Church leaders debate apology, reparations for support of slavery

Saturday, June 3, 2006

From staff and wire reports

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Episcopal Church is poised to apologize for failing to oppose slavery, but making up for its 19th-century inaction won't come without 21st-century controversy.

At its national convention beginning June 13, the church is expected to approve a resolution expressing regret for supporting slavery and segregation. But the debate will likely get more heated when a second resolution comes up, calling for a study of possible reparations for black Episcopalians.

Locally, Christ Episcopal Church's pastor, the Rev. Bob Towner, said he supports an apology from the church as a national institution.

"I strongly believe that we need to confess the sin of racism," Towner said. "It is not the same as personal prejudice -- which most people will deny. Racism is when we of one race benefit at the expense of another race. This still goes on all over America."

The church, already divided over the separate issue of gays' role in the church, is struggling over whether reparations would be a meaningful gesture 141 years after the Civil War ended.

"A lot of times you say, 'I'm not a racist, I didn't have slaves, no one in my family had slaves, I could not possibly be complicit in this,'" said Sharon Denton, a member of the church's National Concerns committee that deals with domestic ministry and mission issues.

"But if you start digging back in the history of things, you find out there were a lot of things that come to you that were built on slaveholding and the slave trade," said Denton, a member of a small, all-white parish in Salina in central Kansas.

Towner said he feels the Episcopal Church has made reparations since the civil rights movement by assuming leadership in many local and regional issues of racial justice. The national church organization has provided millions of dollars in funding for historically black colleges and universities, Towner said.

"Locally, our parish has sponsored regional dismantling racism workshops for church members and led the Downtown Council of Churches in several anti-racism projects over the past several years," he said.

The Rev. Harold Lewis, a black priest and rector at Calvary Episcopal in Pittsburgh, Penn., called the idea of reparations outrageous and impractical.

"The better thing to do is to talk about how we can work to eradicate racism and how we can fight to eliminate economic disparities regardless of racism," said Lewis, the denomination's former longtime staff officer for black ministries.

The church declined to embrace a resolution three years ago backing federal legislation to create a national reparations task force. This year's resolution is more focused on the church, calling for a study of how the denomination benefited economically from slavery and how that benefit could be shared with black Episcopalians, about 5 percent of the denomination's 2.2 million members.

But it doesn't give specifics, and both supporters and detractors say reparations could mean anything from cash payments to college scholarships.

Previous attempts to deal with the issue have proven difficult. In 1969, the church's General Convention -- or legislative body -- approved a $200,000 grant to the National Committee of Black Churchmen in response to calls for reparations from activist James Forman. But the move created a significant backlash among parishioners.

Staff writer Callie Clark Miller contributed to this report.

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