Friday, January 31, 2014

My proposal to add Charles Gillette to "Holy Women, Holy Men"

The Rev. Dr. Charles Gillette, missionary
I’ve been preaching a lot recently on the theme of how our stories shape us. We come together every Sunday to tell the story of Jesus Christ. Our telling of the story of our savior shapes us in big ways, and sometimes subtly.

There are other stories we also tell.

You may not know this, but the Episcopal Church has a calendar of saints, although we think of these individuals a little differently than some other churches. They don’t have to done anything miraculous, but they are people whose stories still inspire us.

Many of these “saints” were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Some you have heard of – like Martin Luther King Jr. – and others you might not be as familiar with, like Absalom Jones (1746-1818), the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church.

We add people to our calendar by a vote of our General Convention, the highest elected body in the Episcopal Church, which meets every three years. Among its duties is to consider nominations for the calendar called “Holy Women, Holy Men.”

I mention this because I’ve been recently promoting an individual who I believe deserves to on the calendar. I came across this story during my sabbatical last year. Let me tell you about the Rev. Dr. Charles Gillette (1811-1869).

He was a graduate of the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1843, and became a missionary in Texas, where he founded several schools and churches.

During the Civil War, the Rev. Gillette stood courageously in favor of keeping the Episcopal Church unified and stood against slavery. He came into conflict with his bishop, Alexander Gregg, who was a fervent supporter of the Confederacy. When their conflict became public, Gillette’s congregation convinced him he was in mortal danger, and so he fled north to Ohio. After the war, he became the General agent of the Episcopal Church’s effort to build churches for the freed slaves, and was instrumental in establishing schools in Virginia and North Carolina. He died suddenly on March 6, 1869 (thus I have proposed March 6 as his feast day).

Recently, I sponsored a resolution at our Diocesan Council that would have petitioned General Convention to consider adding Gillette to the calendar on March 6. The Council voted to refer my proposal to the diocesan Committee on Race and Reconciliation. I will keep you posted on how this goes.

As we look back through the mist of time, the idea has settled upon us that the split between North and South was inevitable, and that the split in the Episcopal Church was inevitable, and maybe that was so.

But at the time, the war and divisions of that war, did not seem inevitable to everyone. It did not seem certain to everyone. One of those who believed the Church needed to stand in unity was Charles Gillette.

Splitting the church was a close call. When the Diocese of Texas met in convention in 1861, it was a tie vote whether to split from the Episcopal Church. The tie was broken by the vote of the bishop.

Charles Gillette stood for unity in the church, and he stood steadfastly throughout the war. He also believed that it was a sin for human beings to own other human beings – slavery – and he was chastised for not standing with those who were defending slavery. He stood against the prevailing wind, at threat to his life. After the war, he tried to do something, however small, to wipe clean that stain by helping build schools for the freed slaves here in Virginia.

My proposal to add Gillette to the calendar is not about looking for bad guys or finding scapegoats. We don’t get to rewrite history. But this should be about remembering those who stood with courage and faith despite the odds. Charles Gillette is one of those individuals whose story deserves to be told because he stood bravely against the winds of war.

1 comment:

Nelliesgrampa said...

Jim, It's my understanding (from Ecclesiastical History 3) that during the General Convention which fell during the Civil War, the Secretary of Convention called the roll of ALL the dioceses, despite the secession from the Union of several of the states. Can we still commemorate Gillette at St. Paul's on 6 March?