Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Icons of Inclusivity

Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, Absalom Jones Sunday, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Isaiah 6:1-8

The Rev. Canon Harold Lewis tells the story that at his interviews to enter seminary at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, one of the professors caught him off guard. He turned the conversation to race and then “asked me if it had ever occurred to me that the Episcopal Church didn’t particularly like me.” Canon Lewis writes,

I was stunned. “No,” I honestly responded, “it had certainly not occurred to me.” Quite to the contrary, the church seemed to like me very much. In those halcyon days, there were three priests and two thousand parishioners at St. Philip’s Church, Brooklyn, virtually all of them, to use [the Rev. Dr.] Kortright Davis’ phrase, “imbued with ebony grace.” Those people planted in my mind the idea that I might become a priest, and nurtured that vocation. I began my liturgical life as a boatboy, worked my way up to thurifer. I was enrolled in the Sunday School and the Boy Scouts, and did my stint as president of what we then called the YPF (Young People’s Fellowship)... I didn’t understand [the professor’s] question, because the Episcopal Church to me was a black experience, and for years the only white Episcopalian I ever saw was the Bishop of Long Island! [The professor] could see the naïveté that lurked behind my bravado, and thought, correctly as it turned out, that I could use a reality check to prepare myself for the experience of integrating the Class of 1971.[1]

Canon Lewis asks, as many have before him, “Is ‘Black Episcopalian’ an oxymoron?” He recalls that it was Booker T. Washington who said, “If a black man is anything but a Baptist or a Methodist, someone has been tampering with his religion.”[2]

Many of you know far better than I the reality of that question and the dynamics that surround it. It is the story of your religious life. I cannot even pretend to speak about what it means to be a Black Episcopalian, but I can speak about why I believe it is not an oxymoron and why that is such a gift to the church, a gift we white people dominant in the church have often squandered, or ignored, or even rejected. The answer to the question can be found in the story of Absalom Jones, whom Lewis calls an “Icon of Inclusivity.”

The story of Jones ought to be more well known in the church—certainly beyond the circles of African-American parishes. Perhaps the average Episcopalian knows that Jones was the first African-American ordained in our tradition, but I have my doubts. He was not mentioned in the 1950’s volume of the Church’s Teaching Series, Chapters in Church History.[3] That may be no surprise. But neither was he mentioned in the 1979 version of the same series, in the volume entitled The Church in History.[4] Finally, in the 1999 version, he appeared.[5]

Jones, as most of you know, was born a slave in Sussex County, Delaware in 1746. He learned to read, as was common at the time, using the Bible. At sixteen he was sold to a Philadelphia merchant. He was allowed to attend a night school operated by Quakers for Blacks. He married a woman who was also a slave, but he quickly purchased her freedom. He bought his own freedom in 1784 at the age of 38.

Jones was a Methodist who attended St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia. He and a man named Richard Allen became lay readers and, for all practical purposes, chaplains to the Black members of the congregation. They apparently did a good job because those members grew in number and the white members decided they needed to do something about it. In 1787, they had a balcony constructed so that the Black members could be segregated. When they tried to force the Black members into the balcony, dragging some off their knees, the Black members walked out, led by Jones and Allen.

Jones and Allen founded what they called The Free African Society. It tended to the spiritual and physical needs of its members and assisted others in obtaining their freedom. By 1794 they had built a church, which they called simply “the African Church.” It was the first Black- controlled church in the country.

No one knows exactly why, but the African Church voted in 1794 to affiliate with the Episcopal Church. Allen was greatly distressed and left to form a small Methodist community that, in 1816, became the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination that survives today.

There is some evidence that the attraction of the Episcopal Church was partially due to the good work in educating slaves and free blacks, especially in Maryland and Delaware under the missionary Thomas Bray. Church records also contain these words. They saw in the Episcopal Church

A body whose authority and structure were somewhat fluid and whose philosophy favored the existence of an individual, self-governing congregation, while offering the necessary theological and liturgical structure, and financial support.[6]

Negotiations between the congregation and the Diocese included some guarantees in the area of self-governance, including the eventual ordination of Jones, although the congregation was not allowed to participate in the annual Diocesan Convention, a disenfranchisement that continued until 1863.

That disenfranchisement was obviously racist. And the Episcopal Church would, right through to the present day, struggle with its own racist acts and the institutional racism that exists too close to its heart.

Yet the fact remained in 1794 that there were now Black Episcopalians and they controlled the affairs of their own parish and one of their number was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802. And all these things would be a first in the history of the young country. Others would quickly follow on this precedent. St. Philip’s, New York City was founded in 1818 with Peter Williams ordained as their first priest. By the time of the Civil War, African American parishes had been established in Baltimore, New Haven, Detroit, Providence, and Newark and a second parish established in Philadelphia. A society had been founded for the promotion of missionary work among “Colored People” and missionary work had begun in Haiti under James Theodore Holly, who would become the first African-American ordained a bishop in 1874.[7]

Often neglected and discouraged by the essentially racist institution, Black Episcopalians showed an amazing resiliency and courageous loyalty. They indeed were icons of the inclusivity that would be this church’s destiny, although it would take until the 1960’s for this new reality to begin to seriously develop.

The prophet Isaiah responded to his amazing vision of God’s holiness by crying out, “Here am I, send me!” It is an amazing part of our history as Episcopalians that our members who are African American have been willing over and over again to make such a cry. It belies an incredible faith and love for this tradition that through the racist years of this church people of color not only hung in there but continued their missionary efforts. Even when thousands of Blacks did leave the church following the Civil War, those who remained did not give up. No, in fact they increased their missionary efforts.

If you think about it, why did a group of African-Americans in Rochester in the early 1920’s seek to form an Episcopal parish? They were smart people. They had to know what they were up against. And yet they did it, and we continue to enjoy the fruit of their courage.

Today is a day to tell this story and to celebrate it. Today is also a day to say, “Here we are, send us.” To be perfectly honest, the Episcopal Church is still a tough sell among African-Americans. Booker T. Washington’s comment is still true in the minds of many. Institutional racism still bedevils this church. We still need the courage and loyalty of our ancestors to be missionaries in our own day.

But the church needs us—this place and parishes like it—to be icons of inclusivity for the church and the world. That is the good news we have to tell and we must, like those who have gone before us, tell it.

[1] Lecture “Absalom Jones: Icon of Inclusivity” given at the Episcopal Divinity School on February 13 (Absalom Jones Day), 2008, p. 1. Available on the EDS website: www.eds.edu.
[2] Ibid., p. 3.
[3] Powel Mills Dawley, 1950 (Seabury Press).
[4] John E. Booty, 1979 (Seabury Press).
[5] Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Living with History (Cowley).
[6] Quoted in Lewis, p. 4.
[7] See Lewis, Yet With a Steady Beat: the African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church (Trinity Press, 1996), pp. 31-34.

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