Black and Episcopalian:
The Struggle for Inclusion
By Gayle Fisher-Stewart
Church Publishing, pp. 176, $19.95
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Review by Brandt L. Montgomery
The Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart’s Black and Episcopalian offers a survey of the Black diaspora’s presence within the Episcopal Church, insights from Black Episcopalians about being Episcopalian, and questions for personal reflection. For individuals and parishes desiring a volume addressing issues of race that is accessible for all levels, Fisher-Stewart provides a good resource.
“Is it possible to be Black and Episcopalian?” The author says yes, but only if the church takes certain actions. If the church takes seriously the call to Christian discipleship, creates space for all people to bring their whole selves to the Lord’s table, and goes all-in with Jesus in his mission to change the world, “maybe then, I can be Black and Episcopalian” (p. 161).
While she’s right overall, one of Fisher-Stewart’s points deserves some extra attention. She asks as part of her “Beginning Words”:
What does it mean to be part of a faith tradition that has anti-Blackness as a value? What does it mean to be Black in the Episcopal Church, born out of the Church of England, which, if it did not birth slavery, was its midwife and breathed life into it, and which also has anti-Blackness in its DNA? (p. 10)
The Episcopal Church, via its descent from the Church of England, the mother of the Anglican tradition, is an institutional branch of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Though what is today the Episcopal Church was formed through specific actions of individuals at a particular time, its Anglican heritage, through various historical circumstances, goes back to the time of the apostles, who themselves were ordered by Christ for gospel ministry. And the ministry of Christ was and is anchored within God’s master plan, which decrees that every nation shall come to the rising of God’s light (Isa. 60:3). Race, a human construct, is a foreign concept to God’s desire and will for the world.
If Anglican Christianity is rooted in apostolic tradition, its teachings passed down from Christ to the apostles to us, then the Episcopal Church, an Anglican Christian tradition, does not have anti-Blackness as a fundamental value. We see this in the way that remnant Black Episcopalians after the Civil War remained Episcopalians due to their interpretation of Anglicanism’s catholicity. They rightly saw in and interpreted from the Church’s catholic theology God’s embrace of all persons.
The Episcopal Church’s claim of being part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church requires nonconformity to this world through the transformation of minds, recognizing that all people are one in Jesus (Rom. 12:2; Gal. 3:28). As Harold Lewis notes in his Yet with a Steady Beat, Black Episcopalians have reminded their denomination through their very presence of the actual fullness of catholicity.
The 1979 prayer book, which firmly situated the Episcopal Church’s worship in the catholic tradition, aims to bring that heritage’s key claims to life in practical action. As Marion Hatchett notes in his important commentary, the liturgy’s central focus is the death and resurrection of Jesus, remembered and renewed through the worshiping community’s action.
The flexibility of the prayer book’s rubrics allows for a greater diversity in words and actions, highlighting the gathering of all races into the Church’s life. Recalling Jesus’ universal sacrifice, the liturgy transcends the world’s racial classifications and limits. There are many rooms in God’s house, all equal in value (John 14:2).
Fisher-Stewart is, though, right that anti-Blackness is part of our church. The Episcopal Church’s anti-Blackness is because of its members, not its theology or liturgy. Many Episcopalians have not lived up to their tradition’s precepts. Actions have not always matched with the catholic theology Episcopalians have professed and taught.
Human sin is what has made the Episcopal Church complicit with racism. That complicity has been passed down to successive generations of Episcopalians. Sometimes the complicity was intentional; sometimes it was unconscious. Nonetheless, the complicity has marred the experience of many. Fisher-Stewart’s book helps us see this.
From Fisher-Stewart comes the call for all Episcopalians to live out our Lord’s prayer that we be one as he and God the Father are one (John 17:22). The fellowship Christ calls us to have with others is meant to make us a distinctive people, the distinction designed to draw others into the eternal fellowship we have with God.
Here I note Fisher-Stewart’s second suggestion from her “Sending Words,” namely to “challenge single-race churches to expand their base through active evangelism.” Though she frames this toward every single-race parish, I think it particularly prudent for single minority-race parishes to ponder. There are legitimate reasons, historical and otherwise, for the existence of minority-race parishes.
Yet if we are asking white Episcopalians to make welcome space for minorities in their naves, should not single minority-race parishes do the same as part of the Church’s quest to become beloved community? Are the days of single minority-race parishes coming to an end? Are we already at those days?
Fisher-Stewart’s Black and Episcopalian is a timely book. It is a good reminder in these times for all of us to live by what we profess as Episcopalians. God is pushing us to be better than what we have been before. He is beckoning us to work toward and live by his master plan for all of creation. “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love” (2 Tim. 1:7). If we will live by this truth, then we don’t have to be so-and-so and Episcopalian. We can fully be, in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.
The Rev. Dr. Brandt L. Montgomery is the chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.