By Brandt L. Montgomery
This post is based on my sermon “The Lamp of God,” preached at the opening Eucharist of Ascension Episcopal School in Lafayette, Louisiana, on August 3, the Feast of George Freeman Bragg Jr.
In 1 Samuel 3, the young boy Samuel hears a voice calling his name. Thinking it is the High Priest Eli, Samuel asks what he wants. Eli says he didn’t call Samuel and sends him back to bed. After the third time this happens, Eli perceives that God is calling the boy and instructs Samuel on what to do next. “The Lordcame and stood forth, calling as at other times. … And Samuel said, ‘Speak for your servant hears’” (1 Sam. 3:10).
Samuel’s prophetic ministry reminds me of the ordained ministry of George Freeman Bragg Jr., whose feast day the Episcopal Church observed on August 3. Born on January 25, 1863, in North Carolina to slaves of an Episcopal family, Bragg was, in addition to his ordained ministry, the Episcopal Church’s first major black historiographer. He was a prolific writer whose History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church remains the authoritative text of early black Episcopal history.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1888, from 1891 until his death on March 12, 1940, Bragg was the rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore, the oldest black Episcopal parish in the American South. His 49-year rectorate saw the parish grow in membership from 63 to over 500, as well as move from diocesan financial assistance to self-sufficiency, and erect not one but two new church buildings (Lawrence L. Hartzell. “George F. Bragg (1863-1940),” Encyclopedia Virginia). And, just as Eli mentored Samuel in the prophetic ministry, Bragg raised up over 20 “ministerial sons” for the priesthood during his 49 years at St. James.
Bragg never avoided criticizing the Episcopal Church for not living up to the expectations Christ called for in the gospel. It was said of Bragg upon his death that though he was “diminutive in stature … he proved … a powerful voice and advocate for … equality and harmonious relations between [all] races” (Frederick N. Rasmussen. “A Voice for Racial Harmony,” The Baltimore Sun). Now 78 years after his death, the Episcopal Church honors Bragg as a tireless advocate in his time for the full inclusion of minority Episcopalians in the church’s larger life. His ministry exemplified the Lord’s command “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with … God”(Mic. 6:8).
“The lamp of God had not yet gone out” (1 Sam. 3:3). This brings together the stories of Samuel and Bragg. God called these two men to serve his people in different yet similarly dark times. In Samuel’s time, the people drifted away from concern for God’s laws and will. George Bragg, during the heyday of Jim Crow discrimination, served in a denomination whose theology proclaimed equality, while many of its majority treated him and others like him as lesser members of Christ’s body (Harold Lewis, Yet with a Steady Beat: The African-American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church [Trinity Press International, 1996], p. 179).
In their times and today, God did not and does not give up on his people: the lamp of God has not gone out. He made known through Samuel’s prophesying and Bragg’s preaching his Word: “Behold, I am about to do a thing … at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle” (1 Sam. 3:11). And for all who surrender to Jesus — God’s Lamp that shines in the darkness, the Light that will never go out — God lifts away the veil of ignorance (2 Cor. 3:16).
In this Good News, we see the connection between the ministry of Episcopal schools and the ministries of Samuel and George Bragg; we see their incorporation and importance in God’s work. Clergy, teachers, athletic coaches, administrators, support staff, and volunteers of Episcopal schools serve such institutions because God called them to such service. Episcopal schools have an important mission to “[build] up the Body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:12-13). The work of all Episcopal schools together contributes to God’s commission to restore all people to unity with him and each other in Jesus (“Catechism,” 1979 BCP, p. 855). From this comes their mutual aim: to glorify “the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
Moreover, as God is glorified in the work and community lives of Episcopal schools, their teaching and action sow seeds of God’s righteousness in their students (cf. James 3:18). The more than 20 men who answered the call to ordination under George Bragg’s mentorship did so because they saw from the example of their priest and ministerial father the truth of God’s Word. They heard and came to believe that God is love and his grace is free and unconditionally offered to all, regardless of human classifications. They knew that to be redeemed in Jesus Christ is to receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). God worked through Bragg’s ministry to encourage those men to say yes to God’s call, to be “Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family” (“The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests,” 1928 BCP, p. 539).
This should be the goal of Episcopal schools. All who serve in them are Christ’s ministers. When Episcopal-school students not only hear but see from those who work in them the sincerity to convey God’s love to others, imagine what God can do within their hearts. They’ll be encouraged to lift their eyes upward to him, the Maker of heaven and earth, from whom our help comes.
Episcopal schools, working together in a common mission, have the ability to accomplish more than they ever think possible. The ministry they provide to their students and local communities is an excellent and wonderful thing and very much needed in today’s world. And that is what Episcopal schools are doing: ministry. Though years may pass before the fruits of their labors are seen in students — some may not live long enough to ever see them — there remains the hope of them accepting Jesus’ commission: “The harvest is plentiful; be laborers in God’s harvest.”
All Episcopal-school clergy, teachers, athletic coaches, administrators, support staff, and volunteers: know that God has called you for him to do great things through you to all who you teach and serve. To borrow from that great hymn Ora Labora,
Come labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share—
To young and old the Gospel gladness bear:
Redeem the time; Its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.
Let the light that is Jesus Christ burn bright within you.
Facts and figures on Episcopal Schools
These are drawn from the website of the National Association of Episcopal Schools.
- 1,182 — the number of Episcopal schools and early childhood education programs. This number includes:
- 1,042 parish, cathedral, religious order, and seminary sponsored schools
- 140 diocesan and independent schools
- 577 early childhood education programs
- 477 elementary and middle school programs
- 54 secondary schools
- 74 comprehensive P-12 schools
- 1,138 day schools
- 36 day-and-boarding schools
- 8 boarding only schools
- 3 military schools and 1 school with an optional JROTC program
- Episcopal schools are found generally throughout the Episcopal Church, which has 109 dioceses and 3 regional areas in the states, commonwealths, and territories of the United States and in Haiti, the British Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Taiwan, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.
- The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti has 252 schools, the most of any diocese of the Episcopal Church.
- Texas has 121 schools and early childhood education programs in 6 dioceses, the most of any U.S. state, commonwealth, or territory.
- 160k — the approximate number of students in Episcopal schools. The students represent significant socio-economic, racial, cultural, and religious diversity.
- 25 percent — the approximate percentage of Episcopal school students who are Episcopalians, although this number varies with location and type of school. This means that Episcopal schools serve a large number of students from other Christian denominations, non-Christian traditions, or no formal faith backgrounds.
- $212 million — the estimated value of all financial aid Episcopal schools offered in 2013-2014.
- 28.5k — the approximate number of administrators, faculty, and staff members Episcopal schools employ.
- Trinity School, New York City, founded in 1709, is the oldest continually operating Episcopal school.