By Kirk Petersen

Several bishops described their personal experiences with racism in an online meeting of the House of Bishops on September 16, as the bishops considered a report developed over many months by a committee of bishops and theologians.

The 52-page report is titled “Reflection on White Supremacy, the Beloved Community and Learning to Listen.” The Rt. Rev. William Franklin, a member of the committee who organized the discussion, said the committee formed in response to a request from Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry in 2018, at the beginning of the Church triennium.

Bishop William Franklin

“We had no idea it would be as relevant as it is right now” when they began their work, Franklin told TLC.

The introduction states:

“The realities of economic and educational inequality, of vast disparities in incarceration, and of daily prejudice and centuries of discrimination, are all available for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Yet these facts are poorly and imperfectly realized by many white people, so much so that when presented with them, many try to deny or explain them away. White ignorance and white indifference constitute their own specific forms of sin.”

Franklin said the report is designed to serve the bishops as a resource “for their preaching, for their leadership in their dioceses, and for planning their own action on how to address racism and white supremacy in their own dioceses.” It includes an extensive list of reference to books, articles and websites about various aspects of the topic.

Franklin retired in 2019 as bishop diocesan in Western New York. He now serves as an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Long Island, and is on the faculty of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

The September 16 meeting was the House of Bishops’ second deep dive into the subject, as they discussed a draft of the report in September 2019, after which revisions were made to the document. Much of the recent session was conducted privately to enable the bishops to talk candidly in groups, but in a portion of a plenary session that was open to the press, bishops on the committee shared their personal experiences. As reported by Episcopal News Service:

Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows

“I have to confess, I am so weary … because we have been doing this work for so long and there is so much more to do,” said Indianapolis Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, who in 2017 became the first Black woman to serve as a diocesan bishop. Since then, several more dioceses have elected Black women and other people of color as bishops, though the body is still overwhelmingly white and male.

Baskerville-Burrows spoke of the powerful inspiration she felt as a layperson and then a priest whenever the House of Bishops spoke out against racism in its pastoral letters, notably in a 1994 message that condemned racism as a sin. She described the bishops’ work today as a continuation of that hard work.

Bishop Allen Shin

New York Bishop Suffragan Allen Shin noted that racism in America often is seen as binary, a matter of white and black, but as a South Korean immigrant who has called the United States home for nearly 50 years, he sees racism as a more “complicated issue.”

“Asian Americans are constantly seen and see themselves as outsiders,” Shin said, and that xenophobia has only intensified during the coronavirus pandemic. Shin grew emotional as he described the fear he and other Asian Americans feel at being made scapegoats for the virus. “There are days when I’m actually afraid to go outside because I don’t know what will happen, just because of what I look like.”

Several bishops on the committee shared how they grew to realize how their privilege as white Americans had blinded them for much of their lives to the reality of the experiences and perspectives of many of their fellow citizens.

Bishop Larry Benfield

Arkansas Bishop Larry Benfield described himself as a “white Southern male bishop” and confessed that he had long thought that making the church a more hospitable place by welcoming people of all colors was enough to bring new diversity after centuries of predominantly white membership. While reexamining such beliefs through discussions with the Theology Committee, he began to understand the patronizing presumptions of that way of thinking.

“The truth of the matter is, the offer of acceptance by white people is a way to keep others still feeling second-class, and it keeps us white people feeling so virtuous about how progressive we are,” Benfield said. “I’m now finding myself in the uncomfortable place of having to ask myself why any person of color … would want to be accepted by white people in a very white church.”