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Toward Columbus: Actions on slavery, racial reconciliation, reparations proposed for General Convention

By Daphne Mack
4/21/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  The June triennial gathering of the Episcopal Church will be asked to consider resolutions concerning slavery and racial reconciliation; studying the "complicity" of the church in the institution of slavery and how "recompense" can be made to its victims; and the endorsement of restorative justice as a "fresh means" of achieving "wholeness" in the church.

Resolution A123, proposed by the National Concerns Committee of the church's Executive Council, declares that the institution of slavery in the United States and "anywhere else in the world" was and is a sin. It would have 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 asks the Presiding Bishop to call for a "Day of Repentance and Reconciliation" and to organize a service to be held that day at Washington National Cathedral.

In a March 21 pastoral letter to the church marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the House of Bishops  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." The complete letter can be found at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_73047_ENG_HTM.htm.

Recompense

The committee also proposes a resolution (A124) that would direct the Anti-Racism Committee of the Executive Council in the next triennium to collect information on the complicity of the church in the institution of slavery in the United States and in the subsequent history of segregation and discrimination; the economic benefits the church derived from the institution of slavery; and how the church can, "as a matter of justice," share those benefits with African American Episcopalians.

The resolution also encourages dioceses to undertake similar studies applicable within its geographic area and report their efforts to the Committee on Anti-Racism by April 1, 2008.

At present, the dioceses of Chicago, Maryland, New York and Newark are engaged in a study of the concept of reparations.

Truth-telling

Building upon the past work of the anti-racism committee, Resolution A127 proposes the endorsement of the principles of restorative justice as a "fresh means of engaging in a deeper quest for wholeness in this church and society." It calls on the committee itself to build upon its present work to develop a "Truth, Reconciliation, and Restorative Justice Initiative" that will enable the church to engage first in a process of "truth-telling" that is based on the initiative's principles and is designed to be implemented by each diocese.

"Telling the truth is a widely-held Christian value," said Anita Parrott George and Chip Stokes, co-chairs of the Executive Council's anti-racism committee. "Starting with us in early childhood, our church and the culture in which it resides embed in our consciousness and our conscience the importance of telling the truth; acknowledging and taking responsibility for our actions; apologizing to those we may have injured, intentionally or otherwise; making amends; and going on to sin no more."

The resolution calls for the creation of mechanisms for the privileged and underprivileged to undertake a joint process of historical assessment of the "roots and branches of racial and ethnic inequity, marginalization and disharmony in the church and society." The resolution would also have the church call upon Congress and the American people to support a national initiative to study the history and legacy of slavery and possible remedies.

"Restorative justice is a way to clearly link the various oppressive systems and help us deconstruct the impact of each, and to talk about how each of the affected groups can be brought into the family and what the family needs to do to acknowledge and make peace," said the Rev. Canon Ed Rodman, professor of pastoral theology and urban ministry at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an Executive Council member.

Resources

The anti-racism committee suggested that the documentary, "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North" by Katrina Browne, is an example of "the type of truth-telling and facing the painful sins of the past that needs to be undertaken in every part of the church where people of a different color, language, religion, or national origin have been excluded."

"Traces" tells the story of Browne's New England ancestors, the DeWolfs, who were the largest slave-trading family in US history and a prominent part of the Episcopal Church in Rhode Island. Excerpts from the film were shown to the Executive Council during its March meeting in Philadelphia. During that meeting the council passed a resolution (NAC 045) urging the convention planners "to make every effort to show the film . . . to the entire convention."

Rodman said the church "can take some pride" in the fact that assistance from the anti-racism committee helped produce the film.

Toward racial justice

The work of reconciliation is also underway in the Anglican Communion. In February, the Church of England voted to apologize to descendents of victims of the slave trade. A measure "recognizing the damage done" to those enslaved was backed overwhelmingly by the church's General Synod. The BBC reported that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said that the "body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time, it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the body of Christ, is prayer for acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant 'them.'"

George and Stokes said the number of resolutions submitted on racism is "heartening." "We support the directions of these resolutions, which we believe move us further toward racial justice," they said.

The texts of the proposed resolutions can be found, by number, at www.episcopalarchives.org/e-archives/bluebook/51.html.