In my first blog in response to the release of the report on racial diversity, or lack of it, in the Episcopal Church, I explored the missed opportunity for greater inclusiveness and diversity among Hispanics. In this blog, I want to focus on what I call the Inclusive/Diversity Paradox. What do I mean by this?
For the past three decades, no one can doubt that the strongest theological worldview in TEC is Progressive. For the last two decades, theological progressives have held almost every office of leadership on the national and diocesan level. Almost all the Bishops elected during this time hold this perspective. The two words most associated with this view are “inclusiveness and diversity.” It was out of a concern for diversity that the Church ordered an independent audit of the racial makeup of our leadership.
While the report is both useful and insightful, it also raised a serious question about what the progressive leaders of our Church have really accomplished despite three decades of emphasis on these two goals. On the surface it seems that the more these two values have been consistently put before the Church, the less inclusive and diverse we have become. I have heard a number of conservatives say this.
We have had several of initiatives aimed at addressing diversity and racial reconciliation taking place. These often fall under the discussion of becoming more the “beloved community,” a phrase often used by progressive leaders to describe what the Church is called to be. No one can ignore that we have made racism, racial reconciliation, and social justice a high priority in recent years especially considering the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet ironically the Episcopal clergy who have joined marches in support of these causes represent a Church that the audit shows being 90% white and has many examples systemic racism.
Sadly, these 30 years of progressive leadership has been marked by a decline in our racial diversity. I have been an Episcopal Priest for almost 50 years, and I remember when we had strong African American congregations like the Cathedrals in Newark and Detroit. These were led by outstanding black clergy. Many of our black clergy and lay leaders were active leaders in the civil rights movement during the 60s and 70s. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is a next generation example of this leadership. Where are those churches now? Well, the more we focused on diversity, the whiter we became. The paradox is this. The more our Black leadership should have been affirmed and advanced, the more our leaders of the past 30 years failed to build on what we once had.
Again, since diversity and inclusion have been the constant stated intentions, what kind of contradiction does our current situation hold up. Some would say that on a fundamental level, our Progressive leaders have failed. I would not.
Where has the Church shown a fundamental shift related to inclusiveness. There are two areas that clearly stand out. I want to focus in this blog on the greatest area of change within TEC during the last 30 years. This is the incredible advances in women’s leadership. Since the official ordination of women in 1979, we have moved in a steady direction of full inclusion of women on all levels of the Church. Some may say that it has not been fast enough, but it has been extraordinary and a great blessing to us. Remember that before 1970, girls were not allowed to be acolytes and women could not serve on Vestries in most of our churches. Women were not allowed to be on Standing Committees or General Convention Deputies. From 1970 to 1980, TEC experienced massive change in the role of leadership for women.
There was considerable resistance to these changes, but this was proven to be a vocal minority. When in 1979 women’s ordination was passed by both Houses of General Convention, the place, and gifts of women in the Church exploded. In recent years, the number of women elected bishops has grown steadily. This includes women of color.
As someone who has supported women’s ordination since seminary, I have seen this greater diversity among our clergy and lay leadership unfold. Progressives have often pointed out that women’s ordination was an extension of the civil rights movement. I think this is true, but Episcopalians may want to question whether our gains in this area deflected our focus on the place of our black members. This could account for part of the diversity paradox.
When the ordination of women was affirmed in 1979, outspoken opponents to this claimed that we would see a major division and exodus from the Church. There was some, but it was small. Initially some diocese accepted a “conscience clause” and did not ordain women, but their number diminished quickly. While many of the supporters of women’s ordination were, like me, folks who do not call ourselves progressives, Progressives played a major role in changing the leadership makeup of the Church. Historically, this may be their greatest accomplishment in both word and deed.
One place that never accepted women’s ordination was the Diocese of Fort Worth and their Bishop Jack Iker. That diocese continued to hold their position long after most of the Church had fully accepted it. The House of Bishops failed to take any action against either the Bishop or the Diocese. The Diocese of Fort Worth eventually voted to leave TEC. This happened amid the controversy related to the acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy and marriage equality. For those of us who knew Bishop Iker and the clergy of that Diocese, we know that women’s ordination was always the issue that led to their defection from TEC. I mention this because it is worth noting how dysfunctional that Diocese was and probably still is. Ironically, several ACNA dioceses allow the ordination of women.
As Anglicans, we try to avoid the idea of winners and losers in our community of faith, but from a historical perspective, there have been no greater winners in the past 30 years than women of leadership in our community.
In my next blog, I will explore how gender issues have contributed to the ongoing Inclusive/Diversity Paradox. I content that this paradox is real despite some accomplishments and that a deeper exploration of it involves a better understanding of who we really are as a community and what our way forward might become. I do know this, racial makeup is not the most significant dynamic of our Church. And, by the way, Episcopalians need to remember that African Anglicans are the largest racial community in the Anglican Communion. Episcopalians today make up less than 1% of our wider community.