June 29, 2009
Freedom’s Prophet is the title of a book by Richard J. Newman (New York University Press, 2008) about Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers. Episcopalians might be familiar with Allen through his friendship with his (slightly older) friend, Absalom Jones who was the first African American to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. The book is interesting as biography and history, but also for the argument it makes that Allen and others were as much founding fathers who gave shape to this nation as the white men we remember. His concluding sentences: “Indeed, black founders like Richard Allen had already linked black struggles for justice to American and global liberation. The nation we inhabit today—multiracial but far from beyond the conundrum of race as a defining feature of national consciousness—is as much a product of Allen’s prophetic soul as Hegel’s or Jefferson’s.” (p.299) I, for one, find that Newman has made his case with this book.
I was intrigued by many aspects of this history, unfamiliar to me, but none more so than the founding of bethel Church in Philadelphia and the separation of the AME Church from White Methodism. What might have appeared as unacceptable compromise in various political decisions’ about power and control, were in retrospect significant steps along the way to securing first, a system of checks and balances in church governance and later an audience among all races for Allen’s’ continuing indictment of slavery.
I hope that in the challenge to justice presented the church today by the pressing pastoral needs of her GLBT members is such that we will finally be able to put to rest compromise and shenanigans over this issue and will stop seeing some kind of unity in our communion and the full acceptance of GLBT people as mutually exclusive. A church that already allows relationship to shape doctrine and is able to shift perspective about everything from cosmology to anthropology in the recognition of the full humanity of black people and women do not need to split over what is purported to be doctrinal issues but seems to be revealed after all this time as prejudice of the kind condemned in scripture.