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A Summer Lenten Experience

by the Rev. Amber Carswell

There’s a scene in Harry Potter where the bookish and brilliant Hermione Granger abuses her copy of Hogwarts, A History, a tome that Hermione heretofore had held in highest esteem and quoted at length. The reader (and Harry) look on with confusion as she furiously exclaims, “A Revised History of Hogwarts would be a more accurate title. Or A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School.”

 

I thought of that scene over and over when reading the book of Calvary’s history, The Great Book: Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church by Ellen Davies Rodgers. It’s 1,000 pages of history spanning from the establishment of the first Episcopal Church in West Tennessee (Immanuel out at La Grange) in 1832 and ending in the 1970s.

 

Hermione, as you Potter fans will know, was incensed that Hogwarts, A History entirely omitted any mention of an enslaved race working behind the scenes. So, too, with Calvary’s history. When I made it through the Civil War and read zero mention of slavery, I pressed on — this was a book full of primary documents and accounts, and it was, after all, a long time ago. “Maybe the source material was missing,” I thought optimistically. But when she led me through the 1960s with endless tales of vestry meetings and building upkeep and fawning descriptors of the rector and organist, when we crossed the line into 1970 without a single mention of the Civil Rights Movement or MLK or literally anything happening in Memphis outside of Calvary’s cloistered walls, I slammed the book shut in disgust. A Highly Biased and Selective History of Calvary, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the Church — Hermione was onto something here.

 

It wasn’t long after that I learned of the work of Tim Huebner, et al, and the slave yard that had operated in the shadow of our building. The history cried out to be known but hadn’t found a listener til lately.

 

History is only as true as its teller. Combine that with the Augustinian idea of original sin (#TeamAugustine represent), the concept that human nature is intrinsically flawed and driven to endless self-deception — with a theology like this, maybe a book like Calvary’s “official” history shouldn’t surprise me.

 

My world was recently shaken when I came across this study — Racism among white Christians is higher than among the nonreligious. That’s no coincidence. The whole article is worth reading. To summarize: “The results point to a stark conclusion: While most white Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans, holding racist views is nonetheless positively and independently associated with white Christian identity.”

 

Reading the whole article was an uncomfortable exercise in exploring that aforementioned capacity of self-deception, but now it was mine. “But what if I’m not a Southerner?” Still likely to be more racist. “But what if I’m liberal?” Still likely to be more racist. “But what if I’m highly educated?” One predictable step after another, my exceptions were dismantled.

 

I sat, stunned, the sharp call for a penitential Lent echoing on a sunny summer day. The old question of the scholastics was, “Can one be saved outside the church?” This flipped it on its head: can one be saved within it?

 

In our Tuesday Bible study, we read the account of Moses arguing with God. The golden calf has been made, these people can’t follow the very first rule of the ten given to them, and God’s not so much ready to wipe the slate clean as to obliterate the slate with fire. But Moses argues, like Abraham before him, for God to remember that these are not good people, but they are still God’s people. God repents.

 

And I wonder who that Moses is today, out there, arguing with the hand of God on my behalf, on Ellen Davies Rodgers’ behalf, on behalf of the entire white Christian church? Who is the Abraham who argues on behalf of finding 100, or 50, 20, or perhaps just 10 good Christians, to stay the ax from the root of the tree?

 

What is this grace beyond reckoning?


12 thoughts on “A Summer Lenten Experience”

    1. It’s a massive task, Vincent! Davies Rodgers can certainly be commended for undertaking something with such scope, if not for her historical sensibilities.

  1. Yes. We as white Christians are not “WOKE” to the travesties upon our neighbors and friends who are Black. We have to stop “trying” and spend more time listening and doing as the hands and feet of Christ. Thank you for this message.

  2. An excellent commentary. Addressing these deliberately forgotten parts of history is possible, although difficult. While it is about a different church (Second Presbyterian), I think every resident of Memphis interested in history ought to read “The Last Segregated Hour” by Stephen Haynes, which talks of how difficult it was for Memphians and Memphis churches to accept integration. (Well, I am an interfaith activist…)

    1. A fantastic recommendation. We’ve had Dr. Haynes speak at Calvary a number of times; one leaves feeling convicted and challenged. Thanks for the recommendation, Edward.

  3. Well crafted, Amber, and spot on. One of my favorite stories about Calvary is when Sherman threatened to burn it down unless the prayer for the President (the real one, Lincoln) was reinserted into the prayer section of the service. Not sure if it’s true, but I appreciate the sentiment.

    1. Yes, that story is in the book! What’s wonderful is that he knew the service so well that he belted out the appropriate section that had been omitted. Very dramatic, as you might imagine — but it’s actually lovely to think that the prayers were such a part of him that he could stand and correct our forebears.

  4. Thanks for this Amber. I often think how can I really make an impact. I put the Haynes book on my list – need the education.

  5. Thank you for sharing your clear thinking on this with us Amber. Hey, maybe it would be easier to simply retitle rather than rewrite? Could we do that with the Vestry’s blessing? Retitle “The Great Book: Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church” as “A Highly Biased and Selective History of Calvary, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the Church”. I love that!

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