[Episcopal News Service] Leaders of The Episcopal Church gathered Dec. 9 on Zoom for a webinar elaborating on their views of the church’s place in society. Given the massive social upheaval over the past two years in the United States, the “Work of the Church” webinar was presented as a chance to take stock of how the church has changed and where it is going.
Listing a litany of incidents of violence directed at people of color and at police officers, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry told participants, “I hate to paint a bleak picture, but there’s been trouble in the land.”
He and the other church leaders who took part – the Rev. Charles Robertson, the presiding bishop’s canon for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church; the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care; and the Rev. Mark Stevenson, canon for ministry within The Episcopal Church – discussed how the church has contributed to that trouble, but also how it can and should heal it. The discussion was moderated by the Rev. Winnie Varghese, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Curry repeated a theme he has put forth in recent speeches: his wish for a church “no longer centered on empire or establishment, no longer fixated on the preservation of institution, no longer propping up white supremacy.” He said that shift must begin with kindness and love, recalling that after his sermon at the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, people would come up to him and say, “I had no idea Christianity was about love.”
“People actually said that over and over!” Curry said. “That was a revelation to me, that the perception of Christianity is that it’s not about love, that it’s about domination, that it’s about putting folk down, that it’s about excluding people.”
When Varghese asked Curry and his canons to elaborate on the meaning of Curry’s statements about the church no longer centering on empire or institutions, Stevenson admitted he was “a little bit scared” by them at first, as someone whose job is to support the workings of the institution of The Episcopal Church.
“And I suspect that many of our viewers in this webinar serve in similar roles in their ministries in their part of the institution, and so perhaps they are experiencing the same reactivity that I initially did. If we’re not keeping the institution, what about my ministry? What about my job?” Stevenson said. However, he had come to understand that it means something different.
“I don’t think that the presiding bishop is arguing that we need to throw out structure, that we need to throw out the institution. I think he is saying that we need to look at what we use our structure, our institution for,” he explained. “Are we doing what we do simply to preserve the structure? Are we propping up a top-down, parent-knows-best methodology? … Or does the institution exist to provide support for, and the empowering of the work of, those who are citizens of the community?”
Robertson pointed out some of the ways in which The Episcopal Church is using is institutional influence for the good of society, such as the Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C., and the church’s special consultative status at the United Nations.
“Episcopalians are ready to tell the truth about ourselves as Christians, about our churches – how we have been instruments of white supremacy. We’re not just pointing fingers or trying to inspire guilt or anything like that. What I see us doing is acknowledging who we have been, and then saying, ‘God, we don’t want to be that anymore,’” she said.
“The presiding bishop’s staff is not just about creating programs and handing them off and saying, ‘Go do this.’ … We’re trying to resource and equip our church to do what you’ve already said you want to do.”
To that end, Spellers said her office is developing a video curriculum series for small groups “that want to grow to look, act and love like Jesus.” It will be launched as a pilot program in Lent and will then be shared with the wider church at General Convention in July, Spellers said.
In response to a viewer’s question, Curry and Spellers provided an update about the church’s assessment of its involvement with Native American residential schools.
Curry said he and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, House of Deputies president, “have both really tried to be intentional about this with Executive Council. It is our job in this context to pay close attention and to listen carefully to leadership from the Indigenous communities about how to navigate this terrain, and how to be instruments of healing.
“That continues, and so, going into General Convention, we fully intend to be intentional about how we can participate in God’s work of truth being told, of repairing the breach, of doing the work of healing and transformation.”
“There is discernment going on; the truth-telling is slowly happening,” Spellers added. “And then there’s reckoning. There will be a moment, I believe, when the church will have to say, ‘These are things we have done, and things that were done on our behalf, and we’re sorry.’ And no one knows right now what that looks like.”