Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The March on Washington & The Episcopal Church

Tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.  Commentators are calling it a turning
point in American history and I believe they are right.  I believe it also was a turning point in what we tend to call the "Mainline" Protestant Churches (1) in this country.  Everything I write from here on out is in the nature of a thesis.  I do not know if I am right, but I think I may be.

The Episcopal Church in 1963 was very much part of the American establishment and was called by many "the Republican Party at prayer."  Like most churches in its day, it saw as a primary part of its mission to make good citizens, and good citizenry generally did not include rocking the boat in any way.  There were some cracks appearing in that monument to what amounted to de facto established religion, but it looked as if any radical change was a long way off, if it was possible at all.

In the Spring of 1963, Presiding Bishop Arthur Lichtenberger wrote a "Message to the Church," to be delivered at Pentecost.  He wrote of "recent events in a number of American communities" that "underscore the fact that countless citizens have lost patience with the slow pace of response to their legitimate cry for human right.s" (2)  In a definitive sentence in the piece he wrote:

It is not enough for the Church to exhort men to be good.  Men, women, and children are today risking their livelihood and their lives in protesting for their rights.  We must support and strengthen their protest in every way possible, rather than give support to the forces of resistance by our silence.

He recommended three actions by Episcopalians:  First, to get involved and be informed. Second, give money to support the struggle.  Third, take action, including urgently cleaning up our own house.  He ended by saying:

So I write with a deep sense of the urgency of the racial crisis in our country and the necessity of the Church to act.  Present events reveal the possible imminence of catastrophe.  The entire Christian community must pray and act.

A year and a half later, in October 1964, at the Church's triennial General Convention, Bishop Lichtenberger acknowledged that his conviction was not shared by everyone in the church.

During the past several months I have received [hundreds] of letters criticizing our National Council, or the House of Bishops, or me for expressing our opinions--or urging people to take action--in areas in which they say are not religious. (3)

In many ways over the last 50 years, the Episcopal Church, and Mainline Protestant Christianity, has been struggling with this very divide expressed by Bishop Lichtenberger.  The reality is that the conscience of the Episcopal Church was awakened in 1963 and 1964, and hundreds of clergy and lay people went to the South in aid of the civil rights movement.  By 1967, the Church's General Convention voted to hold a Special Convention to tackle its participation in the civil rights movement and that 1969 Special Convention put in place the General Convention Special Program, which committed significant funds to civil rights organizations.  Yes, there was significant backlash, but "justice" was now firmly in the vocabulary of the Episcopal Church and the status and rights of Blacks, Women, Gay and Lesbian persons, and others would occupy debate right up to the present time.

At the same time, the Church began a dramatic shrinkage that continues, though somewhat abated, in our day. This is paralleled in all the Mainline Churches.  Many theories of the causes of this shrinkage have been put forward, and most of them tell a part of the truth.  Certainly the Church's strong commitment to civil rights over a broad spectrum of persons has been a major factor.  Those who were comfortable with the old establishment's strict divide between religion and politics have clearly become a minority voice where they exist at all.

This journey has been painful, but so has the struggle on a national level.  This journey has been polarizing in both the church and in the country in general.  And in most of the mainline churches that has meant leave-taking on a significant scale, as domination by a conservative political agenda has been supplanted by one of a liberal political agenda.  The dilemma has been that those with a conservative bent are far more likely to attend church than those of a liberal one, thus only exacerbating our decline.

I wish there would have been a way to hold us together.  I do not delight in the leave-taking of anyone.  But it is true that we are becoming a more consistent church and a more mission-oriented church.  In many of our churches those who are left have a determination to remain and to act in the name of Jesus unlike anything we saw when our church was twice as large.

Returning to Dr. King and the March on Washington, the Episcopal Church, and much of Mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States learned to dream from him.  We learned that the journey with the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ was not a static one, but one that requires a constantly renewed imagination and the ability to apply the Good News to situations the Bible never could have foreseen, although it continues to give us authoritative guidance.  It does not tell us what is right and wrong in many given situations of our time, but it does give us the lenses with which to examine those things so that we can make our own determination in the grace of God.

The Church has never been the same since 1963-1964.  There is sadness in that from the loss of people and parishes, and,perhaps, prestige.  But Dr. King promised that with faith, if we steadfastly climbed toward the mountaintop, we would see the promised land, and that we could build a world where "little black boys and black girls will be able to hold hands with and little white boys and white girls hold hands."  All of us know that we are not yet there, and for institutions like the Episcopal Church, built on the foundation of white privilege, our progress has been in fits and starts, in movements forward and movements backward, moments of great hope and moments of deep despair.  But the dream has taken root in us and lives among us and supplies the energy we need to keep climbing the mountain together.

(1)  The Mainline Protestant churches are generally considered to be the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ,the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),  the Reformed Church in America, the Moravian Church in America and the Society of Friends.  From 1965 to 1985, the membership of these churches fell from 31 million to 21 million.

(2) Found in Lichtenberger's book, The Day is at Hand, published in 1964.
(3) Also found in the above.

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