Thursday, January 30, 2014

Race and the Ecclesiastical Politicians

Race and Realism

George David Cummins
Founding Bishop
Reformed Episcopal Church

I read with great interest and much happiness Allen Guelzo’s account (in For the Union of Evangelical Christendom) of my church (the Reformed Episcopal Church) and its relation to African American Episcopalians in South Carolina. Peter Fayssoux Stevens, a former Confederate officer, who had served as Commandant of the South Carolina State Military Academy and commanded a battery that shelled Fort Sumter, and a lifelong Episcopalian, left the service in 1861and was ordained an Episcopal minister. He gave a significant portion of his time and energy to the spiritual welfare of blacks and after the War helped to prepare some freedmen for ordination as priests.

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina refused to receive black Episcopal churches that sought admission into the diocese. Later, when Stevens presented for ordination two black men, who had been Episcopalians as slaves and then as free men, who loved the Prayer Book, and who had been approved by their examining chaplains, the Standing Committee refused to consider the ordination of black men. The only spiritual care of black Episcopalians would be such as white priests might be able to provide. As Guelzo, quoting one of the two black candidates, puts it, “‘This, of course, put us in an awkward position...You were either to do without the Episcopal Church, and go join the various organizations among the colored people, whether it suited our spiritual appetite or not,’ or submit quietly to the triumph of color over catholicity.”

Zion Reformed Episcopal Church
Edisto Island, SC
At this point one of the black men who had been denied ordination, heard about the organization of the Reformed Episcopal Church. By his leadership the black Episcopalians voted to seek affiliation with the REC. Because they had no current address for the REC’s founding bishop, George David Cummins, it took eight months for a letter to reach the bishop. However, he followed up quickly, and in June 1875 five churches and 500 communicants were received. Soon three African American men were ordained as Deacons (a step leading to ordination as Presbyter-Priests.) Stevens (the former CSA officer now a priest) was ostracized in Charleston, and Cummins faced opposition from white Reformed Episcopalians in the north, but the African-American churches were brought in as full and equal members of the REC. Guelzo writes that, though this action hurt his dreams of uniting evangelicals Christians, "...Cummins could not square his own dreams of ecumenicity with racial exclusivism. He had seen enough of exclusivism from other quarters to know better."

Reading this led me to a couple of reflections:

(1) We white Southerners have a great deal for which to answer. In my view it is not for slavery itself, but for cooperation with the man-stealing that provided the slaves from Africa and for the morally reprehensible practices associated with the practice of the institution. Moreover, when in reaction against the loss of the War and the injustices of Reconstruction, the South adopted Jim Crow laws and segregation, the South missed the opportunity that equal rights, education, and integrated church membership might have produced. The costs have been, are, and will continue to be great. We have something now akin to permanent segregation, desired by blacks perhaps more than whites, and, despite unconvincing protestations that cultures are equal just different, we have two separate and unequal societies. I am a disillusioned common culture integrationist who has been mugged by the reality that we are not going to be an American people assimilated to a common culture, the western tradition, watered but not watered down by streams from other cultures.

(2) I continue to reflect on the positions taken by some white ministers today and specifically wonder whether they would have taken the same or similar positions 30 or 40 years ago. Baptist and Presbyterian heavy hitters were quick to condemn criticisms of Christian hip-hop (or rap) and to engage in spirited defenses of the genre, particularly the "doctrines of grace" sort.

I admit I don’t relate to or appreciate the sort of rhyming, rhythmic talk that is rap. However, if someone wants to say that it is a genre, which some like and some don’t, fine. I like the “traditional” country music. I can be entertained by some of the Southern Gospel music. But it’s fine with me if you, as my wife, don’t like it. Where I draw the line is that I don’t want to sing or have sung to me those genres in church - none of them. Not rap, not country, not gospel. I am not sure how many performers and promoters of rap want to see it used. Is it a vehicle for entertainment, instruction, or worship - or all three?

But the question keeps coming up about its white defenders. I have watched politician-pastors practice political-policy-making for more than 40 years. The very nature of politics is calculation and negotiation. W
hat I do know is that, when I was making principled decisions and taking principled actions about race, the politicians of my time were not only nowhere to be found in support but, more, were critics and opponents and allies of those who wanted my neck. And, if I know anything about church politics, it is that it is nastiest sort, and if I have learned anything about church politicians, it is that, while the issues can change, the outlook and operations remain the same. Politicians tend to seek to preserve institutions and themselves while sacrificing people. 

So, I wonder, if today’s ecclesiastical politicians, faced a different ecclesiastical (using “ecclesia” loosely) environment, would they would risk the loss of power and positions for their stands. And, if you think there are not political considerations at work now in the stands being taken, I have some of George Strait's ocean front property in Arizona I'll sell you.

What I can say, is that at least on the matter of race, the founders of the REC made some principled decisions. Benjamin Johnson, whom Bishop Cummins sent to South Carolina to receive the African-American Episcopal churches and people, wrote, “It is enough for us to know that we have accepted the Divine policy. In its true Catholicity our Church is no ‘respecter of persons’; Barbarians, Scythians, bond and free, have their rights of the Church and of the soul. The overruling of human prejudices is God’s work.”

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