Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, preaching in Philadelphia on February 11, held up the life of Absalom Jones, the first African American Episcopal priest, as a remarkable example of a man whose love for God was so great that he made friends with enemies and gave his life in the service of others.
"He was a friend with God," she said. "The friends of God are those whose own hearts and minds and spirits have been transformed and who begin to transform their world around them."
As congregations across the country gave thanks for the life of Jones in prayer, Jefferts Schori spent the day before she traveled to Tanzania for a meeting of the Primates Anglican Communion worshiping with and greeting members of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Jones founded the Free African church and later it affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. His ashes are enshrined there and a memorial stained glass window commemorates his life and work.
"Absalom Jones was born into a life not just of servanthood, but slavery, yet his friendship with God led him to larger friendship with an entire community in this city," Jefferts Schori said. She urged members of the congregation to "befriend the world, especially the friendless."
The presiding bishop said she saw striking parallels between the African American Church and the Episcopal Church in Cuba where she recently visited.
"You both know that God is the special friend of the oppressed," she said.
As a member of the Metropolitan Council for the Cuban church that provides episcopal oversight, Jefferts Schori participated in appointing two assistant bishops.
"Like Absalom Jones, both these bishops have shared their people's joys and their suffering, and both have been worker priests most of their ordained lives," she said.
"Absalom Jones lived as friend to the descendants of slaves. He also lived as friend toward those who were not yet ready to receive him as friend," she said. "He showed himself free and willing to lay down his life in service for others."
"What does being God's beloved friend say to you," she challenged members of the congregation. "I certainly hear an invitation to 'befriend the world, especially the friendless.' That's what Isaiah is talking about â being anointed means being appointed, to go and befriend the oppressed, the captives, the broken-hearted, the mourners, the starving, and thirsty, and homeless, and sick, and most especially the hopeless.
"That's our mission as baptized people, as the Catechism puts it, 'to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.' That's about befriending the world, and laying down our lives for those who have no friend," she said.
Shouts of welcome and joy could be heard above the prolonged applause from hundreds as the presiding bishop was introduced at the beginning of the service. "It is an immense honor to welcome the new presiding bishop to Philadelphia and to our parish," said the Rev. Martini Shaw, who noted that the first women priests were ordained there 30 years ago.
The choirs of Christ Episcopal Church and St. Peter's Episcopal Church joined the two chancel and gospel choirs of St. Thomas for the service. Six musicians augmented the organist and children, members of the parish's Dance Ensemble, performed prior to the service.
The St. Thomas Gospel Choir was among the choral groups that sang at Jefferts Schori's investiture as Presiding Bishop on November 4, 2006.
The history of the African church's early days was evident throughout the service. The cathedra, or chair, used by the presiding bishop was used by the first presiding bishop, William White, and church historians say it was likely used by White when he ordained Absalom Jones. The altar used in the service was the original one Jones used. It was restored in 2006 and will become part of a permanent historic exhibit to be created in a newly refurbished parish hall.
Later this year the 215th anniversary of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas will be celebrated with a concert of music ministries on November 2, a gala and dinner dance on November 3 and an anniversary service the following day.