Formation for the Missionary Church
Gird Up My Loins
It was 2019 – long before the pandemic, racial unrest and presidential election – when I first thought about gathering the five current Black women bishops in the Episcopal Church together for a series of conversations to edit into a book. Little did we know that life circumstances would change the importance of this opportunity. Dedicated to the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, the first woman to be ordained and consecrated a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion, I can only imagine the hurdles and barriers that she had to navigate.
Within the past five years, five Black women have been consecrated as bishops, making up only four percent of all active diocesan, suffragan, assistant or assisting bishops today: the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrow (2017), the Rt. Rev. Carlye J. Hughes (2018), the Rt. Rev. Phoebe A. Roaf (2019), the Rt. Rev. Kimberly Lucas (2019) and the Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown (2019). Spending time with these five women, I began to more fully appreciate their own journeys and hurdles. In one of our first conversations, Bishop Kym shared her prophetic voice in a plaintive, spontaneous prayer, “Oh yes, Lord, help me to gird up my loins for what’s coming.” (Job 38.3 [KJV])
A jumping off point for deeper discussion
The questions that I had prepared for our conversation were the obvious ones, such as:
- What was your experience growing up Black, and how has it informed your own faith journey and call to leadership?
- How has your life been affected, personally and as a bishop, during this time of the pandemic, racial protest and economic crisis?
- What have you found to be some of the barriers that Black clergywomen face in the search for employment in the Church?
- What do you believe is needed to make meaningful and lasting changes in the Church?
During the nine months that we engaged in six conversations over Zoom, it became abundantly clear that these questions were to serve only as the jumping off point for these amazing women as they gleaned support from one another.
It was an unprecedented nine months of current events – the death rates from COVID-19 rising from 103,000 deaths to 1.1 COVID-19 deaths per minute; dioceses issuing and revising guidelines for worship; the brutal deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd; the deaths of Bishop Barbara Harris, the Hon. John Lewis and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and a presidential election unlike any other. It was as though all that the bishops had endured over those months – balancing their roles as bishops while at the same time feeling the depths of their personal anguish – had broken open their vulnerability and authenticity, revealing the true essence of these women.
Formation is a key
This question, posed by Bishop Shannon, helped guide us during our time together: “How is the Church going to be this fuller picture of what we keep saying that we want to be?”
One important and universal recommendation that the bishops offered for creating lasting change within the Church was formation. Bishop Phoebe noted, “this crisis has further demonstrated the lack of discipleship and the need for transformed hearts.” In response, Bishop Jennifer asked, “what’s our opportunity as the Church to actually take advantage of this moment to help give people what they need?”
Perhaps that is why I was so excited to learn about My Way of Love at the recent online Forma conference. Offered by the Episcopal Church in partnership with RenewalWorks, a ministry of Forward Movement, My Way of Love is a free, eight-week email series that provides personalized suggestions for spiritual growth based on the seven practices of the Way of Love. Each email in the series includes ideas on how to pray, engage with scripture and practice the Way of Love regularly. For more information, contact Way of Love directly, or Jerusalem Greer, Episcopal Church staff officer for evangelism.
A Band of Sisterhood
The book that resulted from our conversations, This Band of Sisterhood: Black Women Bishops on Race, Faith, and the Church, will be published this coming July.The title was inspired by Bishop Carlye, who referred to “this band of sisterhood” in her closing prayer at one of our sessions. In the Foreword, Catherine Meeks (Executive Director for the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing) added “a band of angels” to describe further these five warrior women bishops.
Nine days after my last session with the five bishops, the Diocese of Chicago elected the Rev. Canon Paula E. Clark to serve as their diocesan bishop, the first Black person and first woman to hold that position. In her Afterword for the book, Bishop Paula expresses her deep gratitude for joining “this brave band of sisters who, beginning with Bishop Barbara Harris, see, bear and embody the light of Christ.”
Yes, these women have banded together – both warriors and angels – living into their call to leadership. Let the band of sisterhood continue to grow and expand.
This Band of Sisterhood: Black Women Bishops on Race, Faith, and the Church can be preordered here.
Westina Matthews, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor at the General Theological Seminary in the Center for Christian Spirituality. An author, retreat leader and theologian, Westina has found a way to connect with others through her books, essays, lectures, preaching and teaching. Her forthcoming book is This Band of Sisterhood: Black Women Bishops on Race, Faith, and the Church (Church Publishing Inc., July 2021). For many years, Westina was a lay leader at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City, serving on the vestry and co-leading the parish’s annual offering of Commitment to Discipleship. She is now a member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia, and serves on the boards of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation and the Gathering of Leaders.
- An Evening with Dr Catherine Meeks, an ECF webinar presented by Dr. Catherine Meeks, November 5, 2020
- Change: It’s All Connected, by the Right Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Vestry Papers, November 2019
- Triple Threat, by Adialyn Milien, Vestry Papers, July 2020
- Antiracism as a Developmental Effort, by Alissa Newton and Arienne Davison, Vestry Papers, July 2020