Too many Episcopalians were silent on slavery, Massachusetts bishop tells Congressional committee

Shaw outlines Church's efforts toward healing, reconciliation
December 17, 2007

Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts Bishop Thomas Shaw SSJE told a Congressional hearing December 18 that "too many Episcopalians did not raise their voices" against slavery "when God would have wished them to do so."


"Episcopalians were owners of slaves and of the ships that brought them to this land," Shaw told the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties' oversight hearing on the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. "Episcopalians lived in the north and in the south and, as a privileged Church, we today recognize that our Church benefited materially from the slave trade." The Subcommittee is considering H.R. 40, a bill to establish a federal Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African-Americans.

Shaw was representing Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on behalf of the Episcopal Church.

Jayne Oasin, social justice officer of the Episcopal Church, said of the testimony: "The importance of the Episcopal Church being present to testify at this hearing on H.R. 40 cannot be overstated. Our church must call itself and our country to repentance. Since we have always held and still hold great power in this country, we are duly bound to follow St. Paul's admonition in Roman's 12 to not 'conform' but to 'transform' the country by the power of the Holy Spirit working through us. Studying the issue of reparations for slavery is a key way to begin to transform ourselves our church, and our country."

Noting that the Episcopal Church has "asked God's forgiveness for our complicity in and the injury done by the institution of slavery and its aftermath," Shaw said that the post- Revolutionary War Episcopal Church "wanted to avoid a schism within the church, which it was successful at doing (unlike the divisions that had occurred to Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches during this period over the issue of slavery) but avoiding that schism meant not addressing the issue of slavery in any official or collective way."

Shaw told the hearing that "with that painful history as background," the 75th General Convention in June 2006 looked to the then-upcoming bicentennial commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 2007 and in the U.S. in 2008 as a time in which the Episcopal Church could affirm "our commitment to become a transformed, anti-racist church and to work toward healing, reconciliation, and a restoration of wholeness to the family of God."

Shaw outlined the efforts the Episcopal Church has made thus far and is continuing to make. They include, he said:

  • 75th General Convention resolution A123 which expresses the church's most profound regret for its involvement in slavery, apologizes for its complicity, deems slavery "a sin and a fundamental betrayal of the humanity of all persons who were involved" and one which continues "to plague our common life in the Church and our culture," "repent[s] of this sin and ask[s] God's grace and forgiveness," calls on every diocese of document information from its community about the church's complicity with and benefit from slavery for a report to the 76th General Convention in 2009 and calls on the Presiding Bishop to designate a Day of Repentance and to conduct a service at Washington National Cathedral (the chosen date is October 4, 2008).
  • 75th General Convention Resolution A127 which endorses the principles of restorative justice.
  • 75th General Convention Resolution C011 which urges the Episcopal Church "at every level to call upon Congress and the American people to support legislation initiating study of and dialogue about the history and legacy of slavery in the United States and of proposals for monetary and non-monetary reparations to the descendants of the victims of slavery." Shaw noted that the Episcopal Church thus supports House Resolution 40 which would create a commission to study those issues and remedies. He suggested the documentation work already begun in some dioceses could help the commission.
  • Two pastoral letters from the House of Bishops, one from March 1994 and one from March 2006 on the sin of racism.
  • A screening at the 75th General Convention of "Traces of the Trade," a documentary made Katrina Brown, an Episcopalian from Rhode Island whose ancestors were involved in the slave trade, which Shaw said "will open the eyes of many to the legacy of slavery for both black and white Americans, and the role of the North in its perpetuation." The film will have its world premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival January 17-27. It was one of 16 documentaries chosen from among 953 submissions, according to the festival.

"The history that we are researching is essential to understanding our Church's role in the institution of slavery and its perpetuation," Shaw told the hearing. "With fuller knowledge will come true repentance that will then open us to reconciliation and remedies that we believe are yet to be revealed."