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Race and Reserve in the High Church Tradition: A Doctoral Thesis Report

By Brandt L. Montgomery

Like many of my colleagues here on Covenant either have done or are in the process of doing, for the past five years, I have been studying for a doctoral degree. While most of them either hold or will hold a Doctor of Philosophy degree, I have been studying for the Doctor of Ministry degree. The Ph.D. is a theoretical degree geared toward the production of original research in an academic discipline, while the D.Min. is a professional degree geared toward clergy and lay ministers. And though I cannot speak for my fellow Covenanters, for me, studying for a doctorate, though at times hard, has been worth it. My love for my colleagues and students at Saint James School of Maryland — those for whom my thesis research has been focused and hopefully will be of benefit — has grown through the process. God willing, now that I have defended my thesis, The Development of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Saint James School of Maryland, and once I complete my final two courses, I will graduate from the University of the South in Sewanee, next May.

My doctoral thesis arose from a letter written in late June 2020 by the Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan, the headmaster at Saint James, in response to the social turmoil resulting from the killings of three Black Americans — Ahmaud Arbery (1994-2020), Breonna Taylor (1992-2020), and George Perry Floyd, Jr. (1973-2020) — all by white private citizens or police officers. In that letter, Dunnan called on Saint James to reflect on how it can best address the injustices with which its faculty and students are continually confronted. “The last four years…[have] certainly caused us to reconsider how we teach and understand our history.” With that call in mind, my doctoral thesis has been written as my contribution to Saint James’s reflective work toward complete diversity, equity, and inclusion.

My thesis analyzes the historical development of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Saint James, a 178-year-old Episcopal Church boarding school in Hagerstown, Maryland. Its purpose is to bring forward the blind spots regarding these issues from the school’s historic Oxford Movement and present-day Anglo-Catholic tradition and its foundation as an institution borne out of the Church School Movement of William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877). The question I seek to answer is, “How can Muhlenberg’s Church school vision [though not originally conceived with racial integration in mind] be useful in today’s understanding and development of diversity, equity, and inclusion?” I contend that Muhlenberg’s vision should not be discontinued at Saint James but rather maintained with a more comprehensive meaning and application. I argue that “Saint James School can remain faithful to its stated vision of being a Muhlenbergian Church school whose Christianity is the basis for its inclusivity and Anglican affiliation and ecumenical commitment enabling [it] to prepare young people…to be ‘leaders for good in the world.’”

From my research of the school’s past and present pivotal figures and journey through its history, I conclude that Saint James’s failures in diversity, equity, and inclusion lie in the reserve — the cautious and gradual approach to revelation — engrained in its culture from its inception. I found this point to be the thesis’s running theme. Though reserve is a good thing in the communication of religious knowledge, in matters of race and diversity, it has been a crippling deterrent.

Stewart J. Brown and Peter B. Nockles highlight how the Oxford Movement “promoted…the principle of reserve when communicating religious knowledge.” Isaac Williams (1802-1865) explained in “Tract 80” of the Tracts for the Times that the mysteries of faith should not be revealed too soon to hearers not yet in a proper spiritual place to receive them. Human understanding and reasoning are gifts from God, yet humanity’s imperfect nature precludes it from fully understanding any mystery of faith. God’s mercy shields hearers from the injuriousness of such full revelation, reinforced by God throughout Scripture by his measured revelation of himself to humanity. This principle was not unique to the Oxford Movement, but rather is a long-lasting principle of Catholic theology. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), for instance, discusses reserve in Part 1, Question 12, Articles 1 through 13 of his Summa Theologica. The Oxford Movement’s founders adopted and advocated for reserve as a sound method of good order and measured teaching of the Movement’s High Church theology.

Yet years before the Oxford Movement in England, John Henry Hobart (1775-1830), the Third Bishop of New York and the leader of the American High Church Party in the early 19th century, maintained that any question not explicitly discussed in the Scriptures or by the early Church councils or supported by received tradition was not worth the Church’s consideration. It was this view, part of what became known as the “Hobartian Synthesis,” that would keep many American High Churchmen from entertaining any question or condoning any change they feared would cause division within the Church. This and the Oxford Movement’s leaders seeking to prevent Dissenters from gaining their civil rights out of fear that the reforms of the second Earl Grey’s Whig government would endanger the Established Church’s property and, with it, their clerical standing makes clear that the High Church tradition was not as inclusive as it is sometimes presented as being.

For an example of reserve’s historical impact on race, though my thesis offers several examples, my best one involves William Rollinson Whittingham (1805-1879), the Fourth Bishop of Maryland, the founder of Saint James School, and a Hobartian High Churchman. Throughout his thirty-nine year episcopate, Whittingham showed great pastoral care for Maryland’s African Americans, often setting aside afternoons after visitations to catechize them himself in the Christian faith. George Freeman Bragg (1863-1940), who from 1891 until his death was the rector of Baltimore’s St. James Episcopal Church, the oldest Black Episcopal parish south of the Mason-Dixon Line, wrote that “Whittingham… was perfectly devoted to the interest of… blacks” and how “he came among them… as a loving father.”

But William Brand, Whittingham’s biographer, recalls how during Maryland’s 1862 Diocesan Convention the question of admitting Black congregations into full union with the diocese was brought up, and how Whittingham refused to entertain the question. Whittingham was asked, “Is not a black man — is not a slave in Christ entitled to all the rights of a Christian?” He reportedly replied, “I do not consider representation in Convention to be a Christian right.” In addition to his view that racial minority franchise in Church councils was not explicitly supported by Scripture or received tradition, Whittingham feared that entertaining such question would trigger further division amongst Maryland Episcopalians over what they were already suffering between the diocese’s Union and Confederate factions. Thus, Whittingham was not going to risk further splintering the diocese over the question of racial minority franchise in diocesan affairs. This renders Whittingham, at best, a gradualist on the issue of race.

Saint James has come a long way in matters of race and diversity. The school became racially integrated and coeducational in the 1970s under the leadership of John Evan Owens, Jr. (1918-2013), the eighth headmaster from 1955 until 1984. The election of the school’s first female prefect (a top student officer) occurred in 1985, and the female boarding program was approved in 1990 during the tenure of Richard Henry Baker, Jr. (1934-1999), the ninth headmaster from 1984 until 1991. Under the incumbent headmaster since 1992, D. Stuart Dunnan, the election of Saint James’s first female Senior Prefect (the senior student leader) occurred in 1998 (with five additional women having since been elected) and enrollment of international students has grown by twenty-five percent with sixteen countries represented. These milestones have added to Saint James’s development toward full diversity, equity, and inclusion, and have helped students become prepared to lead in a global world.

I begin my thesis with a story about a school trustee during the early to mid-1960s expressing concern that the school’s several constituencies would not support the admission of a prospective Black student. This trustee reportedly said, “The voices of our ancestors are telling us not to do this.” Noble Powell (1891-1968), the Ninth Bishop of Maryland and the then chairman of the Board of Trustees, is said to have responded, “Well, I listen to a different voice. And what that voice is telling me to do is to admit him.” Though the trustees did open Saint James’s doors to minority students, it would not be until the early 1970s that a Black student would matriculate and graduate from the school.

There are many who are concerned and are fearful that our parishes and institutions will “change too much” by addressing diversity issues. But to be a Christian is to celebrate the commonality that exist between all believers while, at the same time, celebrating our diversity. God’s way, says St. James, is to “show no partiality” (James 2:1). That is because race — the division of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into distinct groups — is a human construct. It is not intrinsic to being human. Humanity’s meaning comes from being created in God’s image and declared “very good” in his sight (Gen. 1: 27, 31). The prophet Joel proclaimed that God “will pour out [his] spirit on all flesh,” which the Holy Spirit himself confirmed in the book of Acts on Pentecost (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:1-21). To be a Christian is to accept the fact that everyone — regardless of who they are — is valued and loved by God.

This leads to the “aha moment” I had regarding the transition from the High Church Party to the Anglo-Catholics. It was while thumbing through E. Clowes Chorley’s book Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church  that I read his statement that the cause for the transition from High Churchmanship to Anglo-Catholicism was because of the former group’s failure to grasp the profound significance of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word of God was not only taught but became visible in the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. It is the revealed truth of the Christian faith that makes it joyful to live, too joyful for just intellectual prose.

It suddenly all made sense. That is why the first Anglo-Catholics sought to develop the Oxford Movement’s ideals through advanced ritual. Through liturgical practice, the early Anglo-Catholics felt more effective in ministering to their people, showing the connection that exists between Word and Sacrament and how Christ’s people are united with him as one Body in the sharing of His most precious Body and Blood. Though the transition from the old High Church Party to Anglo-Catholicism was not intentional, still, it was from the High Church Party that the first Anglo-Catholics took what had been passed down to them and put it into ceremonial action. It would be the Anglo-Catholics’ stress on community and view of the Church as Christ’s visible body of different but equally important members on earth that would make their movement visibly and theologically an anti-racist movement.

“God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love” (2 Tim. 1:7). To move forward as the Church in the way we need to — in a way that is theologically orthodox, faithful to received tradition, and socially progressive, governed by the gospel of Jesus Christ — we all must be willing to “let go and let God” and commit ourselves to making room for all sorts and conditions of people. This will require, in matters of race and diversity, vulnerability from all of us and throwing reserve to the wind.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) believed that for our glorious future of equality and inclusion to come, we must actively seek it. The passing of time is not enough. God is calling the Church to work toward and live out his plan for his creation. We should all strive to reflect what being a Christian means: that in Christ Jesus all people are one (cf. Gal. 3:28). The more we do this, the more skeptics will increasingly see Christianity as a truly authentic and life-affirming faith.

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


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