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The Black Episcopal Church in America is in deep trouble.
According to the Rev. Greg Jacobs, Episcopal Black churches are languishing and face a situation of crisis proportions with 50% of them now served by part- time clergy.
"We Black Episcopalians are no longer the flavor of the day (if in fact we ever were.). Whatever special rights and privileges we received, or we otherwise believed to be our just due, are no longer forthcoming," he told the Northeast Regional Conference of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) at Roxbury Community College in Boston, recently.
In his keynote address entitled "Where Do We Go From Here", Jacobs ripped the US Episcopal Church saying there was a time when bishops declared that they would never dream of closing a black congregation. "No more! Gone is the day when any diocese can afford to keep a black church open solely on the nickel of political correctness."
"Like any other congregation - White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or gay - the Black Episcopal Church will have to depend less on the diocesan dole and more on its own ability to create and sustain vital and healthy ministries. Unlike Scarlett O'Hara, my friends, we can no longer depend upon the kindness of strangers! Our Black churches are languishing, and we presently face a situation of crisis proportions. Mere talk of 'change' is no longer enough."
Jacobs said the Episcopal Church is still racist. "For the past 40 years, we as the Union of Black Episcopalians have fought the good fight in this church against racism, both corporate and individual. But how successful as a church have we been? I would argue that we have not kept faith with the second part of our mission imperative."
Drawing on the Episcopal Church's history, Jacobs said, that 40 years ago, 17 spiritual descendants of the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first Episcopal priest convened in Harlem. "They met at a crossroads in the life of the Episcopal Church, when long standing racism moved many of the Black faithful to question whether the Episcopal Church truly did welcome us. We boldly declared our mission to remove racism from the church and society and to stimulate the growth of Black membership."
Citing Ed Rodman, Episcopal Divinity School professor and UBE's president, Jacob's said, "Our ignorance of our history and the amnesia caused by the trauma created by the contradictions between our ideals and our actions, will, like the Mason-Dixon Line, ultimately come to no good end.
"We have dwindling numbers in the pews on Sunday morning, congregations in which the average age of our members is over 60, few or no children, young families or young adults in church, dull and uninspiring worship, no on-going spiritual formation for adults or children, lay leadership and vestries that take on the appearance of a revolving door with the same cast of characters and a body of the faithful that bears a frightening resemblance to a social club."
Jacobs said that when his father began his ministry, in the diocese of Ohio in 1958, there were 5 financially viable Black Episcopal churches in the diocese. Today there is only one.
"That same pattern can be found in dioceses throughout our church: ever shrinking and aging Black congregations coupled with an ever-decreasing number of Black clergy to the point where there are more Black clergy retiring each year than there are Black postulants entering seminary. Moreover, 50% of our Black churches are now being served b y part-time clergy."
Jacobs said the highest priority on the agenda of the UBE in the 21st Century must be to rebuild and restore Black congregations. "The fate of our black churches rests squarely in our own hands, not in our dioceses.
"If we want our Black churches to survive and hopefully thrive, then we must be prepared to do whatever is necessary, which means taking risks for the sake of the gospel. We must be prepared to think outside the box and in some cases be willing to throw away the box altogether!"
Jacobs blasted congregations "mired in a myopic preoccupation with maintenance and money while ministry and mission have been given a 'do not resuscitate' order.
"In earlier generations, the Black Church was clear about its identity and its calling from God. Our parents and grandparents were not only able to articulate that calling, they went into the community and lived it every day of their lives. They knew who they were - Identity. They knew what God was calling them to be- vocation and they were clear about how God was calling them to carry out their vocation - mission. They had a mandate, a mission and a map."
Jacobs said that most congregations in trouble today do not plan to fail. They simply failed to plan! "An old African proverb warns that if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."
Today's Black congregations have lost their way, and with it, their very sense of mission and purpose. There is no map, he said.
Jacobs said that such churches are oblivious about what is going on outside their doors. "The surrounding community has changed, new immigrant populations have taken up residence in their midst and we don't have a clue how to engage our new neighbors. We are unprepared and ill-equipped to respond to their spiritual, social and emotional needs. We have become a church MIA - missing in action. A church that can no longer offer help nor hope should lock up its doors and quit this pretense of being church. We must be stakeholders not spectators.
"We can no longer choose to remain a 'non-prophet' organization. For us to remain silent in the face of growing economic oppression is no longer an option for us, and in this election year, the moral imperative could not be clearer."
Recalling the words of Martin Luther King, "The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict."
Jacobs offered a 7-point challenge to the Black Episcopal Church in the 21st century.
First: Create the "New Wine" of worship. "Offer liturgy and music that is fresh and alive and reflects the diversity of our people. Consider how rich our musical heritage is: Jazz, rhythm & Blues, Rap, hip-hop - they all have roots in our culture and traditions. Our preaching must be prophetic and bold. Let's accept the challenge to make our churches spirited places of joy!"
Second: Establish strong and challenging Christian education programs at all levels. "Christian formation must be dedicated to instructing our people, regardless of age, in what it means to be disciples of Jesus, ministers in the Church and members of the Episcopal Church. We need theologically-based education that connects our lives to the vows made at our baptism and challenges us to live out that covenant through everyday faithfulness."
Third: Educate the laity. "Raise up leaders and ministers in the church with emphasis on evangelism, radical welcome and stewardship. Too many of our churches are still being led by the very same lay people who led them 20 years ago. Intentional raising- up of leaders is the only way to insure that the congregation's vision will constantly be revisited with fresh hearts and minds."
Fourth: Encourage the creation and development of strong and exciting children and youth programs. "Let's create programs that allow our children to know who God is and what God's community is all about in an intimate and meaningful way. Listen to our young people! They are telling you that what may have worked 25 years ago doesn't speak meaningfully in their lives."
Fifth: "Let's do ministry in appropriate size spaces so that our congregations are not overwhelmed by the prospect of maintaining a building that no longer fills their needs. Think creatively about the multiple uses to which our buildings can be put for the purposes of mission and ministry, providing community space, business space, even living space within out church structures for the benefit of the community and its members."
Sixth: Take stewardship seriously! "When are we going to stop 'tipping God'? Giving what is leftover rather than giving God the first fruits? Good stewardship must be a year-round program and not some half-hearted task that we feel forced to do every fall. Here are three guiding principles for successful stewardship: Each member should pledge, every leader must pledge and all should strive to tithe."
Seventh: Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize! "Let's make our churches places of radical hospitality. The Good News is that this isn't rocket science - anyone can do it. The secret to good evangelism is to create a ministry that is so vital and alive that it will be impossible to keep your congregation from talking about it. Start with one good program and build from there. Teach evangelism by encouraging testimony during worship, sharing during Bible study and reflection during vestry meetings.
"I believe that it is within the power of all our churches to realize God's dream, regardless of size, wealth or location or even the age of the church! But first we must be willing to reach down within ourselves and work a profound change in our own spiritual understanding of church.
"The Church of the 21st Century will, of necessity, have to be the subversive church. The church of the status quo is an oxymoron. We must be willing to take risks for the sake of the gospel. Our challenge, as the Black Episcopal Church, is to renew our own vows to be what we have always been: counter cultural agents on behalf of God's plan for reconciliation, conversion and transformation. The fate and future of our church is clearly in our hands. The time has come for us to focus in our future as Black people in the Episcopal Church, particularly the very survival of our Black congregations."