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Anglicanism and the “Black Future”: Continuing the Conversation

By Brandt L. Montgomery

Booker T. Washington reportedly said, “If a black man is anything but a Baptist or a Methodist, someone has been tampering with his religion.” The statement is emblematic of the view that Anglicanism is incompatible with traditional black American Christianity. Such thinking has caused black American Anglicans throughout the past 150-plus years to defend their legitimacy as black people and real Christians.

Considering American Anglicanism’s racial majority’s past prevalent views on race, one can see why black American Christians’ skepticism of Anglicanism still exists. For years, “white Episcopalians exhibited a racism that prompted them to treat their black brethren as step-children separated from the main body of the flock” (Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color, p. 275). Yet, despite this past racism, black American Anglicans have seen their tradition as a historic branch of the Church catholic and themselves as equal members thereof with their white counterparts.

In the black American Anglican experience, Anglican theology and liturgy bring alive God’s Word, hearing from the gospel and experiencing through the sacraments the truth that there is “neither Jew nor Greek… neither slave nor free… neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s then you are… heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).

My post stems from Amber Noel and Esau McCaulley’s discussion about “Anglicanism and the ‘Black Future.’” With America on the way to becoming a majority-minority country, Noel and McCaulley consider how American Anglicanism can better reflect the country’s racial diversity. McCaulley closes the conversation with a thoughtful observation:

In Christianity, our eschatology is formed by current ethics. If we know how the story ends, then it becomes the job of the Church today to embody God’s future now. That’s what I hope we’re doing.

I would say that American Anglicanism is making steps in the right direction. McCaulley, a black priest in the Anglican Church in North America, notes how “there has never [been] more interest from African-Americans and other ethnic groups in joining the ACNA than there is now.” As a black priest in The Episcopal Church, I attest to my own denomination’s multiethnic evangelism, noting the participation of many white Episcopalians in the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement and today’s Black Lives Matter Movement, the denomination’s official 2008 apology for its participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the increasing racial diversity in the House of Bishops, and the election of the first black Presiding Bishop in 2015. Great progress has been made, yet we still have a long way to go.

But I contend that one of the reasons why further American Anglican racial integration has yet to be achieved has to do not so much with present evangelistic efforts, but the racism of the past. American Anglicanism’s past racism has caused black Christians to pass down through the generations a perception that Anglicanism “isn’t for us.” The implication is that not only is Anglicanism different from black American Christianity, but also that Anglicanism may still hold its past attitude toward racial minorities. The past is still affecting Anglican evangelism of minority Christians, producing, in turn, a stumbling block towards future progress.

My own experience as a black Episcopalian began 23 years ago in an Episcopal parish day school in my Alabama hometown. To people of my predominately black neighborhood, the Episcopal Church was “the rich white church.” Seeing me, a young black man, become an Episcopalian conveyed that I was ashamed of being black, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Having to explain my denominational affiliation on account of my race saddened and insulted me, due to subtle suggestions that I ventured into “forbidden territory.” Today, reflecting on that time, I see their reactions as a response to history, the Episcopal Church’s past racial ideology affecting their thoughts about it.

History is crucial to understanding the black American experience. Black America has had to fight off the inequalities hurled at it throughout the past 401 years. This naturally causes suspicion of the racial majority and its institutions. As I heard a black woman last year say about trusting white people, “Unless I see you on the front lines fighting with me for the same rights you have, even more so than me, there’ll always be some part of me that will be cautious of you.”

American Anglicanism needs to fully live into its biblical and liturgical call to rebel against oppression. As a black priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the storied ministry of Frank Weston, the white Bishop of Zanzibar from 1907-1924, is an example of such action. Not only was Weston beloved for his work with native Africans, but his Anglo-Catholicism encompassed clear doctrinal thinking and practical action (Bowden-Pickstock, Quiet Gardens: The Roots of Faith? p. 67). When Weston died in 1924, one of his deacons said about him

I think there was no European who knew black people better than he did — their characters and customs, their hardships and their longings. I think there was no European who did more to range himself on the side of the black people and who was so desirous that they should advance. (Dark, Archbishop Davidson and the English Church, p. 135).

American Anglicanism’s racial ideology is different today compared to prior years. Because of the past generations of black Anglicans who stood firm, American Anglicanism has benefited from their witness. Their witness brought to the American conscience Christ’s mystical identification with minority suffering, calling all to acknowledge the marks of grace present in all God’s people (Shattuck, Episcopalians & Race, p. 92).

McCaulley says

Our chosen or inherited expressions of Anglicanism in music, preaching, and reserve encode a certain culture. That is not wrong; it is just not for everyone. There is nothing preventing Kirk Franklin or Tasha Cobb[s] from being included in the liturgy but the will to do so.

I agree that nothing’s wrong with incorporating contemporary Gospel music into Anglican liturgy. Yet, to use McCaulley’s own words, “it is just not for everyone,” including every black Episcopalian/Anglican. He is right that black people are not theologically monolithic. Nor are we monolithic in matters of sacred music and liturgical practice.

McCaulley and I represent two different strands of black American Anglicanism, he as a black evangelical priest of the ACNA and me as a black Anglo-Catholic priest of the Episcopal Church. Whereas McCaulley, I gather, likes contemporary Gospel music in the liturgy, I like the choral Mass settings of Jean Langlais, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and David Hurd, as well as the old-time spirituals in Lift Every Voice and Sing II, the Episcopal Church’s African-American hymnal.

Thus, I believe what is crucial to the dismantling of black American Christianity’s skepticism of Anglicanism extends beyond the liturgical incorporation of contemporary Gospel music. For American Anglicanism’s evangelism of black Christians to be sincere and its liturgy to provide them a genuine spiritual experience, black Christians must feel and be assured that the majority does not see them as something other than fully equal. Black Christians must hear in Anglican preaching and see in action the tradition striving to make present on Earth the reality that makes up God’s Kingdom. Because if they don’t, then it all becomes, to quote Aquinas, “all straw.”

My experience of Anglicanism these past two decades has caused me to see from its liturgy the corporate work toward unity. I know the same can be true for other black Christians. With evangelistic persistence and sincere will, skepticism will cease and Anglicanism will become attractive to more minority Christians. But with evangelistic persistence and sincerity must come the willingness of the majority to allow time to destroy the minority’s preconceived notion of Anglicanism as a “not for us” tradition. Time and trust are crucial for Anglicanism’s black future.

The Rev. Brandt L. Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.


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