The Complement of Sacramentalism

Many thanks to Ferris Blount for his nuanced discussion of the Black Church, and especially his reminder that the Black Church is anything but monolithic. Indeed, I see extraordinary diversity, from the relatively dignified African Methodist Episcopal Church to the rollicking expressions characteristic of Pentecostalism. When I taught in New York City, one of my favorite places on a Sunday morning was the storied Abyssinian Baptist Church, and I shall never forget Pastor Elder Andre Ramsey and his congregation of the True Bibleway Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, in Natchez, Mississippi, memorably captured in the first episode of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

I was particularly struck by Mr. Blount’s statement that “the historical mistreatment and marginalization of African-Americans can explain how many Black Jesus followers have understood that to follow Jesus means working towards the liberation of all those who are oppressed, particularly Black people.” I guess I’d like to add that this tradition of advocacy in the Black Church dates to the days of slavery, when the Black preacher served as spokesman for slaves for the simple reason that other avenues of leadership within the slave community simply were not available.

This circumstance has reverberated through the decades, the centuries. It explains why, for example, until very recently the Black Congressional Caucus consisted primarily of ordained ministers (Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, would be the most recent and prominent example). Also, while white evangelicals for most he the twentieth century dithered about whether they should engage in politics, Black churches simply didn’t have the luxury of remaining politically or socially somnolent.

And, as Mr. Blount points out, is it any wonder, given the history of suffering that African Americans have endured, that the Black Church is inordinately sensitive to the suffering of others? Christians of all stripes could learn a lot from the Black Church.

While I recognize the importance and the centrality of music and preaching in the Black Church, as an Episcopal priest I’d like to recommend a more salubrious sacramental theology and practice – and, to be fair, I’d probably offer the same suggestion to most of my Christian sisters and brothers in other traditions as well, Catholics and Orthodox excepted. The reason I make that suggestion here is that a robust appreciation for the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, invites the faithful to transcend worldly cares and commune with the Almighty in an almost mystical way. For a people who far too often live with “their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman said, I believe that a healthy sacramentalism would serve as a worthy complement to the hallmarks of the Black Church: music, the sermon, and social action.

I acknowledge the presumption of my suggestion, and for that I apologize. The Black Church has its own traditions and integrity; it has flourished for centuries without my help! Still, as someone whose spiritual life has been enriched immeasurably by a robust sacramentalism, my evangelical self cannot help but recommend it to others.

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