The Presenting Issue 50 Years Ago

By John B. Chilton

Fifty years ago the consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, were taking hold and racial tensions were high. This was certainly true in the State of Virginia. And the Diocese of Virginia. So, as is often the case with a divisive issue, the matter was referred to a commission. In January 1959 the Council of the Diocese of Virginia passed a resolution forming a Racial Study Commission charged with investigating racial problems within the Church. The commission had 30 members, equal numbers lay and clergy, three women, three blacks, a geographic balance, and with a representation of views from across the spectrum. Its report, The Race Problem and the Church, was submitted to Council the following year.

One section of the report seems especially germane to the presenting issue of today:

The Last Six Years

In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that public schools could not be segregated on the basis of race. The effects of this decision in the State of Virginia and within the area of our Diocese are known to all. Certain of these effects on the life of our Church require mention here.

We are acutely aware that every position taken by Church members in the political, legal and social struggle revolving around the public school issue is reflected within the life of our Diocese. We have tried to consider frankly the resulting fears, accusations and points of view. We believe that there are deep problems within the life of our Diocese. Primary among these is the deterioration of communication, not only between the races but also within the white race, where friends have ceased to discuss racial matters with other friends whom they know to take an opposing point of view.

“Lack of communication” is a hackneyed phrase but no other seems to do so well. By it we mean that often there exists an unwillingness or reluctance or inability to discuss. Lack of communication may also involve the conscious or unconscious lack of knowledge of facts. It likewise may be due to fear of scorn, ridicule or bitterness. We feel that lack of communication is a serious hindrance to the solution of many of our present difficulties in regard to racial matters.

Frequently, actions of the Council are not adequately communicated to the laity throughout the Diocese. As an illustration, many lay people were unaware that all distinctions of race were removed from the Constitution and Canons by the Council in 1949. In addition there has been division between laity and clergy, accentuated by resolutions and letters to newspapers. There have been assertions that the “authorities of the Diocese” are trying to lead us toward integration. There have been pronouncements and actions by the National Council which disturbed Church members in Virginia. Fear has been expressed by some white people that an effort was under way to abolish Negro congregations, leaving only white congregations with which the Negroes might worship. There has been a deep-seated fear that bringing whites and Negroes together will eventually lead to intermarriage.

We have examined, studied and discussed each of these and many other problems which have been brought to our attention. We have sought to understand what the Negro wants, his humiliation, his hurts, and his struggles – as interpreted to us by the Negro members of this Commission. In the sections that follow we state a few of the conclusions that we have reached.

(The Race Problem and the Church, pp. 19-20)

As the Commission underscores elsewhere in its report, while its members formed genuine bonds of affection and respect, the Commission remained deeply divided – a division that existed in the Diocese as a whole. It made few recommendations, and fewer firm ones. Given its composition it would be surprising if it were otherwise,

One area in which it did take a position was Church camp and conference centers, and there it advocated a retreat, perhaps reflecting blowback from the 1954 public school desegregation order. Certainly, a majority of the Commission concluded that the Diocese’s Department of Christian Education had gotten out ahead of the Diocese. The result was a compromise that called for segregated and desegregated camps and conferences. Again, from the report:

Camps and Conferences

We have given thorough consideration to the development of the policy of racial desegregation at the Camps and Conferences conducted under the auspices of the Department of Christian Education in our Diocese. We find that there is wide disagreement on what is best for the total life of the Diocese in the matter.

While the authority for determining how the facilities at Shrine Mont and Roslyn may be used, rests in autonomous bodies, the Council does determine policy as to Diocesan Camps and Conferences. Therefore, we respectfully submit the following recommendation to the Council:

We have found with great sorrow that at this time there are deep differences among us about the desegregation of Diocesan Camps and Conferences. Some of us feel desegregation was a step forward, others that it was a step backward. Still others feel that the change was made in a way that evoked deep and serious misunderstandings that have injured the unity of the Diocese. In the solidarity of Christian brotherhood, therefore, and with real suffering on all sides, we recommend that both segregated and desegregated Camps and Conferences be provided at this time. We are aware of the difficulties of administration that such a policy presents, but we believe it can be done on an alternating basis if necessary. This recommendation is motivated by a genuine concern for all of the children of the Diocese.

(The Race Problem and the Church, pp. 26-27.)

Despite that recommendation, camps and conferences were not re-segregated. And, with the passage of time, racial concerns in the Diocese subsided. They have not entirely disappeared, and the work of racial reconciliation continues although with ebbs and flows.

This episode in the history of the Diocese of Virginia is an object lesson for the church. In the years that followed, external and internal forces have created new divisive issues in the church with which we are familiar: women’s ordination, prayer book revision, same-sex marriage, and gay bishops. Parallels are there to ponder. Fear. Mistrust of bishops or of the national church. The pain of dialog. The friendships that can result in spite of deep differences. And despite engagement and listening, the flawed compromises that can result.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist on a busman’s holiday. He has taught at the University of Western Ontario, the University of South Carolina and the American University of Sharjah. He is keeper of The Emirates Economist, a weblog on economic events in the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf.

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