By David Paulsen
Episcopal News Service
The Episcopal Church would form a new Episcopal Coalition for Racial Equity and Justice and allocate an estimated $2 million a year for the coalition to coordinate and expand churchwide racial healing efforts, under a newly released proposal to be considered in July by the 80th General Convention.
The proposal was unveiled on March 23 in a report produced by the Presiding Officers’ Working Group on Truth-Telling, Reckoning and Healing. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, created the working group last year to sharpen the church’s focus on confronting its past complicity with racist systems and the lingering legacy of white supremacy embedded in institutions like the church. The coalition also is seen as a remedy to the church’s uneven track record of prioritizing racial reconciliation, at the churchwide level and across its more than 100 dioceses.
“This is lifelong work that will span generations. It can no longer be tied to the three-year funding cycle.”
In its report, the working group offered 92 recommendations, most of which would be “moved forward and amplified” by the new coalition. Those include ways to cultivate truth-telling, reckoning, and healing at each level of the church. Suggestions range from “research and share the full history of historically Black churches within your diocese” to “commission artists, poets, liturgists, and musicians of color to create new hymnody, prayers, and liturgies,” a news release announcing the working group’s report.
As stated in the 39-page report, “The Working Group began with the premise that The Episcopal Church has spent decades passing resolutions and developing programs to address the historic racism that infects our structures and systems. The people most oppressed by our collective failure to act in meaningful ways are uninterested in another effort that has no urgency, no requirements and no consequences. The church has failed to respect the dignity of every human being.”
“We have an opportunity to engage in a churchwide process of truth and reconciliation that, to my knowledge, has not been done before on that level,” Curry said in the news release. “This is an invitation to do the hard and holy work of love. We have an opportunity to be a witness to how we can overcome our divisions and heal our hurts.”
That failure, the report argues, is rooted deep in the church’s history, beginning with its role in the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans and other racist systems. But the church’s failure is not merely historical. The working group also cited a 2021 report from a Racial Justice Audit of Episcopal Leadership, which found that people of color still feel marginalized in what remains a predominantly white and white-dominant denomination.
“Our missionary structures have benefited from white supremacy and American colonialism.”
The shape of much of the church’s present work toward racial healing dates to 1991 and the 70th General Convention, when the church first committed to examining its past for vestiges of white supremacy. In the past two years, those efforts have gained renewed urgency amid widespread public outrage over the killings of unarmed African Americans by police officers and white vigilantes, including George Floyd in May 2020. The church also has been moved to action by new revelations about the former federal system of Indigenous boarding schools in the United States, some with Episcopal ties, that sought to assimilate Native American children at the expense of their cultures and family bonds.
The presiding officers’ working group concluded that the church needs to make an intentional and ongoing commitment – to listening to the stories of those who have been harmed by the church, to reckoning with the church’s complicity in systemic racism rooted in white supremacy and to developing healing processes that will become a common part of church life.
That work also “must lead to changes in our patterns of governance, the way we gather as The Episcopal Church and our liturgical practices,” the report says. “We do not anticipate all this to happen in one triennium, but for it to become an ongoing priority of the church.”
Jennings, in a written statement, thanked members of the working group and welcomed their report and recommendations. “The working group shows what can happen when laypeople, clergy and bishops come together to share experiences and perspectives, listen for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and debate how the church should participate in God’s mission,” Jennings said. “I am extraordinarily grateful to the faithful people who persevered, even as the pandemic raged around us, to complete this work in time for the 80th General Convention.”
“The Coalition would be funded by the annual income (draw) of a tithe of 10 percent of the financial holdings of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.”
The new coalition proposed by the working group would be “a voluntary association of Episcopal dioceses, parishes, organizations and individuals dedicated to the work of becoming the beloved community,” a reference to the ideal of racial harmony that was promoted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The working group suggests using a tithe, or 10% of all assets managed by the church, to calculate the funds that would support the coalition’s work. According to the report, 10% of the church’s $413 million in total holdings would be $41.3 million, and the report recommends allocating the equivalent of a 5% draw from that amount, or $2 million a year.
How the church would accommodate that expense into its triennial budget was not addressed by the working group’s report, though it suggests the coalition also could conduct additional fundraising to increase the financial support for its work.
“The resolution invites the church to consider an alternative organizational structure that makes clear that this work is prioritized for decades, independent of administrations and leadership that change,” North Carolina Bishop Samuel Rodman told Episcopal News Service in an interview. “It’s a way of saying, this is a long-term commitment to work that’s going to take generations.
Rodman and the Rev. John Kitagawa, a priest and deputy from the Diocese of Arizona, served as co-conveners of the working group. The group’s racially and geographically diverse roster featured three bishops and 11 deputies, including House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing and four members of Executive Council. Eight of the church’s nine provinces were represented, including the largely Spanish-speaking Province IX.
“The coalition is a vehicle to affirm and coordinate so much good work already happening throughout the church,” Kitagawa said in the press release announcing the report. “It will help the church to begin much-needed structural and cultural changes in our quest to build the Beloved Community.”
“Systemic racism is not a theory.
General Convention has set racial reconciliation as one of its three top priorities, in addition to evangelism and care of creation, since 2015. That also was the year the church elected Curry as its first Black presiding bishop, and under his and Jennings’ leadership, the church launched Becoming Beloved Community in 2017 as its cornerstone racial healing initiative, providing guidance and resources to congregations and dioceses to engage in that work.
In the past decade, many, but not all dioceses, have formed anti-racism committees and commissions to lead their efforts. Racial Justice & Reconciliation continues to be one topic area of General Convention’s two dozen legislative committees, while much of the day-to-day churchwide work is carried about by racial reconciliation staff members of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the church’s corporate entity. Executive Council also has a Committee on Anti-Racism & Reconciliation that is tasked with responding to General Convention resolutions “directed at eliminating the sin of racism from the life of the church.”
And during the current triennium, Curry and Jennings created a Presiding Officers’ Advisory Group on Beloved Community Implementation. Part of its work was to facilitate the awarding of 33 “rapid response” grants totaling $187,800 in 2020 and 27 grants larger grants in 2021 totaling $220,000. The advisory group’s chair, the Rev. Edwin Johnson, a priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts, also served on the presiding officer’s working group.
“How will the church hold itself accountable?” the working group’s report asks. “Despite decades of resolutions and promises, we have continued to privilege white voices. We have given lip service to training and education, doing just enough to make ourselves feel better.”
The working group’s report cites recent grant recipients and other examples of innovating racial healing efforts as the kinds of initiatives it hopes to nurture and expand through the creation of the Episcopal Coalition for Racial Equity and Justice. The Diocese of Olympia, for example, invited clergy and laypeople of color to share their experiences in a panel discussion during its 2020 diocesan convention.
Other dioceses have launched conversations about possible racial reparations programs. Several congregations are cited in the report as models for examining churches’ physical spaces for traces of racial injustice in their history, such as the Confederate symbols that were removed from public display at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.
“The coalition would welcome participation from all groups and individuals at every level of the church. … [It] would facilitate the ongoing curation, organization, and dissemination of practical resources, support, assistance, training and networks for Episcopal entities seeking to participate in truth-telling, reckoning and healing,” the working group said.
The report also suggests that the new body be governed by its own board of directors appointed by the presiding bishop and House of Deputies president, with people of color making up a majority of directors.
Existing organizational structures in the church have been “influenced and shaped by white supremacy” and “deeply steeped in colonialism and imperialism,” the report says. Furthermore, “there is no space where all of the good work being done can fully come together and have a multiplying effect on the church and the world.”
Accompanying its conclusions and recommendations, the report proposes seven General Convention resolutions for bishops and deputies to consider when they meet July 7-14 in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to creating the coalition, the resolutions call for an examination of racism in the church’s liturgical texts, an investigation into the church’s historical role in Indigenous boarding schools, acknowledgment of the trauma caused by the church’s support of oppressive systems, an audit of church finances for ties to racial injustices and the development of equitable hiring and promotion practices.
A final proposed resolution would establish the phrase “people of color” as the church’s preferred term for communities in the church that “do not exclusively identify as white.” More specific names should be used “when referring to a smaller group of people that share a historical, cultural, or ethnic identity.”
The working group also devotes 11 pages in its report to recommending a broad range of 92 churchwide and local measures for Episcopalians to deepen their engagement with racial healing, including at the congregational, diocesan and provincial levels and at Episcopal seminaries, schools and other church-affiliated organizations.
Congregations can diversify their vestries and develop relationships with marginalized groups in the community. Dioceses can engage in conversations about reparations for past complicity in racist systems and promote racially conscious learning opportunities for Episcopalians, such as Sacred Ground. Seminaries can study whether their assets were directly derived from past racial injustices and “create holy space to hold the hard and uplifting truths” about their history.
“The Working Group calls on the church to commit to the liberation and empowerment of communities of color to renew and revitalize their unique identities, cultures, languages and spiritual practices,” the report says. “We believe that it is essential for the beloved community to find ways for trust to develop so that we can begin to restore relationships with all of God’s creation and humanity, and for truth-telling to occur.”