Just before he was consecrated as the next Bishop of New York, Rev. Matthew Heyd held a formal conversation with Presiding Bishop Rev.  Michael Curry at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Friday, May 19. They talked about the direction the Episcopalian Church is heading in as it takes on issues of social justice.

One of the main subjects the two tackled was how the church is looking at reparations for African enslavement. The  Cathedral of St. John the Divine held an historic Service of Apology for Slavery this past March 2023 that led to a church pledge to devote $1.1 million toward racial justice efforts and the creation of the New York Federal Episcopal Credit Union, a bank designed to provide “banking services to the underserved, while providing low-cost emergency loans and financial counseling,” in an effort to address economic inequality.

The denial of reparations for African slavery remains the main root of economic inequality in the United States, and confronting this issue with social justice work has become an integral way for church members to rectify the problem, said Curry. 

He spoke about using the example of Jesus that can be found in the Gospels: “One of the things that you will notice is he does spend time in [a] synagogue. He was observant…he [spent] time in the temple…But most of the teaching of Jesus, most of his healing ministry, most of his messaging was actually not in the precincts of the temple or in the synagogue. It’s actually out in the world where people are…One of the great challenges and opportunities for us as the church is…continuing that Jesus movement, where the risen Christ is in the world. Of course, we must be in the temple, and we will ordain and consecrate you in the temple, so to speak. But we need to leave that temple, having been fed, been nurtured…we need to leave that temple to go into the world––as we say in the prayer for those who are baptized, to be witnesses to God’s love in the world.”

Social activist work in the Episcopal Church is what’s keeping it alive and healthy, Curry contended. As he travels around the country to different Episcopal churches, he said he has seen an increase in younger church attendees, even as other religious institutions have seen a drastic decline in new followers. 

Last year, the Episcopal Church reported that it lost nearly 60,000 members in 2021. “While in-person average Sunday attendance declined 35% in 2021 over the previous year’s count, overall membership in the Episcopal Church measured only a 3% decline,” a church article stated.

“A surprise finding—particularly given the drop in attendance—was that funds collected through offerings and pledges (‘plate and pledge’) increased by 3%.”

The social justice work appears to be keeping current church members and attracting new ones. In Mississippi, Episcopalian church members are working with some historically Black colleges to uncover the legacy of slavery. Episcopal Church members are also doing work at the U.S.-Mexico border, aiding migrants as they try to navigate establishing a new life in the U.S. They’ve also begun going into Mexico to work with churches there that are helping migrants. 

“In some parts of the Episcopalian Church, the word reparation is used; in other parts, it is not used,” Curry noted. “But they’re repairing the breach. I’ve seen that it’s actually happening in some of the most conservative areas of our country—Episcopalians are coming in and asking, ‘How do we repair? How do we learn from our history? How do we face it?’”

Not every Episcopalian has welcomed the church’s move toward social justice work, though. Episcopalians have long ties to conservative-leaning elements in the United States. The Episcopal Church is an offspring of  the Church of England’s Anglican Church and was established in the aftermath of the U.S. revolution. The ordination of female and LGBTQ bishops, its declaring that racism is a sin, and its strong stance against South African apartheid in the 1980s has led many conservative bishops, clergy, and church members to leave the ministry.

In the New York diocese, Heyd defended the social activist direction the church has taken. “It does feel like freedom to be able to understand our history better. It has changed who we are and made the next chapter possible,” he said. 

“Our convention has authorized something we’re calling the Moses Commission to carry forward our reparations work. We’ve had an amazing reparations commission for almost 20 years, so it’s long worked together. We see the next step as we’re going out to the world to see how we can repair the breach together, both in our congregations and in the broader Diocese of New York,” Heyd added. “It’s very exciting…to try to engage the resources of our entire community to do this. We see this as a first step: The truth-telling is a first step to what might be next for us together as a whole church, and it does feel like freedom and hope because now we understand who we are in a new way as a diocese and what we’re called to do.”

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