White Privilege and Denominational Choice (a partial response to Bishop-Elect Sumner, Fr. Hylden, and Fr. Voets)


Over the last few days, I have observed many within in the Episcopal Church (hereafter TEC) rightly praise the recent entry in the Living Church Covenant blog by Bishop-elect Sumner. My own alma mater, the Nashotah House, distributed it to a list that I assume included all its current and former students. If my read of the positive response is correct, many view his proposal as viable path forward for traditionalists in TEC. What follows is an attempt to think through the implications of his proposal for a group that rarely enters these discussions: ethnic minorities who hold a traditional perspective on human sexuality. I do not speak for all minorities in what follows. These thoughts are my own.

While I found much to praise in the piece, especially its clarity of thought and irenic defense of orthodoxy, I also felt a sense of discomfort. Because the idea of white privilege causes some of my brothers and sisters to experience a discomfort of their own, let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not asserting that the bishop elect’s article was racist. God forbid! Bishop-elect Sumner appears to be a godly and wise leader who will serve the body of Christ well. I am stating the obvious fact that our life experiences influence the way that we view the world and they shape how we respond to the problems that plague society and the church. Solutions that may seem viable to one group (white traditionalists in TEC) may place burdens on others (black traditionalists in that same church) that the author may not have considered. I believe that failure is rooted in the privilege of not having to consider such problems. For example, many blacks weary of telling their white colleagues that the statement “I do not see color” embodies a privilege that blacks cannot afford.

If I understand him correctly, Bishop-elect Sumner speaks to two audiences. He wants to help conservatives understand their place in the church. They are theological minorities. Second, he wants to help progressives find a way, from within their own tradition, to embrace the minority status of conservatives. His article definitely does more than this, but this is the part I want to engage. How does the proposal offered by Bishop-elect Sumner that  traditionalists should embrace the role of a theological minority (in exile no less) and lean on progressive theology’s own value of diversity, as evinced in the work of F.D. Maurice, sound to a black traditionalist? For this one, it is daunting for a variety of reasons.

First despite the theological divide that exists in the Episcopal Church, it is relatively culturally cohesive. It is largely upper-middle-class, Caucasian, and politically left-leaning. Thus, while the white conservative in TEC may be theologically alienated from the majority of the church, social life is not always a challenge. Many Episcopalians went to the same colleges and seminaries. They can enjoy NPR together. There is a certain overlap in tastes of music, film, and food. These may seem to be small matters, but sermon topics, illustrations, movie references, and small talk emerge from a cultural milieu that determine the feel of a local congregation. Most of these congregations feel alienating to minorities, as the attendance sheets will tell you.

I speak in generalities, but I take it that the point was made. This similarity can also be seen in an image from a different article on the future of conservatives in TEC. Speaking about a white conservative and a white progressive it said, “We find ourselves on opposite sides of this painful division. We are near the beginning of our careers in ministry, it is possible that decades from now we will still disagree, perhaps arguing in some retirement home for curmudgeonly priests.” I could not help but think who else will be at this retirement home? Will there be any black people there? Any Hispanics? What will we talk about? What music will be played in the background? What will be the rules for spades? For the African-American coming from a culturally African-American setting, the social adjustment required merely to function in TEC cannot be overstated.  Thus for the African-American traditionalist they are not only being asked to adopt a minority position within a dominant culture, they are being asked to further alienate themselves in a culture that may already be strange. They are asked to become theological and cultural minorities. How are they to make a wholesome appeal for other minorities to join this tradition under these circumstances?

Second, being a minority in a majority culture requires many blacks to be adept at modulating blackness or code switching. Most traditionalists in TEC know what is like to enter a room where they are the most conservative clergy person at the gathering. One must learn to be coy, to disassociate oneself from being the wrong type of conservative. One must be constantly aware that the wrong statements can be disastrous (such as articles like this). They cannot risk being labeled as angry. Then there is the freedom of finding oneself in a space with other traditionalists. Is the African-American, then, to be constantly in the process of theological and cultural code-switching? Are we to modulate our ethnic expressions and our theology to fit with the dominant culture? If so what is acceptable about the black traditionalist in the Episcopal Church?

Third, relying on the good will of progressive theology has not always been the most positive experience for ethnic minorities. We are useful precisely as witnesses to a theological value of the dominant culture and not as people with our own voices and concerns. It is when minorities step out of that representative role and push for white progressive theologians to attend to the actual priorities of minorities that we are told to be quiet and pose for the picture. One only has to read a little of the conversation going on between women of color and white feminists to understand what I mean.

I used the language of white privilege because Bishop-elect Sumner calls upon traditionalists to embrace a minority status that they have not previously experienced. But for ethnic minorities who are traditionalists in the Episcopal Church they may already experience cultural alienation as a burden. To ask that they sign up for theological and cultural isolation for them and their children for the foreseeable future may be asking too much.

What then is the solution? I am not sure. I will say that is not easy to be an ethnic minority of traditional belief in majority churches. What motivates many of us is the vision that the scriptures present of the multi-ethnic kingdom worshipping the crucified and risen lord. This vision gives some minorities hope in the midst of setbacks, misunderstandings, and disappointment. We feel misunderstood when some conservatives bristle at our discussion of institutional racism, black lives, and the call for justice. We feel equally uncomfortable when we feel called to remind some progressives that the black church’s historic call for justice has often been housed within communities that held traditional beliefs about scripture, salvation, and a host of other issues. Black lives matter because Jesus’ blood washes us clean like everybody else. So there is certain homelessness indicative of life in whatever majority communities we enter. That is fine. God is faithful.

Nonetheless, it seems that if there is any hope for a church to unite a variety of cultures around a common confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord that church must be exceedingly clear about what that confession of his lordship entails. Otherwise the suffering that minorities endure to make the Gospel vision of a multi-colored kingdom a reality loses its telos.

Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.

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