“Slow down,” Pauline, the hospitality coordinator for Bahamas Methodist Habitat told me repeatedly over the past couple of days. With the office cleaned, the chicken coop fixed, and the towels from the recently departed volunteer group already washed and drying on the line, Pauline could tell that I was already slipping back into multi-tasking tendencies. It was only a few days since Alex, my chilling guru, had headed back to the States for medical treatment and Pauline could see I was going to need some help if my own soul treatment here on Eleuthera was going to be effective. “Leave some work for next week. Get out of here! Go to the beach!” she said as she chased me off the site.
The reality, however, is that pink sand and turquoise water cannot distract me from what is about to begin on Monday any better than hard work and long walks can.
On Monday morning, November 18, 2013, my Annual Conference will begin a church trial that has the potential to lead to more. Despite my location and despite my minimal contact with the world outside of Eleuthera, the situation back home is one of which I am neither ignorant nor indifferent. There is truly no way that I could be either due to the fact that I have close friends, family and mentors on both sides of the debate – as well as strong opinions of my own.
It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us.
The Philadelphia Episcopal Area, and specifically the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, has seen more than its fair share of painful trials, and it may not stop with this one. In the pre-Civil War era, we were referred to as “The Border Conference” because we were the first Conference north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Growing up only 20 minutes north of the Mason-Dixon myself, I can only begin to imagine what this felt like for residents in the 1800’s. The proximity with slave-holding territories not only provided our preachers with the opportunity to risk their lives riding the circuit and preaching against slavery in the slave-holding Maryland peninsula, but also – and unfortunately – provided some of them with the opportunity to profit from the slave trade while technically living in a non-slave-holding state. Thus, the weight and temptation of slavery advocates in the South put pressure on the Philadelphia area from below, while the weight and frequent criticism of the Northern abolitionists pressed down on them from above, threatening to crush the small Border Conference.
But with great pressure, there sometimes emerges diamonds – and there certainly were some preachers who emerged decisive and courageous in the midst of these pressures. One of them caught my eye in seminary, a man named John Dixon Long, who had written a book called Pictures of Slavery in 1857 about the slaves held by preachers in the Conference and the conditions they suffered under; J.D. had been promptly brought up on charges of slander at Annual Conference in 1858. There was not much more information than that about J.D. Long at the time, but I got a tip that his letters and journals had been recently donated to the archives at Old Saint George’s in Philadelphia, and consumed with the need to know more about this church trial, I drove home from Durham, North Carolina to spend the day in the archives. With white gloves and careful hands, I pored through countless newspaper articles and opinion pieces; letters between J.D. and his friends – checking to make sure one another were alive while preaching against slavery below the Mason Dixon; notes that J.D. had scribbled in his journal as he interviewed slaves about their lives. Perhaps most valuable, I found an account written by one of J.D.’s friends of the proceedings at Annual Conference that year and the way that his friends were inspired by his courage to speak up in his defense and take risks themselves. The newspapers at the time were in an uproar – especially the abolitionist ones, of which Philadelphia had plenty – and the silence and hypocrisy that had surrounded the issue was split wide open as the region engaged in vigorous public debate.
The conclusion of the whole situation was that the Conference decided to quell the storm of criticism by dropping the charges against J.D. A painful compromise seemed apparent, however, because the charges against the pastors who held slaves were also dropped. J.D. limped off into the sunset, living another 30 years and running a home for children in Philadelphia, but his health was ruined by the stress and toll of the trial.
J.D.’s legacy was clear – one person with immense courage can make a tremendous difference – inspiring others to action, shaking the institution out of complacency, bringing hypocrisy into the light of day and galvanizing public opinion to hold religious leaders accountable to live with integrity and compassion.
While I was consumed with researching this Philadelphia trial, I did so in ignorance of the fact that the trial of a young clergywoman in my Conference had concluded shortly before I began seminary. I spent my life consumed with this trial in the 1800’s that exemplified the pressures often placed on my Annual Conference, while my decade of schooling in the Carolinas kept me completely unaware that the pressure was once again heavy on my home city. The young clergy that would soon be my colleagues and friends were struggling to cope with witnessing one of their own defrocked at an equally public trial. Ignorant at that moment, however, the irony was completely lost on me.
But I am neither ignorant nor indifferent now. Despite my current location, on a small island in another nation, I am carrying the names of all of my friends back home in fervent prayer. It seems the pressure of the denomination is on us once again as we sit in that Border space, that crucial territory, where no caucus has full control and where no opinion reigns supreme, where there is still space for debate and there is a diversity of opinion that is stronger than in areas where opinions lean heavy in one direction or another. Our diversity has always been our greatest strength, as well as the source of some of our greatest pain.
I am carrying love and prayers for you, all of you. I understand the concern of those who feel the responsibility to uphold our covenant and Discipline; your points are heard. However, I also empathize with those who feel, like many before them, that what they see to be an unjust law need not be obeyed.
To my Eastern Pennsylvania friends, family and colleagues, I have this to say – we have been here before and we will be here again. We are strong and we can take the pressure; but don’t stop short at showing the world our strength, reveal to them our compassion as well. May we show ourselves to be the Body of Christ, even in the moment when we look the most like an institution.
To my friends around the world, pray for Eastern Pennsylvania. We have been through so much already; we have born more than our fair share of the traumas of this denomination. From the loss of Richard Allen and the painful split with the AME church at Old St. George’s in 1816, to the trial of J.D. Long forty years later; and now from the trial of Beth Stroud to that of Frank Schaefer a decade later in the same spot. Whatever camp you are in, you will be tempted at one moment or another in the process to throw stones at us, but be kind. Remember what Jesus said to do with stones. Instead offer your prayer and support as Philadelphia is once again made to endure the birthing pains of a denomination finding its way forward.