By Charles A. Wynder, Jr.
February 13 is the feast day of Absalom Jones, the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church.* This celebration of Absalom Jones’ life and ministry provides an opportunity for Black Episcopalians to reflect upon the mission, ministry, and leadership of Black congregations in the Episcopal Church. In fact, such Afro-Anglican congregations can teach the wider Episcopal Church how to relate to an increasingly diverse African Anglican Communion in the world.
Predominantly Black congregations in the Episcopal Church survive as a legacy of Absalom Jones. Much like other congregations in the Episcopal Church, these parishes face the challenges and opportunities of a changing world. They must discern their mission and ministry for the 21st century.
The Black presence in the Episcopal Church is truly Afro-Anglican. It is composed of African Americans, Afro-Caribbean, and Africans. This multicultural body of Afro-Anglicans represents a minority of congregations, clergy, and laity inside an overwhelmingly white denomination.
This body mirrors an increasing diversity within the Black community of the United States. Large cities in various parts of the country have an increasingly diverse population of people of African descent. The meaning of Blackness in the United States continues to evolve based on the multiple voices and experiences within communities of African descent. Grappling with issues of identity among diverse people can be particularly challenging. The Afro-Anglican presence in the Episcopal Church is a place for us to discern a way forward.
These congregations bring together people of different histories, cultures, languages, and ideas about governance and worship. They co-locate people with a postcolonial perspective (for example, from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean) along with people descended from American slavery. How do these people come together to serve God and engage God’s mission?
It is not an easy proposition. It requires this diverse body of God’s people to move to a place of valuing each other. Mutual respect of the multiple histories and cultures can facilitate new understanding among the various communities within the congregations. Looking for and listening to the different voices in the congregation enhance understanding. It is in hearing the multiple voices with different accents and sounds anew that we are able engage in rich dialogue. The dialogue about the mission of God should not, however, take place in one tongue.
A house of prayer for all peoples requires us to fully solicit and embrace the full range of experience, voice, and perspective in the congregation. This process equips Afro-Anglican congregations to understand the multiple centers of power, culture, and meaning within the church. The Afro-Anglican body by definition has more than one culture and understanding of knowing and being.
Effective exercised leadership that is shared by clergy and the laity is not threatened by the multiple voices, power centers, and cultural background. Such leadership builds relationships and engages in dialogue to further understanding, peace, and reconciliation where needed. This type of relational ministry can serve to build up the capacity of congregations to look outside of themselves and embrace the surrounding communities.
Developing the inner capacity and desire to turn outward is key to engaging God’s mission. This is where the discernment of these churches must turn. What is God calling these Afro-Anglican congregations to do in the world? How can they meet the needs of the people in the neighborhood? What type of ministries must they develop to meet the needs of the people in their largely urban context?
Exploring these questions is part of the essential discernment of the vocation of a parish. To envision the mission, leadership, and ministry of Afro-Anglican parishes would be a gift to the larger Episcopal Church. Imagine the possibilities of the Afro-Anglican community in the United States guiding Episcopal Church in discerning in mission, ministry, and leadership in a diverse and largely African Anglican Communion. Let us learn from one another and grow together.
Charles A. Wynder, Jr. is a second year MDiv student at the Episcopal Divinity School.
* Absalom Jones, the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church, participated in establishing St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. The admission of St. Thomas into the Episcopal Church in 1794 and Jones’ ordination provided a semi-autonomous space and place for Black Episcopalians.