African-American Episcopalians Mark 200 Years of Perseverance

Episcopal News Service. November 18, 1992 [92230]

Susan Pierce

On a rainy, windswept night, a congregation of African-American Episcopalians meeting at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia on November 6 reburied the remains of Absalom Jones.

The symbolic reinterring of Jones -- the first African American ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church -- nearly 200 years after his death was an opportunity for African Americans to reexamine their place in the Episcopal Church.

"We are here because of this person, we are here as one faith, one people, and -- I want to tell you -- it sure has been one struggle, but we are here to stay," said the Rev. Jesse Anderson, Jr., rector of St. Thomas Church.

Perseverance, struggle, strength

African-American Episcopalians from as far away as Hawaii made the pilgrimage to honor Jones's contribution to the life of the Episcopal Church as a freed slave who was ordained and organized a black Episcopal congregation.

A four-day celebration and conference, "Two Hundred Years of Black Presence in the Episcopal Church: One Faith, One People, One Struggle," marked the founding of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church by Jones in 1792, but also provided an opportunity to look at the present and the future of African Americans in the church. Perseverance, struggle and community strength in the black church were constant themes throughout the celebration.

The November 4-8 celebration included the unveiling of a portrait of Jones in a ceremony at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, tours of Philadelphia historic sites, a specially commissioned play about Jones's life, a memorial Eucharist and symbolic reinterring of Jones's remains at St. Thomas, a day-long conference examining the issues facing the black church and a closing service of thanksgiving at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. All events were sponsored by the national Union of Black Episcopalians in cooperation with the Diocese of Pennsylvania and St. Thomas Church.

An uphill struggle

"We have indeed come this far by faith," said Suffragan Bishop Franklin D. Turner of Pennsylvania, who helped to plan the event. "We can be justly proud of our sojourn in the Episcopal Church, although it has been an uphill struggle," Turner said.

A conference on November 7 that examined theological, sociological and political perspectives on the state of the black church confirmed Turner's statement.

Comparing the exile of the ancient Hebrews in Babylon to black exile in the United States, the Rev. Warner Traynham of Los Angeles said that blacks "had to learn to sing the Lord's song in a strange land." However, despite the racism in society and in the church that has marginalized blacks, Traynham asserted, "We are not victims," and he argued that black Christians have to be "ready to step in and serve."

Dr. Charles Willie, professor of education at Harvard University, examined sociological issues and power structures in church and society. He said that as the "sub-dominant" group in the white-dominated church, blacks have a role to "save the Episcopal Church from itself and to push for change."

Willie insisted that coalition building was very important. "If we're going to have a just society, groups like women and blacks are going to have to come together. As a new dominant group, they could make a new world," he said.

Celebration was 'homecoming event'

During a November 8 festival Eucharist filled with songs, laughter and a moving liturgy commemorating struggle and community, another pioneer, Suffragan Bishop Barbara C. Harris of Massachusetts, described the four-day celebration as a "homecoming event" for African Americans.

In a rousing sermon, punctuated by applause and cheers from the crowd that filled every inch of space in Philadelphia's Church of the Advocate, Harris quoted civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer, "'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.' ...Some in the church feel that way, but if we are faithful to Absalom's ministry we must be courageous enough to do the right thing and press others to do it as well," Harris said.