[Episcopal News Service] A committee of bishops and academic theologians is discussing how The Episcopal Church and its bishops can confront what its chair has called “the comprehensive role of white supremacy in our lives.”
The House of Bishops Theology Committee wants to give The Episcopal Church some theological resources to help it respond to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s invitation to become Beloved Community.
The Beloved Community initiative is rooted in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for racial equality, economic justice and world peace.
However, “it sort of hit us like a ton of bricks that there was no way we could really move forward with integrity on a theological exploration of the very concepts of Beloved Community unless we acknowledged the reality and challenge of the ideology of white supremacy,” Diocese of Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas Breidenthal, who chairs the committee, told Episcopal News Service.
In a letter to the House of Bishops earlier this year, Breidenthal said that the committee realizes that the church’s effort must begin by recognizing the role of white supremacy in “infecting all our perceptions, passions and patterns of thought.”
The committee is working on “a fuller theological and historical account of white supremacy and its impact on The Episcopal Church,” according to his letter.
However, Breidenthal acknowledged to ENS, that “this might be a very difficult conversation to have in the house and certainly in the church as a whole.” The committee wants to provide ways to “model honest and truthful conversations,” he said.
Diocese of New York Bishop Suffragan Allen Shin told the House of Bishops in March that the committee “would like your guidance on the best way to invite this house and the wider church into reflection and dialogue on this issue.” He said the group hopes to have time at its next meeting to begin those conversations, centering first on three groups of questions that Breidenthal posed in his letter:
- How do you understand white supremacy? How have you experienced it?
- How has white supremacy influenced your view of God? The church?
- What does your vision of Beloved Community that repents of white supremacy look like? What will you do to work toward that vision?
Breidenthal said in his letter that the committee is identifying historical documents relating to marginalized populations, including African American, Latino, Asian, indigenous and LGBTQ communities.
To that end, Mark Duffy, the church’s canonical archivist and director of The Episcopal Church Archives told ENS that the committee has asked the Archives for help. The committee, he said, admired the Archives’ digital exhibit on African Americans in The Episcopal Church and wondered about developing a similar effort to tell the stories of the church’s Asian Americans.
“For me, it says there’s been a lot of talk about reconciliation, there’s been a lot of talk about ‘beloved community,’ but are we doing the hard work here?” Duffy said. “Are we really looking at what we’ve done?”
Duffy said his “historian side wants to see us do something that can be passed on, that can be brought to the next generation.”
The committee is working in two other directions, as well. “More broadly, we are interested in noting the stories that The Episcopal Church has forgotten or never told about its minority members,” Breidenthal wrote in his letter. The committee also is looking at how human beings “generate narratives and repeat and alter them endlessly.” The members also are investigating “resources in Scripture and practices embedded in the history of the church that might help us embody faithful habits of listening to God and each other.”
Racism and its impact on society and the church have drawn the bishops’ attention for more than 25 years. The house has issued two letters to the church on this topic, one adopted by the house in April 1994 and another one issued March 22, 2006.
The House of Bishops Theology Committee, whose members are appointed by the presiding bishop, undertakes projects of theological inquiry as requested by him or her and the house. General Convention makes occasional requests of the committee. In the past, the committee has developed resources for the wider church and the bishops’ teaching ministry on such subjects as human sexuality, the environment and just war theory. In the 2013-15 triennium, the committee worked on a theology of discipleship and mission in the global economy that resulted in a digital interactive resource during Lent 2016.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.