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Sermon for Bishop Guerry Sunday

Jun 28, 2020

Passage: Isaiah 61:1-4

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year A (2019-2020)


Sermon for Bishop Guerry Sunday (2020)
April 26th, 2020
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Online)
Morning Prayer



Isaiah 61:1-4 Acts 7:54-60 Luke 12:2-8

They shall build up the ancient ruins…they shall repair the ruined cities.

...It is good to be back here, so thank you to Michael, Callie, Caleb, Bryce, and all the people of Grace for inviting me to be here on this special day of observance…and reclamation.

I say reclamation because for many years, the memory of Bishop Guerry was essentially glossed over and whitewashed. Growing up in this diocese, I never heard Bishop Guerry’s name mentioned. Or if I did, it was just as an historical figure of no particular interest. It was only recently, thanks to the efforts of our Chancellor, Tom Tisdale, that I came to learn more about Bishop Guerry’s story. And I soon began to understand why Bishop Guerry’s story was once only whispered behind closed doors.  

If you look back at how Bishop Guerry was remembered in this diocese for roughly eight decades after his death in 1928, you’ll see that he was remembered as a good bishop; a capable administrator who helped the diocese nearly double its membership during his 20 years as bishop. You’ll see that he was remembered as a faithful servant of the gospel whose academic talents won him respect both within the diocese and the wider church. You may find it mentioned that Bishop Guerry was progressive in his theology and believed in what is called the “social gospel.” You may find that he was devoted to the idea of reconciliation and Christian unity. And you may find that Bishop Guerry was instrumental in the founding of Voorhees College and that he tried, unsuccessfully, to appoint an African American suffragan bishop to serve the African American churches of the diocese. But you’ll also find that when his death is mentioned, all it says is that he was shot in his office by a deranged priest named Joseph Herbert Woodward who then committed suicide, and that Bishop Guerry died of his wounds four days later in Roper Hospital. In the description of his death, you won’t find any mention of the connection between Woodward and Guerry. Nor will you find anything that suggests that Bishop Guerry was a martyr.  

If you’re wondering, “Why should this be?” I suggest that it’s because Bishop Guerry, like most of the martyrs in their day, was dangerous. And the way we usually deal with the memory of dangerous people is to sanitize their story. We turn them into either mildly virtuous heroes of gentility  or eccentric geniuses who wound up being victims of random circumstance. Only rarely do we admit that they are people whose example WE should follow. Because we know that to follow them is to court danger. 

Joseph Herbert Woodward saw the danger that Bishop Guerry posed. In a pamphlet decrying Bishop Guerry’s plan to introduce an African American suffragan, Woodward described the attempt as “a nefarious scheme against the social order of the South,” and that if it succeeded, it would “make the angels weep.” In one particularly bitter passage, Woodward lamented that, “Bishop Guerry has already shown that he believes in using the church for the Reconstruction of Society,” and likened Guerry’s efforts to the threatening movements of a venomous snake. That was what Guerry’s eventual assassin thought of him. He was dangerous. 

And for far too long in this diocese, Guerry’s memory was treated as dangerous. Dangerous in that it might cause others to stand for what he stood for. Dangerous in that it might cause others to question the way things were. Dangerous in that the people in power might be called to share their power with others once considered unworthy. Dangerous in that it might mean that faithful Christians would have to tear down the structures of oppression and rebuild from the ruins a community based on God’s love for ALL. It’s no wonder that it’s only recently that we’ve begun to reclaim Bishop Guerry’s memory as something truly worthy of remembrance. 

But here is where Bishop Guerry’s story meets ours with a renewed demand for US to court danger. To say that Bishop Guerry was a perfect champion of justice would be to unnecessarily romanticize him. He was, after all, a man very much of his own age. He was a Southern white man - an aristocrat of sorts - who benefitted from the privileges of his station. And he can be criticized for not being vocal enough or for not being strident enough in his work for equality. But he WAS willing to court danger; to strive, however imperfectly, to make the world more just; to risk being thought of as an agitator so that people might understand the moral implications of the gospel for Christians in society.  

And that’s where we are. We are in the midst of a moment where WE are being asked to consider once again what the gospel means not just for us personally but for us as members of society at large. We are being asked how WE can help tear down the structures of power which have oppressed people of color for centuries. We are being asked how we can help rebuild the ruins left to us by those centuries. There is no guarantee that we will get it right or that we will be judged by history as having done the best job possible. But we can make an effort, however imperfect. We can court that danger. We can run the risk of dreaming for better world and doing something about it. To use the words of the prophet Isaiah, instead of cringing in fear with a faint spirit, we can put on the mantle of praise and be glad that we are alive at such a time as this.

But it is dangerous. And it is uncomfortable. Because it means that in our life of faith, pious platitudes must give way to concrete action. As Bishop Guerry himself knew, it is one thing to talk about equality, and another to risk your pride by listening to someone whose voice has not been heard. And so, I would encourage you all, over the coming days and weeks, to reach out to someone whose voice you have not truly heard, whose story you may not have been aware of. You may discover that in hearing their voice, you hear the gospel demand our your life in a new way. You may discover that you have a role to play in repairing the ruined cities. In the words of Bishop Guerry, you may discover that “Our high calling under God is to burn away the barriers which divide us, to allay prejudice, to strengthen the ties which bind brother to brother and section to section, and to make of this great land one free people.”


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