It’s not easy for the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers to let big conversations pass her by.

Of course, as the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, and as an acclaimed author in her own right, entering the theological fray from her distinct perspective as a woman of color in Episcopal leadership is not just her job—it’s a God-given calling.

Her most recent book is The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community (Church Publishing, 2021), a word to The Episcopal Church in particular—but indeed for the bulk of dominant, white American Christianity—a word born out of the upheavals of 2020 and beyond. There was the onset of the pandemic. There was George Floyd and so many others. And in spite of lockdowns and quarantines and disruptions, there was a big national and church-wide conversation beginning. As so many Americans reached out to their loved ones for support, to show care, and to stay sane, Spellers got to talking with a few of her sisters in ministry, other women facing similar challenges in their leadership roles in the Church.

While Spellers and her colleagues communicated via Zoom and text messages, there was another sister whose voice kept coming through another medium. In praying over scripture, Spellers kept hearing the voice of this other sister, as she recounts in the introduction to her book. “Casting about, searching for God’s leading, my eye kept landing on one biblical image: a brazen woman with an alabaster jar full of costly, scented nard in her hands.” Despite the protestations of the disciples, the woman goes on to break her jar of precious ointment over Jesus’ feet in an act of love and sacrifice.

This evocative scene became Spellers’ watchword as she processed and prayed and wrote her way through our country’s own breaking open. “It was an exhausting time. I still feel tired from what it took to write this book and get it out. I started the research almost two years ago and wrote it about a year and a half ago. There were so many conversations I was a part of, that we were all having. What is church? What is America? What is the meaning of Black life, the lives of people of color? It was so fundamental, so real, that I couldn’t not go there.”

‘Sometimes it takes disruption and loss to break us open and turn us back to God’


But what exactly has been disrupted, lost, and cracked? What jar had been broken open and what oil poured out? Spellers’ experience and instinct told her that the Church—her church—was facing its own reckoning: Episcopalians—more than any other American denomination—had advanced and complied in the causes of white cultural domination and the exploitative project of empire. Her research proved her right, showing that in instance after instance, Episcopalians chose a strategy of assimilation every time it encountered a new group. Relative to other Christian groups, like Baptists and Methodists, Episcopalians were “overall more hesitant to engage the public or to venture beyond their founders’ Euro-tribal identities, cultural preferences, aesthetics, and worship styles.”

“I don’t think these churches always intended to exclude non-dominant groups and cultures,” writes Spellers. “When you love something—especially something bound up with the sacred—it’s difficult to imagine why anybody else would not love it, too. In that model, segregation is nearly inevitable.”

For a time, early in the pandemic, the church called antiquated, declining, and irrelevant by its critics was suddenly adapting. Clergy pivoted to offering new forms of worship suitable for communities gathering online. Laypeople stepped into new leadership roles. Churches proclaimed in word, deed, and banners on fences that Black lives mattered, and they began examining and confessing the sins of white supremacy in their own naves. It was a time of cracking open that engendered new ways of worship, thinking, doing—and taking a hard look at our world and our church.

But how long before those cracks are simply patched up and painted over? “The moment we’re in has changed since that summer partially because of the backlash around race. There are folks who are still determined to continue to tell lies about America. They need for that America to still exist. They need for white supremacy to not be at the heart of our common life. They need to believe that white supremacy or empire is not at the heart of our Episcopal common life. They need to shore up the institution so that they feel safe.”

Spellers continued, “I think folk who have been around know how to wait out a movement. That’s the reality. There are folks in the system who know how to re-colonize. As soon as we start to see things clearly, they know how to pull the curtain back across once again.”

Spellers recognizes the dangerous possibility that our progress will wither as we move into the nebulous, unsettled world of the ‘new normal,’ where lapsing back to ingrained systems, is comfortable for many. “If we’re not vigilant, inertia is such a force and will pull us back to the places we don’t even want to go back to,” she warns.


The remedy? At least in part, it’s about discipleship and truth-telling made possible by grace and prayer. For Spellers, the grace offered to us in Jesus is a way of being grounded in God’s love for all people. “Grace has to cover everything we do, every effort we take on.” The benefits of grace are comprehensive, setting us free in the assuredness that we ourselves—Black, white, gay, straight, queer, man, woman—can be rooted in the love of God. “Then,” says Spellers, “we can open to one another, we can be vulnerable to one another, we don’t see enemies everywhere.”

Spellers explains, the goal of the entire book is to help us detach from and be healed of white supremacy and empire—to no longer be the church or disciples of white supremacy and empire—and instead to be disciples of Jesus. It’s only when we’re disciples of Jesus that beloved community becomes possible. If we’re disciples of Jesus then we can have these conversations. “We can do the truth-telling—Lord knows Jesus told the truth!” exclaims Spellers.

Beloved Community and Education for Ministry


It was exactly this belief—that as disciples of Jesus we must be engaging in truthful conversations to form us for Beloved Community—that led to Spellers’ book being adopted as one of the 2021-2022 Interlude texts in Education for Ministry. “The publisher, offered me the opportunity to read Stephanie’s book in manuscript. I read it in one sitting and felt that I had been cracked open by the experience. I knew this was a book I had to share with EfM,” says Karen Meridith, Executive Director of Education for Ministry, “Each two-session Interlude in the year is intended to spark deep reflection and truthful conversation in the groups, conversation that leads to further prayerful reflection on a faithful way forward. I was so happy to hear the book would be published in time for us to use it in the coming year.”

According to Spellers, EfM is a unique and extraordinary holding space for truth-telling, “The commitment that [EfM] people make is as deep as anything for most of us who went to seminary.” Spellers further expresses her hope that EfM can avoid the pitfalls that some of our traditional educational outlets fall into, which is believing that knowledge alone enables us to control, predict or be smart enough to get “this faith thing right.”

It doesn’t work that way. Instead, explains Spellers, learning and truth-telling must be grounded in prayer. “As I think about folk who do EfM—the ones with big questions, hungry minds, hungry hearts—as much as I want for them to continue reading and learning, I also hope they will be praying more: that they will ask God for what they need—ask to be centered, unscrambled, more generous, capable of solidarity, to be capable of taking risks, to have the ability to forgive.” Spellers continues “The only way I know how to get to that disciples’ path and walk it, is to ask God for the ability to walk it. You can’t think your way or read your way out of this one. But you can behave and practice and pray your way into new ways of being.”

Ideally, EfM groups—in reading this book, in all their other studies, in their prayer and theological reflection—can become what Spellers calls ‘little experiments in Beloved Community.’ Meridith believes the book fostered many ‘little experiments’ in EfM groups this year. One EfM mentor wrote to tell Meridith that her group began their meeting in prayerful reflection on a photo of Japanese kintsugi, which is the art of mending broken pottery with gold-infused resin. The mentor writes:

Our EfM group is deeply spiritual and dedicated to reconciliation. The kintsugi image was discussed in relation to the "cracking open" of the church. This is what emerged after a thorough discussion: The gold in the kintsugi of a cracked-open church is actually the burning fire of the Holy Spirit—living growing flame, not to glue the church back together but to expand it! Praise God for this wonderful book!

Spellers’ words to those who have finished the book and want to get to work? “Think and pray and be vulnerable to each other. Have your hearts broken together. Have something in yourselves cracked open, and be willing to hold that for one another. I hope people are asking, how is God cracking our church open? How is God cracking this very circle of us open? How is God cracking open our understanding of what it means to be disciples, to be Christians, to be Episcopalians? We don’t need to seek mastery—not clergy, not laypeople. We need kenosis, we need sacrifice, we need solidarity, we need love.”