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The race card

December 4, 2015

theepiscopalchurchwelcomesyouSCOTT GUNN has written an excellent post on the much-shared July article on evangelism and race that ran in Christianity Today (“Dear Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?”). We highly recommend both the original article and Gunn’s reply.

The particular experiment and resulting data set discussed in the Christianity Today article have received a great deal of attention since their release, and rightly so. By suggesting that the racial dynamic of our churches is chiefly a matter of individual acts of racism, however, the article is something of a red herring in the quest to diagnose what ails us.

Too often in these matters, our thinking and our rhetoric tend to suggest that if we were all nicer and more considerate, everything would be fine. This is a mistake.

Imagine what is in our experience a typical Episcopal church, which will be in either the historic business district or, perhaps more often, the nice neighborhood in town. A predominantly white church, in a predominantly white neighborhood. If 89% of Episcopalians are white, we’d venture than a comparable percentage of our churches are in white neighborhoods.

So what’s the problem here? Is it the stuck-up white people in the pews with their antique liturgy? Or is it the educational, employment, and housing discrimination that made the whole social edifice at issue?

The answer is, of course, both, but we must remember that the composition of the church is the product of a legal and economic system more than of any individual will. The work which we undertake in Christ’s name must be to put right not only the small matter of our own house, but also the large matter of our American society in which racism remains hard coded. There is more to it than just being well meaning, nice people, as these are problems we can’t “nice” our way out of. Ceaseless tinkering with our liturgy is really just window dressing, allowing us to feel better about ourselves without addressing the underlying issues in which we are all complicit.

Should we follow St. Benedict’s rule that ALL who present themselves, whether at the door or in our inbox, are to be welcomed as Christ? Absolutely and without question, and shame on us for not doing so.

But the work which we undertake in Christ’s name must be carried out in the world, as much as if not more than within the church. Remember the words of St. James: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass” (James 1:22-23).

Our obsessive and ceaseless proclamation of how welcoming we are, while then getting into our cars and going about our business in a world that remains fairly contentedly segregated, this is our beholding our faces in a glass. We must never forget that our Christian work is done in the world, until “he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead.”

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