History, as it often does, keeps me hopeful. On the whole, the Episcopalians have been a progressive lot. Sometimes more slowly progressive than I would like,** but moving ever upwards nonetheless.
In 1786 the membership of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia included both blacks and whites. However, the white members met that year and decided that thereafter black members should sit only in the balcony. Two black Sunday worshippers, Absalom Jones (1746-1818) and Richard Allen (1760-1831), whose enthusiasm for the Methodist Church had brought many blacks into the congregation, learned of the decision only when, on the following Sunday, ushers tapped them on the shoulder during the opening prayers, and demanded that they move to the balcony without waiting for the end of the prayer. They walked out, followed by the other black members.
Absalom Jones conferred with William White, Episcopal Bishop of Philadelphia, who agreed to accept the group as an Episcopal parish. Jones would serve as lay reader, and, after a period of study, would be ordained and serve as rector. Allen wanted the group to remain Methodist, and in 1793 he left to form a Methodist congregation. In 1816 he left the Methodists to form a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Jones (ordained deacon and priest in 1795 and 1802) and Allen (ordained deacon and elder in 1799 and 1816) were the first two black Americans to receive formal ordination in any denomination.***
Set us free, O heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear: that, honoring the steadfast courage of thy servants Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
* One of the best things about any brand of religion is the fun, wonky, vocabulary it generates. The adjectival form for the Gospel of St. John? "Johannine" which sounds less biblical and more like the lead singer for Concrete Blonde, but I digress.
** We have women clergy and women bishops, but Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Episcopal church wasn't made a bishop until 1989. 1989. Good grief. And even then not without controversy. Good. Grief. On the plus side, the current Presiding Bishop, is the clearly-not-a-guy Katharine Jefferts Schori.
*** From The Lectionary, specifically the page on Absolom Jones contributed by James Kiefer. The Lectionary also has very handy listings of Feast Days, Holy Days, & Commemorations as well as listings of readings for each Bible passage and each Sunday. This means that with just a tiny bit of prep I can avoid attending church on Prodigal Son day and spare my friends the annual rant about why I hate that story.