Confessing past betrayal

Church apologizes for slavery and segregation, seeks paths to healing
June 30, 2006

The Episcopal Church issued a mea culpa for slavery and segregation at General Convention. With an admission of sin, an apology and a promise to document its own complicity in what they called “a fundamental betrayal” of humanity, deputies and bishops voted to find ways to repair the breach “both materially and relationally.”

John Vanderstar, a deputy from the Diocese of Washington, introduced the legislation with these words: “Even after slavery ended officially, the Episcopal Church stoutly resisted the steps designed to bring the descendants of slaves, as equals, into American society. It took the Civil Rights Movement to wake up America … to wake up our church.”

In a presentation to deputies, Barbara Cheney of Connecticut, countered those who would refute responsibility by quoting a statement made by the archbishop of Canterbury when the Church of England voted to apologize for the slave trade. “The Body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time; it exists across history, and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors. And part of what we can do with them and for them in the body of Christ is prayerful acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us, not just of some distant ‘them.’”

Charge to the church

The resolution passed calls on every diocese to “collect and document … detailed information on the complicity of the Episcopal Church in the institution of slavery and in the subsequent history of segregation and discrimination and the economic benefits the Episcopal Church derived .”

It directs the Committee on Anti-Racism to study and report to Executive Council by March 31, 2008, “how the church can be ‘the repairer of the breach.’” It asks the presiding bishop to name a Day of Repentance “and on that day hold a service of repentance at the National Cathedral.” Each diocese is to hold a similar service.

When the resolution came before the House of Deputies, one African-American deputy after another rose to testify. Billy Alford from the Diocese of Georgia called the discussion overdue. “Civil rights laws have been passed, but I remind this house, they were rights; they were not repairs. And they were 100 years late in coming.”

Pamela Chapman from the Diocese of Western Michigan said bluntly, “African Americans won’t trust you until you show you really care about the gap in education, health, wealth, etc.” Nell Gibson of New York diocese encouraged truth-telling “so that as a people of God we might begin to make amends for the infamy of the slave trade.” She asked the house “to join the United Church of Christ, the United Methodists and the Church of England as repairers of the breach.”

Several deputies – including Sherry Dennen from the Diocese of Western Kansas and William Todd from the Diocese of Southern Virginia -- confessed that they had benefited from white privilege. Todd credited Katrina Brown’s film Traces of the Trade, shown several times during convention, with opening his eyes. He called himself a “recovering racist” and offered his apology.

Bennett Jones of Northern Indiana diocese disagreed. He quoted his wife, the Rev. Carolyn Jones, an African-American who had said at an early hearing, “These proposed reparations encourage helplessness, victimization and whining. Reparations grow from the world of entitlements, but entitlements create second-class citizens and second-class members of the Episcopal Church.”

A separate resolution calls on Congress to begin dialogue on the history of slavery and entertain proposals for reparations. Nelson Pinder from the Diocese of Central Florida spoke in favor of that resolution. “We were promised some mules and some acreage. We didn’t even get a goat. It’s time for America to come up to the plate.”

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