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Spellers: ‘Church Is an Instrument of Empire’

By Kirk Petersen

“The Episcopal Church, and certainly the Anglican tradition, the Anglican Communion, the Church of England – we were not founded to be a church. We were founded to be an instrument of empire.”

That was the line that made the chat box come alive on the May 6 webinar featuring the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation, and stewardship of creation.  The event was hosted on Zoom and Facebook by the Episcopal Church Foundation to discuss Spellers’ new book: The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community.

Comments in the chat ranged from “Amen!” to “This newspeak language does not serve us well.” Spellers interacted with the audience of 250-300 as she explained her thinking.

She prefaced her provocative statement by saying “Remember that I love the church. Everything I say is rooted in love.” She said she had talked about the church as an instrument of empire a few times, and people got offended. She said with a laugh that she realized “you can’t just drop that on people,” so she decided to write a book.

Church Cracked Open was prompted by the twin catastrophes of 2020 – the pandemic, and the racial reckoning prompted by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The catastrophes have reshaped society, including the church.

“Once all these pieces are shattered around us, maybe we don’t have to reassemble them I the same old way. Maybe we can become something else. Maybe we can become God’s Beloved Community,” she said, evoking a signature program of the Episcopal Church.

“At critical moments in the life of our church, we have been the ones who opted for the status quo,” she said. “For the institutions that protected power, protected resources, protected wealth. Not just because we were the rich church, but in a way you almost have to flip that. Why were rich people so comfortable with us?”

“I will go to the mat on our affiliation with empire. I’m also happy to be disagreed with,” Spellers said, but added that her thesis is based on years of study of the church.

The empire started in England, of course, and missionaries accompanied colonizers wherever they went. Churches in Africa and South America are very clear about the links between the Anglican Church and empire, she said.

“I’ve talked to the Archbishop of Canterbury about this. There is a whole conversation going on in the Church of England, about this very topic. Is the Church of England racist? There are folk at every level who are learning to say, this is us. This is us. Now what?”

Charis Bhagianathan

The webinar was moderated by Charis Bhagianathan, director of communications for the foundation, who said she had immigrated six years ago from India, which is a former British colony. She chatted with Spellers about her experience growing up in the Church of North India, and the incongruity of seeing priests and bishops wearing layers of vestments in 100-degree heat.

“Things like the vestments, the music – there’s nothing Indian about it,” she said. “And we love it! It’s so internalized, that I can’t imagine it any way. But you start to think about what was taken and what we replaced?”

Spellers said the Church is “designed for maintenance, we’re designed for sustaining what already is. We’re designed to maintain power structures. To me, that’s not the end of the story. You then have to ask, how does God redeem this? How does God redeem a church with this history?”

“I’m so grateful that we have this clear path laid out for us, by Jesus, really. A path that we as Episcopalians have identified as the Way of Love,” she said.

The last chapter of the book “brings together this dream of communities of disciples, communities of serious followers of Jesus, who want to become that Beloved Community. The Way of Love is the pathway toward that.”

The Way of Love is a set of seven practices introduced by Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry at the 2018 General Convention in Austin, Texas.

  • Turn: Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus.
  • Learn: Reflect daily on scripture, especially the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Pray: Spend time with God in prayer every day.
  • Worship: Gather in community for worship every week.
  • Bless: Share one’s faith and find ways to serve other people.
  • Go: Move beyond one’s comfort to witness to the love of God with words and actions.
  • Rest: Dedicate time for restoration and wholeness.

Foundation President Donald Romanik closed the webinar by saying, “Stephanie’s book made me uncomfortable. And we need to be uncomfortable, because this isn’t a time for being comfortable, this is a time for being energized and anxious and want to make a difference in this church and the world.”


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