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Racism in church culture revealed in audit of US-based Episcopal Church leadership

Posted on: April 20, 2021 6:11 PM
Members of the US-based Episcopal Church’s Executive Council join hands and sing at the conclusion of a racial reconciliation training in Chaska, Minnesota, in October 2018
Photo Credit: David Paulsen / ENS

Official report assesses racial makeup and perceptions of the church’s leadership and summarises race influences on church culture.

[Episcopal News Service, by David Paulsen] The US-based Episcopal Church publicly released a report on Monday (19 April) that assesses the racial makeup and perceptions of a broad sampling of the church’s leadership and summarises how race influences internal church culture. The release of the 72-page report, nearly three years in the making, also sheds light on nine dominant patterns of racism that were identified during interviews with dozens of church leaders.

The audit confirmed that the church’s leadership, like its membership, is overwhelmingly white, and it found that white leaders and leaders of colour tend to perceive discrimination differently. People of colour said they have often felt marginalised – despite the church’s professed commitment to racial reconciliation. White Episcopalians, on the other hand, frequently weren’t aware of how race has shaped their lives and their church.

The Racial Justice Audit of Episcopal Leadership was conducted on behalf of the church by the Massachusetts-based Mission Institute. More than 1,300 people completed a written survey offered to five leadership groups: the House of Bishops, the House of Deputies, Executive Council, church-wide staff members and leaders from 28 dioceses. Additional narrative interviews were conducted with 64 participants who had expressed a willingness to share personal stories and observations with the institute’s researchers.

“This racial audit has attempted to magnify the voices of people of colour in the church, while also maintaining a spotlight on the systems and structures created and maintained by the white dominant culture,” the Mission Institute said in unveiling its findings. By putting those findings into their historical context, the institute concluded that “even though we have come far in addressing racism within the church, we still have a long way to go.”

Episcopal leaders see the audit as part of the church’s efforts to become more inclusive and to bridge racial divides in an increasingly diverse America. Since 2017, those efforts have centred on Becoming Beloved Community, the church’s cornerstone racial reconciliation initiative. It aims to deepen conversations about the church’s historic complicity with slavery, segregation and other racist systems while enlisting all Episcopalians in the work of racial healing. One of its four components is telling the truth about churches and race.

“This racial justice audit, I think for the first time, has given us a real picture of the dynamics and the reality of structural and institutional racism among us,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a press release announcing the report. “It has given us a baseline of where we are, to help us understand where we can, and must, by God’s grace, go.”

The report offers eight general recommendations for the church as it continues to engage at the parish and community level, from prioritising racial justice to providing financial support to communities still dealing with the effects of racial oppression. It recommends conducting follow-up audits of church leadership every five years, as well as expanding the audits to dioceses and congregations. It calls for a new system of accountability, ensuring the church steps up its racial justice work. And it cites the need to educate white Episcopalians about the church’s racial dynamics, including through promotion of the audit’s results.

The results were first unveiled earlier this year to each participating group, starting with an Executive Council committee in January. About 200 diocesan leaders attended three online discussions of the results in March, and the Mission Institute presented the report to the House of Bishops on 12 March at the bishops’ online retreat. Similar online sessions were offered to the church-wide staff on 23 March and the House of Deputies on 15 April.

Along with releasing the report to the wider church yesterday, Episcopal leaders have prepared resources to help all Episcopalians understand the significance of the audit’s findings while discerning how they can be a part of the church’s continued efforts to combat systemic racism. Three webinars will be offered, on 11 May, 1 June and 29 June.

“Racism exists in our church, and we can no longer ignore it or look the other way or pretend that it’s not there,” the church’s racial reconciliation officer, Isaiah Shaneequa Brokenleg, told ENS. “My hope is that we would recognise the racism in our church and change it.”

  • Click here to read David Paulsen’s full in-depth report on Episcopal News Service.