Repenting of Slavery: The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas

Article excerpt

Repenting of Slavery: The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 4 October 2008

A day of repentance for the sin of slavery, which "continues to plague our common life," was mandated by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church when it met in Columbus, Ohio, in 2006. Resolution A-1 23 called on the Episcopal Church to acknowledge its history of participation in this sin, including its use of scripture to justify slavery and its continued support of segregation and discrimination. It also asked the church to establish a "comprehensive program" to collect information on its complicity in slavery and its effects, including the economic benefits it derived. It requested the Committee on Anti-Racism to recommend ways to repair the divisions caused by slavery and discrimination, with a view to spiritual healing leading to a new life in Christ. And the resolution called on the church to apologize publicly. It asked the presiding bishop to mark the initiation of the comprehensive program by declaring a day of repentance, which would include a public service in the Washington National Cathedral.

Why did the framers of the resolution choose the National Cathedral? Perhaps they wanted the service held in the institution sometimes described as "the national house of prayer," the symbolic religious center of America. Perhaps they simply wanted it held in a room spacious enough to accommodate a very large congregation. Or did they think that the National Cathedral itself embodied the church's need for repentance? The cathedra] was originally conceived and funded by a white Washington elite that had made its fortune in the Gilded Age on the backs of black Americans. Again, perhaps those who framed the resolution appreciated the irony of delivering an apology for slavery beneath the cathedral's stained glass window of Robert E. Lee, donated in 1957 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy! But in fact, despite Resolution Al 23, the service was not held at the National Cathedral. There has been speculation as to the reasons, but no public explanation.

The alternative location chosen was the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia. In many ways this was an inspired idea. The Church of St. Thomas was the first black Episcopal Church in the United States, and Absalom Jones, its first rector, was the first African American Episcopal priest. It was a spiritual home for manumitted slaves in the Episcopal Church, and it was among the first to develop an African American Anglicanism. For over two centuries it has contributed mightily to the Episcopal Church in spiritual depth, social witness, and the sheer excitement of its preaching, music, and worship. For the Episcopal Church to make a symbolic pilgrimage here could be seen as an act of respect and honor. And yet on other grounds the choice was open to criticism. Canon Edward Rodman, a professor of pastoral theology and urban ministry at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a published "open letter to various leaders in the Episcopal Church" (published on several websites), later queried "the curious dynamic" by which those offering the apology were "inviting themselves to the house of those who had been offended." There would indeed be moments in the service of repentance that would justify Canon Rodman's criticism.

The service of repentance was scheduled for 4 October 2008, as the culmination of a two-day solemn observance. On these two days the parishioners of St. Thomas offered gracious welcome to strangers and directions to the confused and lost, and showed a real eagerness to talk about their parish's important place in the history of the Episcopal Church: a visitor had the clear impression that they were truly touched and delighted to host the event. On 3 October a series of speakers addressed the Episcopal Church's historical dealings with slavery, segregation, and racism, with reference to their effects in the present and their implications for the future. …