Recently I was privileged to be invited to be an ecumenical guest at the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in St. Louis, Missouri
The Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church share common histories that date back nearly to the founding of this country. It was less than ten years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence that Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and other African Americans walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church having been segregated into an upstairs gallery of that church.
Three years later Black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first real African American society. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were elected overseers.
In 1792 they began to build a church which was dedicated two years later. Soon after, some applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions:
- that they be received as an organized body; 2. that they have control over their local affairs; 3. that Absalom Jones be licensed as a lay reader and, if qualified, be ordained as a minister. In October of that year, the church became St. Thomas African Episcopal Church and the Bishop of Pennsylvania ordained Jones as a deacon in 1795 and as our first Black priest on September 21, 1802.
Absalom Jones was an earnest and powerful preacher who denounced slavery and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father who always acted “on behalf of the oppressed and the distressed.” But it was his constant pastoral visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community.
We could have built on that rich beginning. But the legacy of slavery and racism in this country has affected – and infected – us in destructive ways. So much so that in 2006 our General Convention offered our church’s apology for its own involvement in and benefits from Slavery. It also called for a Service of Repentance to be held at the Washington National Cathedral as well as in Cathedrals in all dioceses.
2008 is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the international slave trade yet the effects of that heinous institution are still with us today. On October 4 at the Washington National Cathedral, our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will preside at a Service of Repentance for our complicity in that institution for so long.
Yet there are signs of hope. Just over a week ago The Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton knelt before that same Altar at the National Cathedral and was consecrated as the 14th bishop of one of our oldest dioceses, the Diocese of Maryland. He joins 18 other African American bishops and over 200 clergy in our predominantly white church. There was a deeply symbolic element to his election, Bishop Sutton said,
The church’s first Maryland bishop, Thomas John Claggett, was a slave owner. Sutton himself is a descendant of slaves! “The world is crying out for healing,” he wrote in his first message to his new flock in Maryland, “and wherever there is division and brokenness, we are called to build bridges.”
We have so far yet to go, dear friends. And yet our feet are set on the path. Let us pray that we can find new ways to make common cause toward that beloved community which is one the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God.