[Episcopal News Service] A panel of several prominent Black leaders in The Episcopal Church discussed the state of the church’s racial reconciliation efforts and its justice and equity advocacy during an hourlong Church Pension Group webinar held on Feb. 28, the last day of Black History Month.
Nearly 500 people attended the session live on Zoom, and it now is available as a video on demand on CPG’s Facebook page and on YouTube. The panelists frequently cited Becoming Beloved Community, the church’s cornerstone initiative for encouraging dioceses and congregations to take up the work of racial healing. It is named for the concept of Beloved Community that was popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. to represent a society lifted up in racial harmony.
“We do want to get there, but the reality is we’re not there yet,” said the Very Rev. Sandye Wilson, dean of the Cathedral Church of All Saints in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and a Church Pension Fund trustee. “We have the contours of what Beloved Community is, but we have not yet arrived.”
The Episcopal Church, with a membership estimated to be 90% white, has spent decades promoting the work of dismantling racist structures within the church and in society, however, many Black Episcopalians and people of color say it has yet to fully welcome them as equals and to listen openly to their experiences. A 2021 report from a racial audit of the church’s leadership further illustrated the ways the church’s racial inclusion efforts have fallen short.
CPG’s People of African Descent Affinity Group hosted the Feb. 28 webinar. CPG has organized listening sessions with groups that have been marginalized by the church to help inform its canonically defined role as the church’s financial services agency, said Patricia Favreau, CPG’s executive vice president and chief communications officer.
Favreau added that CPG seeks, through the data it collects, to help the church deepen its understanding of race and racism in the church’s institutional culture. Newly collected data on clergy demographics, she said, will be ready in time for the 80th General Convention in July.
“We are monitoring and measuring where we are, to help the church understand its structure and to understand our own truth,” Favreau said.
Wilson and Favreau were joined on the panel by Byron Rushing, House of Deputies vice president, the Rt. Rev. Nathan Baxter, retired bishop of Central Pennsylvania, and the Rev. Glenna Huber, rector of Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. Several panelists praised Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the church’s first Black presiding bishop, for underscoring the importance of the racial reconciliation work.
“We are lucky to have the presiding bishop that we have,” Rushing said. “And we have to also understand that what he is asking us to do, what he’s challenging us to do, might not happen.” He and other panelists considered whether the church’s heightened emphasis on eliminating racism will extend beyond Curry’s tenure, which ends in 2024.
“We don’t know the answer to that question, until we get the people of the church to fully engage in this work,” Rushing said. “We are part of a denomination that, for most of its history, did not do this.”
The panelists expressed optimism at the willingness of the church, and particularly white Episcopalians, to take up these difficult conversations about the legacy of slavery and segregation in the United States and the ways racism remains embedded in religious and secular institutions. Such issued moved to the forefront of public discourse after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
“This is a conversation that must be had,” Favreau said. “The people of the church are hungry for this now.”
Huber agreed that these conversations in the church must continue, whoever is elected presiding bishop to succeed Curry. “It may not look the same on a macro level, but we will continue on the micro level doing this work, creating pathways for others, so that we can move closer to being Beloved Community.”
Much of The Episcopal Church’s racial justice work today stems from commitments first made in 1991 at the 70th General Convention in Phoenix, Arizona. Additionally, the church has taken deliberate steps over the past 16 years to confront its own historic complicity in slavery, segregation and other racist systems.
In 2017, the church launched Becoming Beloved Community, a framework and series of resources broken into four parts: telling the truth about our churches and race, proclaiming the dream of Beloved Community, practicing the way of love in the pattern of Jesus and repairing the breach in society.
Since then, church leaders have promoted Becoming Beloved Community to all corners of the church while awarding grants to support local ministries aimed at dismantling racist systems and bridging racial divides.
“It has given structured ways at the local level as well as at the diocesan level to learn to be in respectful conversation, ways in which we listen to each other,” Baxter said. “It does not have to be perfect, in the sense that we all understand everything about one another’s story, but that we enter in with an openness.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.