The Measure of a Priest: Racial Bias and White Privilege in The Episcopal Church


Church Mould

The yard was the original standard adopted by the early English sovereigns as a basis of calculation. Under the historical influence of the British Empire, the term “yardstick” became associated as the ideal standard for making critical judgments about a person. Consequently, “taking the measure of a man” gained more meaning than simply assessing the amount of cloth required for making him a suit.

In many ways, the yardstick by which The Episcopal Church evaluates the suitability of would-be clergy is inextricably linked to the ideology of British colonialism. The standard for measuring candidates for ordination is subsequently biased towards Euro-centric models of education, formation, and proficiency/fluency in navigating dominant culture. As a product of colonialism and dominant culture, The Episcopal Church in the United States evaluates for whiteness in its people of color.

Several years ago, when I took the General Ordination Exams, the test writers included a question that asked for candidates to reflect on how The Episcopal Church was doing with regard to racism within the Church. I heard later from a member of the examining board how surprised they were by the scathing critiques that answered that question. Nothing has changed since then, because the way the Church prepares and evaluates for pastoral competencies is gravely culturally biased. It has been my personal experience that every single person of color and white ally intending to work in ministry with communities of color is at some point asked by evaluators if they believe they are “sufficiently Anglican.”

For example, anything other than a prayer life centralizing the Book of Common Prayer is suspect.  In my case, all it took for a Commission on Ministry to be concerned was when I shared that I incorporate my indigenous practices of burning sacred herbs and indigenous traditions of interacting with nature as important aspects of my spiritual practice and formation.  Within a diocese with a history of Native missions, this may not have been such a concern since such a context is generally more cross cultural, with education and information flowing in both directions. However, I am an “urban Native,” and my Commission on Ministry was primarily driven by white liberalism rather than by any real knowledge of or interest in my Native culture.  I was well aware that it was my burden to measure up and not their burden to alter their standard of measure.

Most recently, there has been a growing trend in The Episcopal Church in the United States to use the curriculum of the Iona Center as a standard of education as an option for local training for postulants seeking ordination. The local adaptation of the Iona material used in the Diocese of Olympia has taken the form of  “The Iona Olympia School” which is self-described as “a three-year program with a rigorous, curriculum (comprised of textbooks, videos, discussion and activities, and field study) provided by the Iona Institute of the Seminary of the Southwest.” It follows “a traditional school calendar year, beginning in September” and expects paid tuition as well as participation in large blocks of time away from home, work, and family.

None of these expectations is realistic for the majority of people of color, particularly Native people. Course content is not adapted for the indigenous context or context of the communities of color with regard to types of learning and the application of experience. Ultimately, those who undertake local option training are not expected to be paid much if at all once they are ordained – being mostly either deacons or people of color who may become priests.

The argument may be that (by setting “rigorous curriculum” that includes the Euro-centric history of the Church and its subsequent traditions of worship and governance) those who graduate from local training will not be considered second-class clergy. What standard has established that concern in the first place and who yet holds that standard of expectation? White people? Western academics? Bishops? General Convention? People in the pews? All of the above?

The General Board of Examining Chaplains in The Episcopal Church is charged with creating ordination exams that test for the seven canonical areas of study as ascribed by Canons of the Church. These areas of desired proficiency include: 1) The Holy Scriptures, 2) Church History, 3) Christian Theology, 4) Christian Ethics and Moral Theology, 5) Studies in contemporary society (i.e. familiarity with minority groups), 6) Liturgics and Church Music, and 7) the Theory and Practice of Ministry.

Informing each of these canonical areas of study is a massive amount of dominant culture history, perspective, and assumption that yardstick people into seemingly “standard” units of measure. The current ordination process is not benign, and its colonial nature is nowhere more apparent than in how it forms its people of color as leaders for the church. Any training program that does not address the academic areas from a dominant culture perspective towards overlaying a dominant culture identity is deemed little more than finger painting. The “Anglican” in Anglican identity is at its core white history and white identity.

The pedagogy of the dominant culture Church seems to need to shape the foreign into the friendly and familiar, rather than taking the risk of losing a Euro-centric identity. A genuine adult learner approach to leadership formation assumes diversity in experience, perspective, and practice. Therefore, evaluators must be tasked with their own formation before becoming evaluators – they must care about postulants and candidates as people and not as potential interchangeable widgets within the machinations of the institution. Candidates should not be in the position of trying to fulfill the evaluator’s own unexamined cultural biases and assumptions.

How the Church delivers spiritual care and organizational development will depend on genuinely collaborative efforts, not just patronizing gestures of tolerance. Barriers between levels of the diocesan structure need to be replaced with semi-permeable organizational membranes through which education, formation, and cultural influence can flow in both directions. Our candidates for ordination are not empty vessels to be filled with colonized history and identity; they are unique peers, partners, colleagues, and friends who should be joining a community already committed to learning new perspectives and willing to adapt structures and expectations to reflect new and emerging truths. Traditions are not immutable and timeless or universal things – rather, tradition is best understood as the adaptive mechanism within culture that provides the basis for creative change.

There is more than one way to form a leader, just as there is more than one way to be a church within the Church. Our Church faces many challenges, and I believe that our people of color hold adaptive strategies worthy of our collective attention – they are, after all, experts in having to adapt to ways and methods not their own. It is beyond time for the dominant culture Church to learn to do the same.

19 thoughts on “The Measure of a Priest: Racial Bias and White Privilege in The Episcopal Church

  1. Wow. Beautifully said and written. So very sorry it had to be put to paper. However, you should challenge the Church and our local leaders to be better…to do better. I am with you. Davis

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    • It’s real, and I’m sorry that you are experiencing it. Remember that you are not alone. Generations stand behind you and new generations wait to receive you. The whole Church needs your voice and ministry. Those who love the Church that causes them pain will be the ones to transform it into a healing place for all peoples. You are in my heart and prayer.

  2. Thanks for this article. I recently stepped out of ordination and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale when it became clear the process was really only designed to benefit me (white male) and exclude people of color. My hope is to have more space to push for institutional change from the laity working from the outside for now. The forceful push in seminary to “be more Anglican” wasn’t lining up with who I understand Jesus to be. Anyway, this article is helpful, thanks!

  3. All of this is quite true. I would add the caveat that each diocese/bishop is unique and in some places this phenomenon is not as pronounced as others. My experience has been that the question is: what does the diocese need right now to move forward in faith in this present age and what are the needs of each parish? This includes wondering about parishes of mixed race, socio-economic class, and a variety of demographic considerations. If one goes to convention in the diocese of Long Island, or New York or LA it’s a different experience than many other places…

  4. Thank you so much for writing this. As a white, Anglo male whose recently gone through the ordination process, I’ve often felt extreme discomfort at the upper middle-class, Anglo-centrism of The Episcopal Church and of The Episcopal process of ordination. There were times that discomfort led me to doubt my call.

    I’m continually encouraged by colleagues like you who share an authentic, prophetic witness of the growth that needs to happen, and of the systems and ideologies that must be pruned. Thank you for sharing your voice.

    • Thank you for commenting here and for your support. This is a vital dialogue the Church needs to engage at every level and in every area. I am grateful for your engagement and wish you every blessing in your ministry.

  5. My name is the Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon. I thank you for this well written piece. I was drawn into the conversation because of your devotion to St. Hildegard and other great mystics. I currently am retired and in Los Angeles. I am a professed member of the St. Hildegard community in Austin Texas. I am a dispersed member. We have a book that we put together called St. Hildegard Community Rule of life that explains our rule of life and our goals for a transformative way of life. You can find it on Amazon. I too practice my indigenous traditions and it has helped me heal the many challenges of being a Latina women in the Episcopal church. Much too say about this but as you must know that would take days and lots of writing. It would be great to meet and continue a supportive conversation with one another. blessings Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon

    • Your community sounds wonderful. Thank you for sharing your heritage. For people of color the Church is a difficult emotional and spiritual space to inhabit. Finding whatever connections we can is vital.

  6. I commend you for an articulate and thought-provoking article. I have heard many of these same concerns in conversations over the last few months in my travels as the newly-appointed Coordinator for Indigenous Theological Education for The Episcopal Church. I am very interested in hearing from Indigenous people what kinds of things have worked best for them in a learning situation. I am already collaborating with others to craft a new multiple pathways model that can (1) improve access to theological education for laity and those seeking ordination, (2) redefine the nature of theological education for Indigenous learners, and (3) identify new ways to deliver theological education to align with the diversity of personal and cultural needs Indigenous learners have. I invite you and your readers to join the conversation. It is indeed time to fit theological education to the nature and needs of the people seeking it. We are in the early stages of this process, but given the rich sources of information available from our own people and from those who research innovative teaching and learning practices, I am optimistic the results of this work will be worthwhile. Furthermore, I find hope in the fact that The Episcopal Church funded such a theological education position in response to the delegates asking for it at the 2019 General Convention.

    • Mary, thank you for your wonderful comment. I feel optimistic, too. I am so thankful for the creation of your position, and I am so happy that you are the person! I am looking forward to the forging of new pathways in leadership formation and education that value the text and context of indigenous peoples and all communities of color. You are a strong and amazing woman and educator and exactly what we need in this pivotal time of our Church. I am deeply grateful.

  7. When I realized that the Episcopal Church near my new seminary in Denver was not anything like little St. Stephen’s Church on Whidbey Island, I was most distressed. When I learned from a classmate that declaring myself a lesbian might create a problem even before the process of ordination began, I decided to leave the Church. It’s actually your fault, Rachel. You showed me what “Church” can look like, even with a tiny group of little old ladies who seceded from their parent church (because the larger church did not want to ordain lesbians or gay men). I joined the United Church of Christ. I support you for continuing to work from the inside.

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