it feels like liberation.
But what should we change? What is essential to our identity as Episcopalians and what is simply the way we have always done it?
Sometimes when I listen to discussions about restructuring, I hear a false choice. I hear the assertion that for the church to be organized effectively for mission, we have to get rid of much of our participatory governance.
“It’s too big, it’s too bloated, it’s too expensive, it’s too messy.” “If only we could concentrate authority in a CEO, or in a primate, we’d be nimble enough to be the church of the 21st century.”
By the way, in case anyone asks you, General Convention costs 1.1% of the churchwide budget.
These conversations can become pretty charged with emotion. I think that’s because when we talk about structure, we’re really talking about our identity. We’re talking about our vision of the Beloved Community, and whether restructuring could impoverish it or imperil it if we lose sight of the gifts of all orders of ministry. We are talking about who we are as the people of God is we are not the church we have been. We are talking about the fate of the governance structures through which we have progressed—sometimes haltingly, sometimes kicking and screaming—toward equality for people of color, for women, and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians. Without the shared leadership of bishops and deputies, we might not have achieved our prophetic stands on the death penalty, racism, gun control and poverty or been able to carry out as effectively our churchwide work toward justice and peace.
So when we talk about structure, we are getting clear about what is unnecessary and what is the inevitable messiness of our democracy—democracy that makes possible not just our ministries of social justice and advocacy, but also the very mission of the church. We are figuring out what rules we need to advance the cause of justice and equality. And we are figuring out what parts of our structure are unjust and can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ.
We are making these decisions at pivotal time. Progress toward social justice, in the church or in the world, is not linear, and it is too easy to pit ourselves against each other. It’s been 40 years since the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained, and, as I wrote in a new book from Church Publishing titled Looking Forward, Looking Backward, while women have ascended to the highest levels of authority in the General Convention, search committees at large endowed congregations and diocesan conventions are still reluctant to elect women as rectors and diocesan bishops. We are in danger of losing women’s leadership in the House of Bishops within the next decade unless we can break through this glass ceiling still being imposed not by canonical restrictions but by decision makers at the grass roots.
The threat to leadership of people of color in the church’s governance structure is even more extreme. While in 2012 48% of deputies were women, only 11% were women of color. Of those women, four were Latina, three were Asian women, six were indigenous, and 34 were black or African-American. The average age of the black female deputies in 2012 was 65, and the youngest of those deputies was 49. Without identifying and mentoring younger leaders, we are in danger of losing the gifts, perspectives and voices of black female deputies within the next decade.
The church isn’t the only place where there’s been backsliding toward the promise of the Beloved Community. Fifty years after Freedom Summer, the Voting Rights Act has been gutted by the Supreme Court, income inequality is greater than it has been since 1928, and in many places our schools have once again become segregated, and too many young black men are traveling the school-to-prison pipeline.
Although we must be vigilant about maintaining the leadership of women and people of color in the church as restructuring unfolds, we must also recognize that one unfortunate legacy of the long, hard struggle to eliminate discrimination in the church is that too much of our energy and vigilance has been required to secure and maintain our own rights within the church. We have not done enough to right the wrongs of discrimination, white privilege, and inequality in the world around us, and for that we must repent.
So, as I said, we have a lot of work to do. We need a church structure that will help us be bold in realizing the legacy of social justice that we have been given by the saints that surround us this summer, and confident in passing that legacy on to our children. The Union of Black Episcopalians has played a pivotal role in the Episcopal Church’s history of social justice and progress toward equality, and I believe that you also have a particular role to play in the debate about the Episcopal Church’s structure. Especially in this time of great change, your passion for the Gospel work of advancing justice will keep us from losing ourselves in structural debate and help guide us closer to realizing God’s dream of the Beloved Community.
Your perspective is invaluable, and I want to hear your advice and opinions about the work that awaits us next summer at General Convention. Here are the questions I am wondering about.
I invite you to write down one thing you want TREC (the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church) to know as they go about developing proposals for General Convention to consider next year. What one thing is essential for TREC to know? I will make sure that what you write here today will be sent to TREC for their consideration.
The stories, legacy and leadership of the Black church are essential to a strong and vital Episcopal Church. With the leadership of the Union of Black Episcopalians and its friends and allies, we have the opportunity to proclaim anew to the church and the world that we are all one in Christ Jesus.
And I believe that your experience in the black church has formed you to be exactly the leaders we need to go forward, to be the people of God in the 21st century Episcopal Church, to remember and live by and teach the Church what we know from the saints who surround us. It hasn’t always been easy, and it won’t always be easy in the future.
We know this from the saints of the long summer fifty years ago, the saints who walked right here in Atlantic City. We know that sometimes people who don’t want to relinquish their power will call us impolite or uncivil when we speak truth. But more important than that, we know from Mrs. Hamer and all of her sisters and brothers who shared her struggle, and from the multitude of saints who went before her in the struggle, and from the Risen Christ whom we love and serve, that we have not finished our work until everyone can sit down, all of us together, at the same table.
I am honored to be here with you today, I am grateful for your advice, and I look forward to continuing our work together.
July 1, 2014
Atlantic City, New Jersey