I am recently in receipt of a petition signed by a large number of clergy (18 retired or living outside the diocese, 17 resident and active) calling on me to respond in certain ways to the present “moment” in our culture that focuses on the evil of systemic racism.
Let me be clear once again, as I was a couple of weeks ago, that racism, whether in its personal or systemic dimension, is a pernicious blight, one of the “evil forces of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” We renounce it. Such renunciation lies at the heart of our baptismal faith, as those who are baptized or confirmed are required to attest. I share the energy and enthusiasm of the petitioners toward the end of bearing tireless witness that God is a God of justice, and his kingdom is a realm in which justice triumphs. Every evening the Church prays the Magnificat, which speaks a clear word on this.
So if I differ with the petitioners, it is over the means to the end, not over the end itself.
The petition asks that I create a permanent Anti-Racism Commission in the diocese. First, the Bishop does not have to authority to do this by fiat. A permanent commission is a creature of synod, and would require action of a constitutional/canonical nature. I do, however, have the authority to create a task force to study how we might effectively respond as a diocese to the challenge of systemic racism, and am working toward that end. My personal observation, however, is that any permanent commission tends to quickly become an exercise in unproductive bureaucracy.
The petition calls me to instruct the clergy to denounce racism from the pulpit, and to provide educational opportunities on the subject. I have no doubt that the clergy of the Diocese of Springfield, should the propers of the day lend themselves to apply the light of the gospel to the sin of racism, would avail themselves of such an opportunity without my interference in the way they conduct themselves as preachers and teachers. We should never lose sight of the fact that the liturgy of the Eucharist is not a “flatbed truck” for any cause or agenda, even something as righteous as anti-racism.
The petitioners hope that I will encourage the clergy to “hold communicants of the diocese accountable not only for their baptismal covenants but also their obligation to live in love and charity with their neighbors and not live notoriously evil lives.” Indeed, such “pastoral care with a stick” is actually most effectively exercised at the local parish level by the resident priest, and I have more than once counseled clergy to avail themselves of the Disciplinary Rubrics on p. 409 of the Prayer Book. But engaging in openly racist speech or behavior is not the only sin to which a Christian might be tempted. Do those who wish stricter public accountability on racism look for the same around the equally pernicious evil of abortion? Or sexual behavior outside the covenant of marriage? I would suspect not.
Finally, the petitioners would like me to “call a diocesan-wide season of repentance for our own part in perpetuating racism by things done and left undone.” In my earlier message, I acknowledged that the diocese does not exactly have clean hands on this subject, historically speaking. We do have reparative work to do on behalf of our ancestors in this community of faith, particularly in Cairo. What I suspect many have in mind when they see or hear the word “repentance” is something like “remorse” or “regret.” But a “season” of remorse or regret smacks of virtue-signaling and the confession of other people’s sins–easy enough to do, but not costly in any significant way. True repentance, on the other hand, entails a change of mind followed by a change of behavior. In a couple of weeks, pandemic-permitting, I hope to dedicate a building that sits next to Redeemer, Cairo, and has been purchased and renovated with financial assistance from the diocese, which will enable that majority black church community to minister in substantive ways to the mostly African-American people of the most thrown-under-the-bus city in Illinois (with the possible exception of East St Louis). That occasion will be an embodiment of repentance much more significant than a “season” with accompanying liturgical forms.
I hope the petitioners will accept this response in the good faith in which it is intended. We want the same thing: to lift of the justice of God made manifest in the dying and rising of Jesus the Christ. To him be all glory.