TRINITY EPISCOPAL Cathedral sits across Sumter Street from the State House; its worshipers have for generations included the political elite of Columbia, and its cemetery is filled with graves of Confederate generals and leaders. And twice this year, it has had to confront challenges involving its Confederate history.
First, a church tour guide mentioned coming across a Confederate flag on the grave of a Confederate soldier, and the vestry had to decide what to do. It was a difficult discussion, but one whose endpoint was obvious, since the flag carries no Christian significance and in fact represents for many Christians — white and black — a reminder of an ugly part of our past and a symbol that even its supporters acknowledge is used by the vilest of racists. The decision was to prohibit all but the U.S. and S.C. flags in the cemetery, and those only on designated federal holidays.
But when questions were raised after Charlottesville about a plaque inside the church honoring Civil War dead, the vestry decided to do nothing. It wasn’t celebrating the war or its cause; it was merely memorializing 18 “members of our church who were dead,” Senior Warden David Danforth explained.
Some might consider that splitting the baby. To me, it’s a great answer to the charge that once you chip away at one thing Confederate, it’s inevitable that everything else will tumble. More significantly, it’s a reminder that even the deepest divides can be bridged — if we are willing to bridge them.
Bishop Andrew Waldo tells the story of a a couple whose marriage seemed unsalvageable: The man had discovered that his wife had been unfaithful for more than two decades — with their best friend, a friend who was called “uncle” by their children. The woman was deeply remorseful and desperate to save the marriage; the man was filled with rage and understandably wanted to walk away. But he recognized that their marriage was a covenant, that he had promised before God to stay with her until death, so he agreed to try to give up his rage and try to reconcile.
Bishop Waldo, then their parish priest, recalled thinking of St. Paul’s message that in Christ, “God was reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” But, he acknowledges, “I don’t remember any moment in my life when I felt less able with that message, or less hopeful for the godly result of reconciliation.”
The wife agreed that until they were reconciled, she would voluntarily deny herself communion, the husband offered to do the same, and Fr. Waldo said he would know they had reconciled when they received communion again. Sunday after Sunday, the woman regularly and the man occasionally returned to the communion rail with arms crossed, to receive a blessing instead of the body and blood of Jesus. Then after 18 months, they returned together to receive communion, signifying a reconciliation — a reconciliation that survives these many years later.
Of course, many couples manage to reconcile after terrible betrayals. But it is an extraordinarily difficult process, a process that requires participants to acknowledge so much, to give up so much, to forgive so much. So Bishop Waldo’s story reminds us, again, that when we trust in God, we can bridge inconceivably wide chasms — chasms much wider and deeper than those that divide us politically. If we are willing to.
Mr. Danforth and Bishop Waldo recounted their stories at a recent gathering of the leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, which has made racial reconciliation one of its goals and whose priests are deeply troubled by our nation’s widening political gulf. It’s easy to dismiss this as a feel-good exercise by a largely liberal and mostly white church that’s hypersensitive to racial division and whose members tend to blame that gulf on Republicans in general and the president in particular. But a sizeable minority of Episcopalians are quite conservative politically. And the priests I talk to assign blame for our national divide all around — as any honest, thinking person must do.
Reconciliation requires that all parties give up something. But as the Rev. Paul Abernathy of the Church of the Epiphany in Laurens noted, we pledge in our baptismal covenant not only to give up sin but also take up goodness. Likewise, reconciliation requires that we take up something. “What I relinquish is my right to be right,” he said. “What I take up is my necessity to continue to acknowledge your God-given value and dignity, even and especially when you have wronged me in the worst way I can be wronged. Only then is there a possibility of reconciliation.”
What makes it so difficult to talk about race, said Elizabeth Claytor, an African-American member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Chester, is that white people tend to worry that they are descendents of slave owners and black people tend to consider themselves descendents of slaves. But those are meaningless distinctions, she told the gathering. And paraphrasing the words of Jesus, she said that anyone who isn’t a Christian is still enslaved. And everyone who is a Christian is free. And should be able to work through any disagreements to reconciliation. And the room of 400 priests and lay leaders erupted in applause.
And I was reminded of how quick and easy it would be to strip the anger from our politics if all of us who call ourselves Christians actually believed that — and acted like we believed it.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.