Racial reconciliation and healing will be key issues on the agenda this week when a major religious denomination brings its national convention to Baltimore.
About 120 bishops and more than 1,200 clergy and parishioners will converge on the Baltimore Convention Center on Friday for the 80th annual general convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the largest and most important regular gathering of the main Protestant denomination. The session will last four days.
Attendees will use the event — as their predecessors have done nearly every three years since 1785 — to socialize, worship as a group, and chart the course for the denomination for years to come.
Divided into the Chamber of Bishops and the Chamber of Deputies – they will vote a budget until 2024 and elect several officers; consider resolutions clarifying church positions on issues such as abortion rights; and address a range of liturgical issues, such as whether Church law should be changed to allow unbaptized people to receive Communion and how to change a Good Friday reading that suggests Jesus’ crucifixion is came at the insistence of the “Jews”.
According to the senior church official, however, the most important issues discussed will be racial injustice and racial reconciliation: how and why racial discrimination has taken root in the nation and the church, what harm it has caused, and how Episcopalians can “mend the breach.” to which it gave rise. And, he said, the actions of the Diocese of Maryland on the issue played a role in the city that hosted the rally.
The Most Reverend Michael Curry, once a priest in West Baltimore, is the church’s first African-American presiding bishop and the 27th bishop overall. He said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun that fundamental tenets of the Christian faith call for the denomination to take such action regardless of how many mistakes it has made over the centuries.
“Our prayer books say, ‘We erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep,’ and we certainly did,” Curry said. “The point of recognizing this is not to wallow in it, but to face our sins and mistakes, and then turn together and join hands to build a new future. This includes connecting across our racial differences and our variety and diversity without repeating the same old mistakes.
Curry, 69, served as rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Baltimore from 1988 to 2000. He was elected at the 2015 general convention to serve a nine-year term as presiding bishop.
The Episcopal Church, a member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, has approximately 1.8 million baptized followers in 22 countries and territories, the vast majority of them in the United States. His leadership has pushed the denomination in an increasingly progressive direction in recent years, confirming the church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003 and endorsing same-sex marriage in 2015.
The changes came at the same time as a decline in membership – the church claimed more than 3 million members as recently as the 1960s – although reports showed an increase in total donations and pledges donations in the three years before the coronavirus pandemic.
Church research over the past few decades has shown that Episcopalians were an integral part of the social and economic system of slavery in America. Most early bishops, as well as many priests and parishioners, enslaved people or participated in the slave trade. Many churches were built by slaves.
The denomination has struggled for years to figure out how to handle these facts and compensate for the damages.
It was under Curry’s leadership five years ago that Episcopal leaders launched Becoming Beloved Community, an initiative that provides the church’s 109 dioceses with a framework for anti-racism action. A number of dioceses and episcopal schools have made progress in the region since then. The New York Diocese, for example, has committed $1.1 million for future repair projects. The Virginia Theological Seminary announced plans to create a $1.7 million reparations fund. The Diocese of Texas has approved a $13 million commitment for a racial justice initiative.
The question has particular resonance in Baltimore, seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, whose leaders began to study in the 1990s the diocese’s complicity in slavery and racism. The Right Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton, its 14th bishop and first African-American bishop, began accelerating the mission after his installation in 2008.
The diocese began exploring ideas for reparations in 2016, decided to fund the cause in 2019, and followed up in September 2020 by creating a $1 million seed fund for projects to strengthen African American communities. . A reparations task force announced the first six recipients from the diocese in May, handing out checks totaling $175,000.
“We know of our church’s involvement, first of all, in slavery, and we knew that many of our churches became wealthy because of this evil institution,” Sutton said at the time. “We also studied how we as an institution, like all other institutions in society, benefited materially and financially from centuries of racial injustice, even after slavery. And that didn’t suit us.
He likened the idea of financial support for repairs to a lesson “we all learned in kindergarten – that when you take something from someone you shouldn’t, you pay it back”.
Curry called Sutton’s leadership in the area “extraordinary” and said he helped persuade the church to bring the convention back to Baltimore. The convention has been held three times in Baltimore, the last in 1892.
The most recent convention was in 2018 in Austin, Texas. The next is set to take place in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2024, though a resolution this year calls on church leaders to consider moving this gathering to a location dedicated to “equitable access to health care for people.” women, including women’s reproductive health care”. Kentucky passed a “trigger law” to ban abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to abortion throughout the country. However, the Kentucky Supreme Court on Monday upheld a lower court ruling that blocked the state’s imposition of the ban.
More than 400 resolutions were submitted to church leaders for consideration at this year’s event, and legislative committees worked for weeks to amend some and consolidate or defer others. Of the hundreds left in the mix, several dozen deal with racial reconciliation.
One would set aside about $2 million a year to create and run a “Coalition for Racial Equality and Justice,” an association of individuals and organizations that would study and lead anti-racism efforts. . A second would support the creation of an independent reparations fund commission, tasking it with developing a ‘sustainable, meaningful and tangible response to the historic and continuing legacy of slavery and the displacement of Indigenous peoples in what is now’ the United States today”. Another would ask the church to investigate why its leaders aren’t “more representative of people of color.”
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This month’s gathering is expected to generate about $2.7 million in economic activity for the city, according to Visit Baltimore, an agency that works to attract events to the city.
But the benefit could have been greater. The church had planned to hold the eight-day convention in July 2021, but with the coronavirus sweeping Baltimore at the time, officials postponed it to this summer.
Then a spike in coronavirus cases in the spring of 2022 led church leaders to shorten this summer’s gathering and reduce the usual number of attendees. Socializing and worship time has been reduced, non-voting visitors have been asked not to attend, and the Diocese of Maryland will have less chance to tout its successes than originally anticipated.
“We can’t do everything we planned to do. But we have things that will help people learn about the work being done in the diocese and in Baltimore,” said Curry, who described his former home as “a great American city.”
The Reverend Randy Callender, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, is “thrilled” to have been elected as one of four deputies who will represent the Diocese of Maryland. A longtime member of the Union of Black Episcopalians, which works to strengthen black voices within the church, Callender is a self-proclaimed “church nerd” who has attended several conventions.
But he’s not just eager to participate in the process. He believes the gathering can help transform his denomination.
“I hope one day I can look back and say to my son and my future children and grandchildren, ‘Your father was part of a church that took action to repair the wounds and the pain that we have endured in this country for so long,” he said. “We are going to start here in the church and make sure we continue this work in our nation.”