Absalom Jones 2011
I was talking to some people in another part of the church last week, and one of them said, “Oh, we did something different last Sunday - some feast for a guy I’d never heard of.” This person managed to tell me enough details to figure out that the congregation had celebrated Absalom Jones, and I told them something about his story. That congregation is a long way from here, in another cultural context, but it’s also a reminder that a lot of Episcopalians still don’t know the whole story. We all have work to do!
Absalom Jones was the first black priest in the Episcopal Church, and when he died, he was still the only one. He was born in slavery in Delaware in 1746, became a house slave as a child, and was sent to Philadelphia at age 16 to work in his master’s store. He taught himself to read and write, met and married his wife, bought her freedom, and after several more years, by working together, they bought his freedom as well. He worshiped in a Methodist community, while it was still part of the Anglican family, where white and black attended together. That is, until the black community began to grow, under his and Richard Allen’s leadership.
That growing black membership caused the white vestry to decree that they would have to worship in an upstairs gallery, and one Sunday morning the ushers tried to move them out of their pews. When the process changed from words to physical removal, the black community walked out. This was going on while the words of the Declaration of Independence were still echoing in the world’s ears, at the very moment when the first amendment and its guarantees of civil rights were being considered by the new states. It turned out that those freedoms were for some, but not yet for all. Freedom of religion and freedom of association were guaranteed in that first amendment, but it has taken many years to move toward their reality for all, and we are not yet fully there.
Jones and Allen left St. George’s Methodist Episcopal in 1786 and founded what was effectively a non-denominational congregation. The Free African Society was a fellowship for mutual aid and support, not unlike the early Christian communities in Acts. In a deep echo of Jesus’ words, “I no longer call you servants, but friends,” the Free African Society treated all members as friends, caring for widows and orphans, tending the sick, burying the dead, encouraging financial interdependence, and generally sharing each other’s burdens and joys. The Quakers have no monopoly on the society of friends.
By 1794, the Methodists had separated from the Anglicans in the United States, and the congregation of friends voted on which denomination to join. [Hear the echoes of current realities in the church.] Most chose to remain with the historic body now called the Episcopal Church. Richard Allen was among those who left, and he eventually founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Jones’ group approached the Episcopalians in Pennsylvania, seeking admission as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, on the condition that they govern themselves as a separate parish, with the ability to call and support their own clergy. The diocesan convention agreed, and Absalom was called to ordination. The same convention made clear that they would not seat delegates from St. Thomas in convention, and that policy was not reversed until the 1860s.
Bishop William White ordained Absalom Jones as a deacon in 1795. In a pattern of lengthy delay that would be repeated with others, Jones wasnt ordained priest until 1802. Peter Williams was the next black man to be ordained - Bishop Henry Hobart ordered him deacon in New York in 1820, and priest in 1826. The first Native American was ordained 86 years after Absalom Jones, but David Pendleton Oakerhater remained a deacon for 50 years, at a time when there were almost no vocational deacons.
Despite attitudes in the church that tried to keep St. Thomas and other African-American communities separate and unequal, Jones faithfully served St. Thomas and the wider community until his death in 1818, becoming known as the black bishop of the Episcopal Church.
The wounds of slavery, racial injustice, and division continue to this day, in the church and beyond it. Relationships between the Episcopal Church and AME are still strained, in spite of many years of trying to heal them. The body known as Churches Uniting in Christ includes the AME and the Episcopal Church, and two other historically black church bodies also derived from segregation, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion). Peter Williams was brought up in the AME Zion, but chose the Episcopal Church as the place to pursue ordained ministry. Efforts to build bridges and trust across these historic divisions have been tainted by racism, even though we share a great deal of history, tradition, and theology. The good news is that the whole of that body is committed to working on issues of racism.
Discovering and affirming our connections is one way of strengthening the vine. The branches can’t stay connected to the vine without acknowledging other branches. As the same sap flows through that vine, the blood of Christ courses through all our veins. Division, oppression, racism, and all the ways in which we try to separate ourselves only deny the reality of our interconnection. None of us will be healed until all those connections are put back together, and trust is restored.
Dialogue with the AME, AME Zion, and CME churches is beginning to lead toward common ministry. The near-term focus is how we might partner for rebuilding in Haiti, and we hope to educate our members about the history of relationships between Haiti and the U.S., much of it with pretty wretched overtones of racism.
We will go on looking for ways to reconcile our understanding of ministry. At some point in the long years of dialogue, we apparently got stuck on the ministry of bishops. The clear sense has been given that we think our historic episcopate is better or fuller than theirs, and that coming together in full communion would require some recognition that theirs was deficient. Any liturgical celebration of that full communion would require that the Episcopal bishops lay hands on the Methodist Episcopal bishops to convey the fullness of the historic episcopate. I think it’s fair to say that was perceived as racism dressed up as theology.
Something fascinating happened on Thursday night in Pennsylvania. We celebrated a full communion relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Moravian church. That liturgy involved the mutual laying on of hands, first the Episcopal bishops knelt to have hands laid on by the Moravians, and then the roles were reversed. Perhaps we have learned something about diversity of gifts, which might be helpful in going back to the AME, CME, and AMEZ. Maybe it helped that there were black bishops and white bishops on both sides Thursday night. It would also help if this Episcopal Church could recognize that we have gifts to receive from the Methodist Episcopal churches, starting with the scandal of separation over race.
That vine holds fast to the saints, and Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Peter Williams, and David Pendleton Oakerhater are reconciled to each other in Christ. Our task is to work on the rest of the communion of saints, those of us still walking around.
How can we increase the connections among us in this life? By telling the stories, in all their grief and sin and joy, and trying once again to heal the grafts with which we are bound to Christ in the same body.
For freedom Christ has set us free - yet we will only be truly free when we acknowledge those grafts as abundant blessing.