Saturday, August 1, 2015

Richard Allen: a Brief Consideration of History

Doctrinally, Allen remained a lifelong Methodist, but after 1815 he was known officially as Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, rather than, say, as African Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. And that distinction is significant: if the universality of the Christian gospel was as comprehensive as the Methodists proclaimed it to be, if in fact they believed that in "Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, but all are one," then there would be no need for segregated worship facilities. The churches, however, were segregated and black members were denied full participation in ways that reflected the racial attitudes of their social environment. It was to overcome such immediate, humiliating oppression that Allen walked out in protest from white St. George's Methodist Church to organize a separate African denomination, and not because of any doctrinal reservations he had about Methodism. [Segregated Sabbaths by Carol V.R. George, Oxford University Press, 1973; p. 6]

The above quote is quoted in a Church History paper I wrote in 1992 while in seminary. This paper came to mind (and I was miraculously able to find a copy of it in my files) after I read a blog posted on Facebook by a friend. That blog, in turn, linked to this Pew Research report on racial diversity among religious groups. It's a troubling report. My beloved Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (even though I'm currently a member of an Episcopal congregation) is at the bottom of the list with 96% white membership. (The Episcopal Church does slightly better with 90%, but that's not that much better and makes the the recent election of their first Black Presiding Bishop all the more remarkable, but I'm digressing badly.)

I can't tell you what, exactly, was in the Embracing My Shadow blog post that sent me to my archives to find my church history paper from over 20 years ago, but I knew I wanted to get a reminder of what I once knew about the racial divisions within the American church and I remembered the paper.

What I didn't remember was that my paper was more than just a biographical sketch of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was written out of my interest in a then new push within the ELCA to get 10% of the national membership to be of non-European-descent (by a date I don't recall at this moment, but I'm pretty sure we're well past that deadline and we've obviously failed in that goal).

I had been a voting member at the 1991 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, and during discussion of this initiative I remember one distinct voice that haunted me and no doubt led me to research the AME Church for my church history paper at a Lutheran Seminary. An older gentleman, I want to say he gave his age as being over 70, Black, came to the microphone to speak. As I recall, he identified as a life-long Lutheran ad that he loved his church. He was also tired of being counted. I can only guess at what he meant by that now, over 20 years later, but the feeling he left me with was that he wanted to be seen as Lutheran, not a trophy member to be presented as evidence of something we don't want to name so blatantly but really boils down to, "hey, look, we have some Black members, we can't be that racist."

Re-reading my paper, which wasn't that great of a paper, I was a bit surprised that my slant was that Richard Allen left the Methodists not because he wanted to be other than Methodist. Unlike nearly every other schism in the long history of Christan schisms, the break from the white Methodists wasn't over doctrine or church government. Apparently, most of the people who left with Allen were content with the worship and governance forms. They left because the white hierarchy did not live up to the gospel they heard, particularly the promise of "neither Jew nor Greek, neitehr bond nor free."

These divisions still run through our current church life, obviously, but I don't hear the division spoken of in this way, the contrast of the schism between Black and white churches and the schism between, say, the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church.

There's a lot of talk these days about the manifest racism---or more to the point, white supremacy---in the current American culture. I've written about it before and likely will again, but tonight I want us Christians to really think on the segregation of the churches, what we really believe (or don't) about Paul's words about "neither/nor," how we have inherited all kinds of attitudes that make that still an unfulfilled promise.

One true thing I may have said as I discussed the ELCA's desire to convert non-white people to Lutheranism is in this next-to-last-sentence of the paper: "Perhaps the lesson here is to convert Lutherans so that racial bias becomes a thing of the past."

White Christians: Repent. We have a lot of history to turn away from.

Come Holy Spirit and lead us away from the sins that drove our brothers and sisters to form separate churches. Unite us in the love we claim to profess. Amen.

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