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

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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.