Racial reconciliation and healing will be the key issues on the agenda this week when a major religious denomination brings its national convention to Baltimore.
About 120 bishops and more than 1,200 clergy and parishioners will converge Friday on the Baltimore Convention Center for the 80th iteration of the general convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the biggest and most important regular gathering of the mainline Protestant denomination. The session will last four days.
Attendees will use the event — as their predecessors have nearly every three years since 1785 — to socialize, worship as a group, and chart the denomination’s course for the coming few years.
Divided into the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies — they’ll vote on a budget through 2024 and elect several officers; consider resolutions clarifying church positions on matters such as abortion rights; and address a range of liturgical questions, such as whether church law should be changed to allow people who aren’t baptized to receive Communion and how to alter a Good Friday reading that suggests Jesus’ crucifixion came at the insistence of “the Jews.”
According to the church’s top official, though, the most important issues discussed will be racial injustice and racial reconciliation: how and why racial discrimination took root in the nation and the church, what harm it has caused, and how Episcopalians can “repair the breach” to which it gave rise.
And, he said, the actions of the Diocese of Maryland on the issue played a role in the city hosting the gathering.
The Most Rev. Michael Curry, once a priest in West Baltimore, is the church’s first African American presiding bishop and 27th bishop overall. He said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that fundamental tenets of the Christian faith call the denomination to take such actions, no matter how many mistakes it has committed over the centuries.
“Our prayer books say, ‘We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,’ and we certainly have,’” Curry said. “The point of acknowledging that is not to wallow in it, but to face our sins and mistakes, then turn together and join hands toward building a new future. That includes connecting across our racial differences and our variety and our diversity without repeating the same old mistakes.”
Curry, 69, served as rector of St. James Episcopal Church in West Baltimore from 1988 to 2000. He was elected at the 2015 general convention to serve a nine-year term as presiding bishop.
The Episcopal Church, a member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, has about 1.8 million baptized followers in 22 countries and territories, the overwhelming majority of them in the U.S. Its leadership has moved the denomination in an increasingly progressive direction in recent years, confirming the church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003 and approving same-sex marriage in 2015.
The changes have occurred at the same time as a decline in membership — the church claimed more than 3 million members as recently as the 1960s — though reports showed an increase in total donations and pledges in the three years leading up to the coronavirus pandemic.
Church research over the past several decades has shown that Episcopalians were an integral part of the social and economic system of slavery in America. Most early bishops, and many priests and parishioners, enslaved people or took part in the slave trade. Many of the churches were built by enslaved people.
The denomination has grappled for years with how to deal with those facts and compensate for the damage.
It was under Curry’s guidance five years ago that Episcopal leaders launched Becoming Beloved Community, an initiative that provides the church’s 109 dioceses with a framework for anti-racist action. A number of Episcopal dioceses and schools have made strides in the area since then. The Diocese of New York, for example, committed $1.1 million toward future reparations projects. The Virginia Theological Seminary announced its intention to establish a $1.7 million reparations fund. The Diocese of Texas approved a commitment of $13 million toward a racial justice initiative.
The issue has special resonance in Baltimore, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, whose leaders began studying the diocese’s complicity in slavery and racism in the 1990s. The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, its 14th bishop and first African American bishop, began accelerating the mission after his installation in 2008.
The diocese began exploring reparations ideas in 2016, decided to fund the cause in 2019, and followed through in September 2020 by creating a seed fund of $1 million for projects aimed at strengthening African American communities. A reparations task force announced the diocese’s first six award recipients in May, distributing checks totaling $175,000.
“We know of our church’s involvement, first of all, in slavery, and we knew that many of our churches were enriched because of that evil institution,” Sutton said at the time. “We also researched into how we as an institution, like all the other institutions in society, benefited materially and financially from the centuries of racial injustice, even after slavery. And that did not sit well with us.”
He compared the idea of financial support for reparations to a lesson “we all learned in kindergarten ― that when you take something from someone that you shouldn’t, you pay it back.”
Curry called Sutton’s leadership in the area “extraordinary” and said it helped persuade the church to bring the convention back to Baltimore. The convention has been held three times in Baltimore, most recently in 1892.
The most recent convention was in 2018 in Austin, Texas. The next is scheduled to take place in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2024, though one resolution this year calls for church leaders to consider shifting that gathering to a place committed to “equitable access to women’s health care, including women’s reproductive health care.” Kentucky adopted a “trigger law” to ban abortions once the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed abortion rights nationwide. However, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed Monday a lower-court ruling that blocked imposition of the state ban.
More than 400 resolutions were submitted to church leaders for consideration at this year’s event, and legislative committees have worked for weeks to amend some and consolidate or defer others. Of the hundreds that remain in the mix, several dozen deal with racial reconciliation.
One would set aside about $2 million per year to create and operate a “coalition for racial equality and justice,” an association of individuals and organizations that would study and lead anti-racism efforts. A second would endorse the creation of an independent reparations fund commission, charging it with developing a “sustained, meaningful, tangible response to the historic and ongoing legacy of slavery and the displacement of indigenous peoples in what is now the United States.” Another would call on the church to investigate why its leadership is not “more representative of people of color.”
The Morning Sun
This month’s gathering is expected to generate about $2.7 million in economic activity for the city, according to Visit Baltimore, an agency that works to attract events to the city.
But the boon could have been bigger. The church had planned to hold the convention over eight days in July 2021, but with the coronavirus sweeping through Baltimore at the time, officials postponed it to this summer.
Then, a spike in coronavirus cases in spring 2022 led church leaders to shorten this summer’s gathering and reduce the usual number of attendees. Time for socializing and worship has been curtailed, nonvoting visitors have been asked not to attend, and the Maryland diocese will have less chance to tout its successes than originally expected.
“We can’t do all the things we had planned on doing. But we’ve got some things that will help people go and learn about the work that’s going on in the diocese and Baltimore,” said Curry, who described his former home as “a great American city.”
The Rev. Randy Callender, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, is “elated” to have been elected as one of the four deputies who will represent the Maryland diocese. A longtime member of the Union of Black Episcopalians, which works to strengthen Black voices within the church, Callender is a self-described “church nerd” who has attended several conventions.
But he isn’t just looking forward to taking part in the process. He believes the gathering can help transform his denomination.
“I hope I’ll be able to look back someday and tell my son, and my future kids and grandkids, ‘Your dad was part of a church that took action to repair the hurt and pain that we’ve had in this country for so long,’” he said. “We’re going to start here in the church and make sure we continue that work in our nation.”