Clergy Voice Enthusiasm, See Challenges in Interviews on Anti-Racism Resolution

The findings of almost 60 one-on-one interviews conducted by the Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination (CDRD) indicate that the clergy and aspirants of the partnership dioceses are committed to enhancing their congregations’ ability to work against racism, but aware there may be significant challenges in doing so.

The commission conducted 58 confidential interviews between August and December 2021 to prepare for three gatherings that will be held at locations across the partnership in June. At those gatherings, clergy and one or two liaisons from each congregation will focus on “discovering together how to love God more fully through ministries of racial healing, justice-making and reconciliation,” said Susan Woods, a member of the commission from Church of the Good Shepherd in Buffalo.

The gatherings—to be held at the Diocese of Western New York’s offices in Tonawanda on June 11; Christ Church, Oil City on June 17; and St. Stephen’s, Olean on June 25—will help participants prepare for the congregation-level conversations called for in Resolutions PA-E and NY-E of the 2020 diocesan conventions.

Forty-three of 58 clergy and aspirants who participated in the interviews said they had positive feelings about the resolution which commits congregations, or groups of congregations, to organize “a series of conversations to promote the spiritual and structural change required for racial justice and reconciliation.”

“I feel that just talking about doing it isn’t enough anymore,” one clergy member said in an interview with a member of the commission. “We need to start doing the hard work.  I am more convinced that this is part of our calling as Christians [t]o look at dismantling racism and discrimination – it is the gospel. We need to look back at our history from a point of honesty and reality and take some steps towards admitting what it has been and look towards reconciliation.”

“There’s a lot of fatigue in my parish,” another clergy members said, “but this needs to happen and needs to be done well because it’s such an issue in the Episcopal Church.”

The Rev. Matthew Lincoln, rector of Trinity Church, Buffalo and the chair of the commission, said he thought the interview process had been helpful to those who participated. “It invited the clergy both to think about where they are personally in their understanding of being a member of a society that racism is a part of, and also to suss out a little bit what the temperament of their congregation is in that regard,” he said.

Notes from the interviews were analyzed by Sarah Stonesifer Boylan, Ed.D, dean of the Stevenson School for Ministry in the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania and a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. Stonesifer Boylan was recommended to the group by Bishop Sean Rowe, who had worked with her on other data analyses.

“The Partnership is poised to make some substantial, thorough changes thanks to the deliberate listening and action process embedded into the CDRD’s plans,” Stonesifer Boylan said. “The interview analysis pointed toward different levels of awareness, acceptance, and readiness throughout the parishes in the partnership dioceses. This starting point is incredibly helpful to the CDRD as they begin to resource and support the resolution adoption and education process.”

 While clergy agreed on the need for anti-racism initiatives, they were realistic about the challenges such efforts might face. Some cited their congregation’s discomfort with some of the concepts and vocabulary of anti-racism efforts as a potential obstacle. Others noted the difficulty in motivating all-white congregations in predominantly white communities to undertake anti-racism efforts, and others simply said their small congregations were already overwhelmed by sustaining their activities during a pandemic.

“My congregation agrees people of color do not have a level playing field but resist anything that implies they are part of systemic racism that creates the unlevel playing field,” one clergy member said.

Another clergy member said people in their congregation “know racism is wrong but don’t want to accept responsibility for change. Don’t want to touch that. “

A priest who serves a small congregation said: “People are feeling full up. In small congregations you call on the same people over and over, and our congregation is aging. The season of COVID is influencing our ability to respond. It has made people weary.”

Woods emphasized that the process of moving toward racial equity is an adaptive one that will unfold in consultation with parish-level participants from across the partnership dioceses.

The three upcoming gatherings are intended not as trainings, she said, but as conversations, aimed at giving participants an opportunity to consider how efforts to dismantle racism and discrimination can best be pursued in their own parish context.

“We are coming together as community to discern new understandings for loving God more fully,” Woods said. “Everyone will take from the experience what has meaning for them and their congregations. This path will have many variations.”

Based on the clergy interviews, she said, it will be important for the facilitators of the gatherings to put participants at ease, and make them feel safe, comfortable and supported.

“We want to take into account the variations in demographic, congregational and community environments across the partnership,” she said. “We want to communicate inclusion without losing the focus on racial healing, justice-making and reconciliation. And we also want this ministry to be perceived as integral to our call to live the gospel, not as one more project.”

In their interviews, clergy expressed an eagerness for educational resources and program ideas to help them initiate anti-racism efforts in the congregations. Some also expressed the hope that focusing on issues of race would not diminish the commission’s efforts against homophobia, transphobia and ableism.

“My reply is ‘Thanks for the reminder, and I want us to be doing more than one thing at a time, but I don’t think we made a mistake a year and a half ago in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in … focusing on addressing racism against Black people,” Lincoln said. “That was indeed a moment in American history that needed to be seized.”

The clergy survey and community gatherings are part of a larger effort, led by CDRD, that includes a pledge committing those who take it to “one or more acts of reconciliation,” and a recently-created poster that will be distributed to congregations that affirm the pledge.