Episcopal, Anglican leaders of African descent confront contemporary challenges during 2024 International Black Clergy Conference

Posted Apr 12, 2024

Panama Bishop Julio Murray blesses a group of young adult children of clergy who are no longer active in church after they participated in an April 10 panel discussion addressing how churches can effectively reach out to younger people and serve them. The panel discussion was a highlight of the 2024 International Black Clergy Conference, which took place April 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Sandye Wilson

[Episcopal News Service] To attract and retain young parishioners, Episcopal churches need to fully live up to the saying, “all are welcome,” Kayla Byrd said during an April 10 panel discussion at the 2024 International Black Clergy Conference. “What actions are you and your congregation taking when it comes to going out into the community to bring up young adults and being genuinely inclusive?”

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘hey, we want young people to come to our church and be a part of our ministry.’ But the ministry or the worship might not speak to young people to the extent that we feel passionate when we go to church,” Kayla Byrd told Episcopal News Service in an April 11 interview. “At my dad’s church, I knew that I could ask questions. However, other churches aren’t necessarily like that, but instead have a butts-in-pews mentality and don’t preach with energy and passion. I want to leave church every week knowing that I’m getting the right message and feeling energized and ready to go do my own evangelism.”

The Rev. Ronald C. Byrd, the church’s missioner for African Descent Ministries, whose office organized the conference, is also Kayla Byrd’s father. 

Some 160 Episcopal and Anglican bishops, priests, deacons and guests from across the African diaspora attended the triennial International Black Clergy Conference April 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland. 

During the conference, which took place at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards, participants discussed conditions affecting Afro-Anglican ministry and witness, including the closure of historically Black churches and gentrification. The discussions reflected this year’s theme, “Unshakeable Faith in Troubled Times,” which reflects II Corinthians 5-7: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

“Having unshakable faith means that we need to hold on and embrace the beauty of these folks who were African who helped to shape and carve out Christianity as we know it,” the Rev. Michael Battle, founder of the PeaceBattle Institute and theologian-in-community at Trinity Church Boston in Massachusetts, told ENS. “But we never would know these African theologians unless we lift the veil … and those of African descent always need to figure out how to be more than the sum of our parts, which to me is the image of God.”

The PeaceBattle Institute offers consulting services on peacemaking and forgiveness. As theologian-in-community, Battle advises church leaders on how to advocate theologically for social justice around culture and race.

During an April 9 discussion on “theological framework,” Battle listed some African theologians who made significant contributions to contemporary Christianity but who remain relatively obscure in modern theological discussions: St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Pachomius the Great. These three theologians are considered monasticism contemporaries today.

“The goal with the International Black Clergy Conference is to meet with those we’ve known before and meet new clergy we’ve never met before,” the Rev. Jemonde Taylor, rector of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, a historically Black parish in Raleigh, North Carolina, told ENS. “Hopefully, those bonds of affection will continue to grow long after the conference.”

Taylor helped lead a discussion on climate change and environmental justice on April 9.  

“We must ask God and be with God to continue moving our steps forward as we continue to dream of a new Episcopal Church in the 21st century,” the Rev. Ronald C. Byrd told ENS. “We must continue to be able to provide spiritual needs and to always remind people that we can trust in a loving and capable God.”

The Rev. Ronald C. Byrd said he was particularly excited about the April 10 panel discussion of young adult children of clergy who are no longer active in church addressing how churches can effectively reach out to younger people and serve them.

A group of young adult children of clergy who are no longer active in church participated in an April 10 panel discussion addressing how churches can effectively reach out to younger people and serve them. The panel discussion was a highlight of the 2024 International Black Clergy Conference, which took place April 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Sandye Wilson

Kayla Byrd told the panel attendees that churches can attract and retain younger congregants by being intentional about serving them by preaching from the Bible, rather than about the Bible. This means fully living up to the saying “all are welcome” and making conscientious efforts to support everyone within the communities they build.

“Don’t be afraid to be real and draw analogies of current issues and correlations with the Bible and showing how the Bible is relevant now,” she said. “You say you are inclusive and serve the LGBTQ+ community, but do you state your pronouns when you’re having a conversation or when you send an email? And do you respect other people’s pronouns? These actions are a small way of saying, ‘I hear you. I understand you. I see you.’”

Kayla Byrd said the last time she went to a church and felt the “energy and genuine effort to build a welcoming community” was during an Easter worship service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Michigan, when Missouri Bishop Deon K. Johnson was rector.

Johnson, who was elected bishop of Missouri in November 2019, celebrated the Eucharist during the conference’s evening worship service after the April 10 panel discussion. Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean Brown preached. The day before, Chicago Bishop Paula Clark celebrated the Eucharist and Arkansas Bishop John T.W. Harmon preached during evening worship.

Daily worship services included liturgies from across the African diaspora, including Ethiopia, Botswana, the West Indies and other countries and regions. One of the Eucharist services was bilingual in French and English as an homage to Haiti. Musicians from St. Ambrose performed a variety of music genres reflecting the African diaspora’s diversity, including African American spirituals, jazz and reggae.

The Rev. Ronald C. Byrd said the liturgies and music were “carefully thought out and planned” for the International Black Clergy Conference.

“It’s our music, and in some ways it’s much different from a white, colonized Episcopal Church,” he said. “This is what lifts us up. This is what gives us energy. This is the way in which we praise and worship God, and we make a joyful noise in praise of the almighty one and his son, Jesus Christ.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.


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