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The invisible: African Americans in North American Anglicanism

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. —Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (Random House, 1952)

I started hanging around Episcopalians and Anglicans before those terms, at least in the United States, came to mean two different things due to the advent of ACNA. I am not a lifelong Episcopalian. I was formed in the African-American Baptist tradition that combined an emphasis on gospel preaching with social justice. My pastor and my single mom (not in that order) taught me to love the Scriptures and to glory in the blood of Jesus.

But we were also in the streets. My church wasn’t perfect, but we cared about the hurts and struggles of the black folk who surrounded us. For most of my childhood I was not the helper; I was one of those in need of help. I was one of hundreds of kids trying to navigate the temptations and struggles of black life in the South. My church helped me by pointing me to Jesus and helping meet my material needs. This experience forever shaped my understanding of the nature of the Church’s mission.

I relate all this because, although I am no longer a Baptist, I did not leave because I was disgruntled. I became an Anglican because it provided me with more, not less. The Book of Common Prayer, the sacraments, the orders of bishops, priests, deacons, and laity working together to discern the will of God across cultures, with a healthy respect for the testimony of the Christians who came before — all of these completed the faith of my youth, to my mind at least.

I knew that becoming an Anglican would involve change. After all, I was moving from an all-black denomination to a communion that in the United States was (and remains) largely white. But I did assume that, although I would be a minority, I would encounter some African-Americans who had similar experiences.

The last 10–15 years among Episcopalians and Anglicans have shown me that I was mistaken. Much to my surprise, it quickly became clear to me that the evangelical/Anglo-Catholic wing of North American Anglicanism was and remains largely devoid of African-American clergy, leadership, and congregations. I have noticed the following:

  • Very few of the churches that left the Episcopal Church to found what became ACNA had significant African-American leadership.
  • Since its founding, ACNA has rightly emphasized church planting. However, very few of those churches have been founded by African-Americans, or drawn significant numbers of African-Americans.
  • Of the traditional churches that remain in the Episcopal Church, African-Americans lead relatively few.
  • The African-American leadership in the Episcopal Church on the whole comes from the progressive wing of the church, not the evangelical/Anglo-Catholic wings.

My last statement might sound controversial to my Episcopal friends. Surely, it is ludicrous to speak about a lack of diversity in the Episcopal Church at a time when it is led by an African-American.

Hear me out. It is not a criticism, but a statement of fact, to say that African-American Christianity ranges from conservative to progressive, yet also to say that it is mostly traditional in its theology. It is also broadly accurate to say that North American Anglicanism tends to draw most of its African-American converts from the progressive strand of the black theological tradition.

This fact is at least interesting, isn’t it? White evangelicals, liberals, and Anglo-Catholics have all found a home in Anglicanism. But we do not find that same spectrum of opinion among African-American Anglicans. The black community in North American Anglicanism trends to the left, and I do not pretend to know why.

Is the Episcopal Church unfriendly to African-American traditionalists? Do evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in the Episcopal Church struggle to know what to do with African-Americans? Is it some combination of the two? Why haven’t African-Americans flourished in traditional churches in the Anglican tradition?

My purpose is not to critique the progressive tradition, but to ask a few searching questions of traditional Anglicanism in North America. First, why isn’t there a significant African-American presence among traditional Anglicans? If one looks to the Reformed or Baptist traditions, one sees that in recent years African-American presence and leadership has grown. But this trend does not appear in Anglicanism.

Second, isn’t it at least somewhat ironic that traditional Anglicans in the U.S. have developed such strong links with African bishops while having so few links with the African-Americans in their own communities? Wouldn’t it be a tremendous witness if Anglicanism could actually be the home of a reunion of sorts in which Africans and African-Americans gather in one church to worship together as long-lost brothers? Put differently, is the failure to reach African-Americans a great tragedy in the context of an increasingly global church?

Third, do we realize that the number of African-Americans who are disconnected from church is growing? What role does North American Anglicanism plan to play in ministering to African-Americans in the future?

Fourth, what is being done to gather, nurture, and groom potential African-American leadership? Whose council is being sought when we consider how we might reach out to African-Americans? When we invite gurus to speak on evangelism, church planting, and mission, are these people who have experience in ministry among African-Americans? If not, why?

Finally, do you know that many of the traditional African-American clergy that I have spoken to in TEC/ACNA feel lonely and abandoned?

I close with this. For years evangelicals outside the Anglican tradition ignored the questions of race and diversity in favor of planting churches, and getting the gospel out as quickly as possible.

In itself, the emphasis on conversions and new churches is laudable. Please tell people about Jesus! But getting the gospel out also functioned as a means of avoiding the difficult questions about why the church remains profoundly and deeply segregated. It is as if we thought we could always press forward and never look back at how the past hinders present mission.

Evangelicals, on the whole, did this in the face of much protest by the African-American Christians in their midst. We said that unless the church comes face to face with our divisions and sins, as it relates to issues of race, the spread of the gospel would be hindered. We were ignored. Today we are seeing some of the fruits of that failure. Right at a time when a unified and multicultural church would have been a tremendous testimony to the wider culture, we remain divided!

In the same way, traditional North American Anglicans (here I speak to Anglicans and Episcopalians) might consider their lack of diversity an unfortunate by-product of historical factors. However, we cannot pretend that a lack of diversity will be without cost. We Christians need each other. The Bible says so.

If we remain a tradition that only speaks to certain subsections of American culture, then we as a tradition have fallen short of our gospel mandate to reach all people. Our lack of deep commitment to reach these people also speaks a word to the few African-Americans who are among us. It says: We are happy you are here, but your people and culture are of secondary importance to us.

I write this, not in anger at Anglicanism, but out of deep love for my kinsmen according to the flesh. It is my deep desire to worship with them in the Anglican tradition this side of the resurrection.

 

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