New York service to offer ‘institutional and collective apology’ for diocese’s complicity in slavery

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 23, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of New York, as part of its long-running efforts to examine and repent of the church’s historic complicity in slavery and other forms of racial oppression, will hold a service of apology on March 25 at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.

Bishop Andrew Dietsche will preside and preach at the Holy Eucharist at noon Eastern, which also will be livestreamed on the cathedral’s website. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry recorded a video address for the beginning of the service. After the prayers of the people, Dietsche will offer an apology on behalf of the diocese, while engaging the assembled worshippers in a responsorial confession.

The nave of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, New York. Photo courtesy of the cathedral

“When we consider a violent, inhumane history of degradation and bondage, the twin acts of apology and forgiveness are the essential place from which we can make the deep dive, seek and tell the truth, be accountable, and have the possibility of making a shared future,” Dietsche told Episcopal News Service in a written statement.

The service is a significant milepost in the ongoing work of the Reparations Commission of the Diocese of New York, and it comes as the diocese is developing plans for distributing money from a diocesan reparations fund.

“I think what I’m hoping is that the members of our diocese really understand that this is an institutional and collective apology,” Cynthia Copeland, Reparations Commission co-chair, told Episcopal News Service. The apology builds on research by the diocese and its congregations into the legacy of racism in their histories, and the work of discovery, acceptance and transformation doesn’t end with this service.

“Acceptance is part of the healing process,” Copeland said, “and through the recognition of the various roles that we have played as an institution, it helps us to recognize this for what it is. And once you recognize it, you can’t cover it up anymore.”

The Diocese of New York’s service of apology is the latest example of the churchwide emphasis on racial reconciliation over the past several decades, elevated to a top priority of the church since 2015, when Curry became the first African American elected presiding bishop. Dioceses and congregations across The Episcopal Church are increasingly engaged with these issues within a framework called Becoming Beloved Community, which the church launched in 2017.

Some dioceses, like New York, also have taken steps toward reparations, making financial commitments to atone for the ways the church has benefited from systems that have oppressed or disadvantaged people of color. In May 2022, the Diocese of Maryland awarded $175,000 in its first round of community grants in a newly created program of racial reparations. The dioceses of Texas, New Jersey and Washington are among the others engaged in similar reparations initiatives.

The Diocese of Virginia, its colonial roots dating to 1607, passed a resolution in November 2021 to use $10 million to establish an endowment for a reparations fund and set aside an additional $500,000 for a racial justice and healing fund.

Virginia “has benefited from chattel slavery, the effects of which extend far beyond the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863,” the diocese said when it announced the endowment fund. “The people of the diocese will strive to repair the damage of failing to live by the Christian faith that we are all created in the image of God and that we are all beloved children of God.”

Diocesan leaders in New York stressed that the March 25 service of apology and subsequent reparations efforts could only happen after the diocese laid the foundation for racial healing over nearly two decades.

The diocese created its Reparations Committee in 2006 in response to a series of resolutions passed that year by the 75th General Convention. One General Convention resolution had asked dioceses to study their historic complicity in the slave trade. Another called on Congress to study “proposals for monetary and non-monetary reparations to the descendants of the victims of slavery.”

The Reparation Committee’s work expanded in 2018 with the launch of what was to be a three-year initiative. It began with a Year of Lamentation featuring events that grappled with examples of racial injustice in the diocese’s history. In November 2019, the diocesan convention committed $1.1 million from its endowment to support future recommendations of the Reparations Committee, later renamed the Reparations Commission.

“It is a privilege to me to be able to speak a work of encouragement and support for the work that you in the Episcopal Diocese of New York have done,” Curry says in his video for the service of apology, “to face into painful truths of our racial past, painful truths of our continuing struggle with racism in all of its forms and all of its manifestations.”

The diocese’s intended three-year cycle was disrupted somewhat by the pandemic, and each phase has followed its own flexible timeline, said the Rev. Richard Witt, the other Reparations Commission co-chair. Apology is the second phase, which will lead to reparation in the third phase, and rather than stop there, the diocese plans to start the cycle over again by returning to lamentation.

Some Episcopalians assumed slavery was only a Southern atrocity, Witt said, but New York was once the site of the second-largest slave market in the country, while also being involved in the financing of slave-trading through the banking industry. Additional research also found examples of congregations relying on slave labor to build church buildings.

“The benefits of that trade have come down to us,” Witt said. The apology is for “our involvement in the legacy of enslavement and how that has played out through systemic racism in our education, real estate, criminal justice – owning our role in that ongoing legacy.”

He and Copeland underscored that this service of apology doesn’t close the book on the diocese’s racial reconciliation work, but rather opens a door for further action.

“We’re going to trip and stumble and fall along the way, but the idea is to stay on the path,” Copeland said, “to move us forward to eradicating the white supremacy and oppression that has taken place in our institution.”

As part of the liturgy for the service of apology, worshippers will commit the diocese to “the ongoing work of reparations” by reciting the Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal Covenant, which calls on Jesus’ followers to “strive for justice and peace among all people” and to respect “the dignity of every human being.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at