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Union of Black Episcopalians visit Montgomery, Alabama, to discuss racial justice

11 August 2023

SHEMIL MATHEW

Conference participants from the C of E and the Episcopal Church in the United States

Conference participants from the C of E and the Episcopal Church in the United States

SIXTY years since Martin Luther King, Jr, delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, UK Minority Ethnic/Global Majority Heritage representatives of the C of E joined a gathering in the city that gave rise to the civil-rights movement.

The annual meeting of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) in Montgomery, Alabama, which ran from 24 to 27 July, was an opportunity to “build relationships and to learn how things change”, the Vice-Dean of Emmanuel Theological College, the Revd Shemil Mathew, said on Monday.

“There is so much history there. . . For me, the most interesting thing was that racism is out in the open, and they are fighting something that they can see and that was experienced in the previous generation. The legacy of slavery and segregation is very much alive for them; whereas we don’t have that — ours is much more hidden.”

Racism being “out in the open” in the United States meant that there was “more acceptance” of work to challenge it, he said. “Whereas we see quite a lot of denial of racism in the C of E.”

The trip to Montgomery was led by the C of E’s Racial Justice Director, the Revd Guy Hewitt, (News, 26 August 2022). Mr Mathew, one of the founders of Anglican Minority Ethnic Network and one of the UKME/GMH Observers to the House of Bishops (News, 22 April 2021), was one of 11 who travelled from the UK, representing the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice, the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns(CMEAC), Amen and the Teahouse and Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller Friendly Churches networks. The trip was coordinated by the Church’s Racial Justice Unit.

He had been particularly impressed, he said, by the UBE’s work with children and young people, who had their own programme during the gathering, and were invited on stage to have their achievements during the past year celebrated. It could be “quite difficult”, he said, to get that encouragement for UKME young people here. He had noted, too, the presence of regional chapters and racial-justice officers.

For their part, American participants had been keen to learn about Emmanuel’s work on theological education, he said. The college had already invested significantly in implementing recommendations for TEIs made by the Archbishops’ Racial Justice Taskforce (News, 23 April 2021), including ensuring that all members of staff were anti-racism trained, “radically” changing the curriculum to ensure diversity of texts, and establishing link colleges across the world. Students were taught by theologians in India, Palestine, and Rwanda, with the aid of online technology, and the Interim President of the Episcopal Divinity School, the Revd Dr Kelly Brown Douglas, was due to spend a term at the college from September.

In addition to a series of talks and business matters, the UBE meeting included visits to museums and churches. “We went to a number of churches where people couldn’t come through the front door before, and places where major issues of racism happened,” Mr Mathew said. Montgomery is the site of the “national lynching memorial”, established in 2018 to commemorate the victims of lynching.

“How the churches are responding to their past is quite interesting: it is all out in the open and there is no hiding that there was this horrible past behind them. So, we visited churches — these are majority-white churches, some of them — where they welcomed us with open arms and all joined us in the celebrations.”

He felt “quite hopeful” about progress on racial justice in the C of E, he said, referring to the “huge difference” made by Fr Hewitt. Fr Hewitt told the gathering that the C of E had been “significantly impacted by the heinous murder of George Floyd”, and, like the Episcopal Church, was “committed to counteracting the pandemic of racism”. During the conference, members of the UBE executive committee held separate meetings with the C of E team on strategy, organisation-strengthening, and agenda setting.

“It is not time to rest and be idle,” Mr Mathew said. “We need to work towards it, acknowledge that there are still things to be worked on, and there are opportunities.” He hopes to take some of Emmanuel’s ordinands to Alabama in the future.

The Union of Black Episcopalians traces its history back to the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People, founded in 1856 by James Theodore Holly, of St Luke’s, New Haven. There were then four Black clergy and seven congregations. The UBE website states that this group “fought the exclusion of Blacks from Episcopal seminaries and diocesan conventions, as well as the refusal of the Episcopal Church to take a stand against slavery”.

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