There were far more questions than answers this week when a national gathering of black Episcopalians here attempted to assess the implications of the Christian faith for black people - specifically, black Episcopalians.
But no one complained at the lack of ready answers to the profound problems posed at the annual national gathering of the Union of Black Episcopalians at Marymount College in Arlington. About 200 persons from all over the country attended.
"We are in a protracted struggle," the Rev. Dr. Van S. Bird of Philadelphia told the group. "All liberation struggles are protracted. We must be realistic in our expectations of what can be done. You can't expect to realize the entire victory today," said the theologian, who teaches at LaSalle College in Philadelphia and is also a staff member of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.
Black Episcopalians, like black Catholics or black Presbyterians, face a set of circumstances different from members of many other black denominations because they are a minority within their own church as well as within the larger society.
Speaking of the question of identity, Bird pointed out: "We are black, we are Episcopalian and we are Christian. We need to get a firm grip and understanding on who we are before we speak out in the name of the wider black community."
The question of what it means to be a black Episcopalian pervaded much of the discussion in the theology workshop, one of the most popular in the four-day conference.
"What does it mean to be a black [parish]" within the white majority denomination, one young clergyman pondered out loud. "What does it mean musically? Can we priests preach and sometimes sound like Martin Luther King? Is there an Episcopal style of preaching?"
An older priest stressed the importance of working "within the power structure. We are Episcopalians; the majority of Episcopalians are white . . . in order to get the changes we want within the church, we've got to work within the system."
But a young mother expressed doubts. Reflecting what she indicated was a growing tension between her identity as an Episcopalian and her identity as a black person, she said, "I was raised an Episcopalian but the Episcopal Church is different from other black churches . . . I don't think black Episcopalians are responsive to the cause of black America."
The union of black Episcopalians, which includes bishops, clergy and lay people, was organized in 1968, but a black caucus in one form or another has existed within the church since the turn of the century, according to the Rev. Richard L. Tolliver, rector of St. Timothy's Church here, who acted as dean of the conference.
Tolliver summarized the central problem faced by blacks in the Episcopal Church as "the need to redistribute decision-making power so that there is definite minority participation in policy determinations."
He also believes that if these problems can be solved within the church then "the church can help teach our society that to give up illegitimate control over others and to enter into trusting equal relationships is the only viable road toward an effective solution to our society's racial problems."
Other workshops at the conference dealt with economic development, political strategies for the black community and public education.