Episcopal bishops make three-day journey into diversity and inclusion

Intensive work meant to equip bishops to lead Church into ‘beloved, gracious community’

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Mar 15, 2017

[Episcopal News Service – Hendersonville, North Carolina] In March 2015 in the aftermath of the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops decided it was time to write a new letter to Episcopalians about racism. Then, some of the bishops had a realization.

“The first thing that we said was: ‘We don’t need to write a letter. We need to deal with these issues ourselves: power, privilege and race,’” said Diocese of Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith, describing a late-night meeting of bishops who had volunteered to write such a letter that took place in Salt Lake City during General Convention in 2015.

The letter would have followed on one adopted by the house in April 1994 and another one issued March 22, 2006. However, Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas said, it was clear that many of the things talked about in those letters “were still in front us.”

In the 1994 letter, the bishops concluded that all Christians were called to work for reconciliation and unity. “Central to this mission is the intentional transformation of all structures, systems and practices in the church and elsewhere that perpetuate the evil of racism,” the bishops wrote.

Douglas said “it was also clear that there were lots feelings amongst us that we were going to need to work on. So, if we didn’t do our work first, we didn’t feel like we were in a position to tell the wider church what to do.”

Beckwith and Douglas spoke to Episcopal News Service at Kangua Camp and Conference Center after they and their colleagues completed three days of intensive work on diversity and inclusion conducted by Valerie Batts and Bill Kondrath of Visions Inc. Those three days constituted the beginning of the bishops’ March 10-14 meeting.

A small group of bishops who were part of the Salt Lake City meeting worked in December 2015 with Visions, a non-profit group that says it helps people and groups thrive in a diverse world. 

Beckwith said that work deepened the bishops’ desire to bring the process to the entire house. The bishops did some preliminary work during their March 2016 retreat meeting, making it the second meeting in a row during which bishops discussed racism

Diocese of Western New York Bishop William Franklin watches March 11 as Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas pastes sticky notes of comments from one of his table’s discussions during the House of Bishops meeting at Kanuga Camp and Conference Center outside Hendersonville, North Carolina. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Heading into this meeting there was, Douglas said, “an appropriate reticence to come and do another ‘anti-racism training.’” Nevertheless, the large-group presentations and the time bishops spent discussing the material at their tables gave the bishops “some tools to recognize, understand, appreciate and utilize differences” to help the world move closer to the reign of God, he said.

The goals set out for the three days were to build a case for the church to engage in racial justice and reconciliation; establish common language for discussing that work, especially as part of spiritual formation; deepen the investment the house and the church have already made in such work; grow as a house in trust, vulnerability and community; and develop the capacity and skill for leading dioceses in such work.

Among the tools that Visions introduced to the bishops were guidelines for effective cross-cultural dialogue, learning about how societies can move from monoculturalism to pluralism and how many stories make up a community’s story, how oppression and change happen at various levels of a culture, exploring how various types of feedback are given and received, experiencing how feelings impact behaviors, discussing how to recognize “modern isms” as opposed to classic “isms” and how historically excluded and included groups approach those “isms.”

Batts and Kondrath anchored the three days in creating spaces of “sacred listening” in which the bishops could tell stories of their experiences that related to the learnings. The two consultants asked the bishops to consider their engagement in the world on four levels: personally, in their relationships in their dioceses,  in their role as bishops of the church and in the culture at large.

Douglas and North Carolina Bishop Suffragan Anne Hodges-Copple discussed those levels and all three of the days here.

Bishops participate in an exercise about the power of feelings on March 11 during the House of Bishops meeting at Kanuga Camp and Conference Center outside Hendersonville, North Carolina. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry presented the three days as a way for bishops to begin to exercise their role as reconcilers and to invite others into that role as well.

“This is a time of great chaos and upheaval in the country and the presiding bishop is calling us to the Church’s stance of a beloved and gracious community,” East Michigan Bishop Todd Ousley, chair of the house’s planning committee, said.

Curry also “reminded us that in many ways we have been bystanders and that in this particular moment … we are called to get off the sideline and to engage with something more than words … to not just give lip service to issues of inclusion and diversity, to check off that anti-racism box,” Ousley said.

Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Diocese of Maryland said that the work was leadership training “on how do we tell our stories and deeply listen to others, and how do we invite others into that conversation.”

“I can’t wait to go back and see how we get the whole church involved in this process that we’re doing now,” he said on March 10.

The three-day focus on such work, said Rochester Bishop Prince Singh, “is part of the larger umbrella of themes that we have gotten out of [the 78th] General Convention where evangelism, racial reconciliation and care for creation is a part of what we are doing this whole triennium.”

The bishops met for Eucharist late each afternoon. On March 11, the service focused on healing, including a litany of forgiveness written by Diocese of Albany Bishop Bill Love. The bishop, who also presided, said the service was the first of its kind for the house in at least the past 10 years.

Western New York Bishop William Franklin said on the second day that the work was “transforming our own house. Divisions are being healed, as witnessed by this powerful service that brought our day to an end.”

Alaska Bishop Mark Lattime offers reflections March 12 on his participation in the Native Nations Rise activities in Washington, D.C., March 9-10. Lattime, Diocese of Navajoland Bishop David Bailey, Diocese of Montana Assistant Bishop Carol Gallagher, Diocese of North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith and Diocese of South Dakota Bishop John Tarrant also participated. The one-word signs on the wall behind Lattime were part of a March 11 exercise about the impact of feelings. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Springfield Bishop Dan Martins, who blogged about the meeting, said that the time allotted to conversations at each table allowed those with whom he was seated “to go deeper in some very profound ways than we’ve been able to do in the past.”

Martins, who calls himself “part of a theological minority” in the House of Bishops, told ENS the day after the three-day workshop he thought “a group of Christian bishops ought to be engaged in the subject of racism and racial reconciliation from a much deeper biblical and theological angle than from the behavioral and transactional perspective that we were given.”

Martins doesn’t foresee using any of the tools “in a formal, programmatic way” in his southern Illinois diocese. The most “immediately important” shift his diocese needs, he said, is a move away from an “attractional model” that predicts people will come to a church if they feel welcomed and Sunday worship is a “showpiece.” That is not a strategy for a post-Christian society, he said.

“So, I am trying to help all of us to embrace a strategy that is apostolic where we go to them,” Martins said.

“In the context of doing all that, if we uncovered opportunities for racial reconciliation, then, yes, we will certainly embrace those opportunities but that’s not a starting point; it would be more of a byproduct,” he said.

The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation, and creation, helped the house’s planning committee construct the three days. After they were over, she said, she felt the bishops accomplished the goals. However, she added, the work is not over.

“For Episcopalians, the work will always be inner work and outer work,” she said. “It’s figuring out what are my biases, what are my fears, what line of difference am I most terrified of crossing and how is God growing my heart. I have to be doing that even as I look around at systems and ask the questions about structure or racism, structural discrimination.”

While the House of Bishops has talked about racism for the last three spring meetings, Spellers said, “The conversations this time were not the same as the conversations last time.”

She hopes that the bishops always “go deeper” in the laboratory that is the community of the House of Bishops and that they “will model for the whole church the realization that this is a part of our lifelong spiritual formation.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (22)

  1. Keith Patterson says:

    Good start!

  2. Margaret A Fletcher says:

    If the bishops take a look at their salary structure, their multiple ‘perks’ and entitlements then gave the rest of the church a model of modest living identifying with the 70 % rather than the top 30% of our population they might accomplished a compelling powerful witness to justice and mercy that included everyone. Power and privilege are entrenched right there.
    It would be such radical shocking relevant behavior we might just be noticed.

  3. Susan Russell says:

    Great piece … and good news that our House of Bishops is engaging with the VISIONS folks. Can’t say enough good things about their resources, process and the gift they have been to our congregation — where dismantling racism is an integral part of how we live out our baptismal covenant to persevere in resisting evil … not a possible “byproduct.”

    1. Rosa Lee Harden says:

      Yes! I was thrilled to see that!

  4. John E. Colón says:

    As a prospective VISIONS consultant, I can bare witness to the transformative power of this process. I have learned and continue to learn the life-changing value of recognizing, understanding, appreciating and utilizing difference personally, interpersonally, institutionally and culturally. Kudos to the House of Bishops for beginning this work. I hope and pray the bishops of our Church will utilize our group of VISIONS consultants in diocesan and regional contexts as we continue to build the beloved community.

  5. Lynne Jacobson says:

    I all but jumped for joy when I read this article! As one who has gone through VISIONS, Inc. training as a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School I can say that it changed my life, the way that I look at the world and relate to people. I thank God for the ministry of Bill Kondrath, Valerie Batts and the VISIONS facilitators. Way to go, Bishops!!!

  6. Diane Lynch- Duluth, GA says:

    This looks like a transformational event for many. I am thrilled that hearts became willing to engage through meaningful discussion and thought-provoking activities. I wonder if the meetings involved discussion on the Deaf community, which is most definitely a minority group. Have Bishops ever experienced what it’s like to be in a group that solely consists of Deaf individuals that use American Sign Language- without interpreters present? I implore Bishops and Priests to make that pilgrimage to a Deaf function of some sort. The Deaf community has been severely damaged due to the systematic oppression of this group of individuals. As a linguistic minority with a unique culture that is virtually never celebrated or highlighted and moreover, significantly underrepresented, I fear that the population of Deaf individuals that use ASL to communicate will be virtually non-existent sooner rather than later should this linguistic and cultural minority continue to be ignored. I yearn for the day when my beloved Church begins to care about Deaf individuals. We have so much to offer.

  7. Carol McRee says:

    Ppffttt! So the bishop’s discussed the topic for a few days…. so what. Interesting that the impetus for this discussion was the Emmanuela AME tragedy in Charleston, SC. The charleston community came together in the days and months after that event which are simply being discussed in TEC. One of the more important aftermaths has been the continued healing of the relationship between the Diocese of SC and the Diocese of the SE (REC). Stop talking about it and start doing the work of reconciliation!

  8. Bill Smith says:

    Seems like the bishops only focused on race issues and completely ignored our need for salvation and a personal relationship with God.

    1. Francesca Tate says:

      A personal relationship with God also requires us to love those most different from us, for God reveals Himself in one another through the Holy Spirit. 1 John 4:21 (NIV) reads: “And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” Matthew 5:47-48 reads that we can’t choose to love only those who are similar to us. Portions of I John 2, I John 3 and I John 4 call liars and blind those who claim to love God but hate their brethren. If we chose to love only those who are like us, then we are relegating the “different” to “enemy status.”
      This VISIONS conference sounds like it was a way of nurturing the love and understanding that God calls each of us to give one another.

    2. Rich Saunders says:

      Hear, hear! The protest mentality is not of the Episcopal doctrine and should take a backseat to the far greater cause of Christ’s ministry.

      Actions, not words.

  9. Doug Desper says:

    The real — and unspoken — antagonist in race relations is not racism, but its underlying flaw: “elitism” (the belief that one is more entitled and owed than another). Racial elites have the inflated view that asserts that skin tone or ethnic heritage creates their privilege and power and therefore entitlement. Few admit to being a racist and nearly everyone feels good for having opposed it. Notwithstanding, elitism is the real sin and antagonist, and it is fluently practiced worldwide by people of every race.

    1. Tony Oberdorfer says:

      Including, as you probably would agree, more and more of the Episcopal hierarchy!

      1. Doug Desper says:

        Tony – while I understand the frustration about some in leadership I gladly defer to the Lord who said simply that “You will know them by their fruits”. My main concern is that elitism (in its many forms) is the underlying flaw (sin) inherent in every person regardless of race. Was elitism not Adam’s sin? To believe himself more than he was and to then believe another as below him and worthless enough to blame for the consequences he was to live? And then the victim of Adam’s arrogance (Eve) proved that even a victim of elitism can be an elitist herself when she took no responsibility for her decisions. Such talk is absent from discussions of race relations and racism. I recall being in a couple of immersion/training activities wherein the claim of “white privilege” was the escape hatch to just figure everything out neatly. The ones behind the presentation were wealthier, vacationed at exclusive spots, and were observed as feeling better about themselves because they were part of the national Northeast metro corridor. One presenter joked about needing to get a visa to come “down South”. It was in fun, and most of the room laughed, but there was something really incongruent about all of that. It was like a lingering undiscerned residue was there.

        1. Tony Oberdorfer says:

          Doug, I share your perspective completely, all the more so because as someone who has lived most of his life near “liberal” Boston I am cognizant of the extent to which many (but by no means all) local Episcopalians, including our bishop, tend to regard themselves as the high priestesses of our religion, almost always in an extremely leftish political manner.

    2. Margaret A Fletcher says:

      Amen brother Amen. Well said

    3. Johniene Thomas says:

      Doug, thank you for that most insightful and piercing comment March 16th @ 10:301a.m.

  10. Jan Robitscher says:

    While I am glad that the Bishops are working on ending racism, which is of utmost importance, I do not feel it will really happen until all other “isms” are address: age, sex/sexual orientation, class and disability to name only a few. Until all “isms” are addressed none will be fully eliminated.

  11. Frank Riggio-Preston says:

    Did I miss diversity other than race? What happened to LGBT, ethnic and language differences in this “diversity and inclusion” journey?

    1. Agree! See my two cents below…

  12. Jawaharlal Prasad says:

    I am unable to understand the term “elitism” in the context of the discussion. I think it is selfishness. When people by virtue of their education, personality and profession are able to make more money, they will invariably try to provide the best for their children and their family. They will also try to live in a comfortable way in a safe neighborhood. Now if these people deny opportunities to others that to me is an act of selfishness. You will surely agree that we all have different abilities and talents, and hence by nature of the economic system in place, some professions are better paid than others.
    South Africa in some way fascinates me as this is a country born out the of the painful experience of apartheid. Look at the way, the society has begun to function there – so much inequality, poor governance, etc. etc.
    The “liberal” Bostonians recognize the issue of racism and are taking steps to bring about racial reconciliation something that may take more than a generation.

  13. I am proud of our church and bishop, but I do wish this was anti-discrimination training not just anti-racism training. Let’s fight just as hard for those who are discriminated against because of sex, age, sexual preference, ethnicity, etc. You really can’t just fight one injustice without fighting them all. They all have the same root cause (selfishness/hate) and they all have the same root solution (servant-hood/love).

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