A two-day solemn observance has been planned for October 3-4 at the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the Episcopal Church will take a monumental step and publicly apologize for its involvement in the institution of transatlantic slavery. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will serve as celebrant and preacher at the October 4 service of repentance.
"This gathering is of vital importance because this is a stain on the church that's been around for a long time," said John Vanderstar, Executive Council member and author of resolution A123, which called for the occasion. "I strongly believe that the church needs to confront its past and change its future."
The 2006 General Convention resolution A123 declared that the institution of slavery in the United States and "anywhere else in the world" was and is a sin, and mandated that the church acknowledge and express regret for its support of slavery and for supporting "de jure and de facto segregation and discrimination" for years after slavery's abolition. The resolution also asked the Presiding Bishop to call for a "Day of Repentance and Reconciliation" and to organize a service.
Also in that year, the House of Bishops, in marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, revisited its 1994 pastoral letter, "The Sin of Racism," which stated that "the essence of racism is prejudice coupled with power. It is rooted in the sin of pride and exclusivity which assumes 'that I and my kind are superior to others and therefore deserve special privileges.'"
The bishops issued a new pastoral letter "on the pervasive sin that continues to plague our common life in the church and in our culture. We acknowledge our participation in this sin and we lament its corrosive effects on our lives. We repent of this sin, and ask God's grace and forgiveness."
"[By publicly apologizing] it will show that this is not an Episcopal problem, this is not a Christian problem, this is a human problem that we have marginalized and oppressed others, that we have not regarded every one as God's equal creation but we're not going to be that way anymore," said the Rev. Jayne Oasin, program officer for Anti-Racism and Gender Equality for the Episcopal Church.
"To say that we are in the midst of change is to understate the case," said the Rev. C. David Williams, president of the Union of Black Episcopalians. "When we factor in the Obama phenomenon in this country and around the world, and couple it with the Congress of the United States as it prepares to give apology for the nation's part in the heinous human crime of Slavery, the Presiding Bishop's call for this "Day of Repentance" is extraordinary."
Presentations and displays
The gathering will open on October 3, from 1-5 p.m. with three presentations entitled "Revisiting the Past", "Taking Action in the Present" and "Charting a Course for the Future." Presenters will include the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, rector, Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and author of "Yet With a Steady Beat" the foundational book about African Americans and the Episcopal Church; the Rt. Rev. Chip Marble, assisting bishop in the Diocese of North Carolina; Dr. Anita George, chairperson of the Executive Council Anti-Racism Committee; and the Honorable Byron Rushing, member of the Massachusetts State Legislature.
Rushing said his presentation on the future will focus on the face of slavery as "a significant part not only of American history but in the formation of American culture."
"Although the institution of owning human beings in large numbers has been abolished, the cultural aspect of slavery has not been," he explained. "We need to talk about slavery into the future as it is alive today. We still need to have an abolitionist's movement because we have abolished slavery as an economy of chattel but we have not abolished slavery in our culture."
George, who along with Marble will address taking action in the present and discuss the work that the resolution asked dioceses to, said that this gathering is "occurring at a very significant time in the life of our Church and country."
"After many years and much effort on the part of so many committed Americans, various entities are now recognizing, acknowledging, and apologizing for the roles their groups played in slavery as well as in the post-slavery mistreatment of African Americans," said George.
She cited the recent apology given to African Americans by the House of Representatives of the U. S. for wrongs committed within the umbrella of institutionalized slavery, the similar one issued by the AMA and apologizes issued by several bishops in the church. She went on to say that this is a time for looking squarely at the institutions in our country "that allowed one group of people to own another group, to exploit and abuse them for profit."
Acknowledging the task as not an easy one, George said but "it must be done."
"I think this is what our Church must do as it examines its historic role and the long-term benefits it derived from the enslavement of millions of human beings in the U. S., north, south, east, and west. It must also consider its complicity in the mistreatment of African Americans even after slavery as an institution was abolished," she said.
Rushing said, "You cannot define America without a discussion of slavery in the invention of America."
The day will also include archival displays and handouts courtesy of Arthur Sudler, historian for St. Thomas, which was founded by the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first person of African ancestry to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church; the African American Episcopal Historical Collection, a joint project with the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, and Mark Duffy, director, Archives of the Episcopal Church.
'Not to make people feel guilty'
The event will culminate with a Service of Repentance on October 4 when Jefferts Schori will serve as celebrant and preacher.
Reaffirming the importance of Jefferts Schori's presence, Oasin said it is "fitting that she be the voice and the face" that the world sees as she "acknowledges our history and then pledges us to a new course."
"The fact that we repent of our sin of slavery and the racism that has continued on at the first African American Episcopal church, the church of Absalom Jones, is significant and very much in keeping with the spirit of the day," said the Rev. Chuck K. Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop and primate.
"People said why do we want to dig up this history and cause a lot of pain and my answer to that is that there's an inconvenient truth to history in that it is always there whether you dig it up or try to ignore it," said Vanderstar. "As far as the pain is concerned, it's obvious that the pain is there. The best way I think to deal with such things it to go back into the past and confront it and acknowledge it. Not to make people feel guilty but just to show them the depth and the background of the problem of racism in the church and in the larger society."
"This weekend is not a one shot deal," said Rushing. "It is the beginning of finding ways for the Episcopal Church to address the issue of slavery both from its theological aspects in that it is a sin, and was a sin, and from its political and economic aspects as part of the formation of what we know as the United States of America because you can not define America without a discussion of slavery in the invention of America."
Oasin said it's difficult to say what people will take from the experience because "all of us bring in our own history" and all of us will have "our own reasons for being there."
"Nonetheless, I hope people get hope. What I want for people is to come out of there saying that this institution that has integrity is not afraid to say we were at fault and we pledge to follow a new course of action, and invite others to travel this new road with us," she said.
Hotel accommodations are available at the Hilton Hotel 215-879-4000 and the Crown Plaza Hotel 888-444-0401. To register online visit: http://www.conference.com/eventmanager/onlineregistration.asp event code: B9Y.
For more information call Oasin at 800-334-7626 ext.6053 or Scott Rands at 800-334-7626 ext. 6054.