Martyr Bishop Guerry: A Personal Connection

Sue Cavanaugh

My Story by Sue Cavanaugh

I first heard the name Bishop William Alexander Guerry in 2014 when “Truth in Cold Blood,” a play written by Chancellor Thomas Tisdale of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, was performed at the Dock Street Theater.
A year later while serving as a lay member on the Diocesan Council of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, I came to a fuller knowledge of Bishop Guerry when it was proposed that a Sunday in June be set aside to honor a modern-day martyr of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Guerry spoke against cruel and inhumane Jim Crow laws. He was killed in his office.

An article in the June 8, 2013, Charleston Post and Courier stated:
“Guerry was one of the few Southern bishops who supported the Social              Gospel, according to Episcopal Church archives. Among issues that angered  the murderous priest was Guerry’s support for installing a black bishop to minister to black parishioners as a way to keep both races under the same church umbrella, Tisdale said. “He was looking for ways to keep African-Americans in the church,” Tisdale said. “It was very controversial and was a lot of the reason the priest who shot him became so enraged.”

From the first time I heard the story of Bishop Guerry, I began to want the same thing he had given his life for. I was moved to take a larger part in the cause of Racial Justice. Watching “Traces of the Trade” surrounded by both black and white people was a turning point for me. In a post-viewing discussion, hearing the hurt in the voices of those black Christians whom I knew personally, I became convicted to do more.

My study of Bishop Guerry has led me to embrace the words he spoke at a meeting of provincial church leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1909: “We should strive for unity, not uniformity.  Uniformity is mechanical, barren, unfruitful, and unprofitable. Unity is organic, living, and capable of endless growth. If we are to be truly catholic, as Christ himself is catholic, then we must have a church broad enough to embrace within its communion every living human soul.”

It was hard witnessing the unjust treatment of my father’s friends in the Jim Crow South. To an extent I am like my father. I see injustice, but have mostly been too introverted to step forward and speak out against these things.

That is until in my 60s when I realized that just embracing and supporting my black friends and giving money to causes was not enough. I had to overcome my shyness and speak out, if not by words, then by my actions. Maybe it is not much, but for me it is a beginning.

My parish was tasked with hosting the 2018 Diocesan Convention for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. I realized that no one was stepping forward to serve as Committee Chairman. I approached my Sr. Warden (we were without a priest at the time) and said I would serve as Convention Committee Chairman provided the Diocesan leadership would agree to Calvary Episcopal Church and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church—two historically black churches founded in the 1840s as was Church of the Holy Communion and located close geographically—equally sharing with my parish as hosts. This was my way of saying, if our Diocese is going to hold Bishop Guerry up as the standard for our vision and goals of racial justice, then we need to “put our money where our mouth is.”

It was not until the mid-20th century that Bishop Guerry’s vision for the Episcopal Church was realized with a fully equal place within the Christian community for black parishes. Yet, 50 years had come and gone and no black parish, to my knowledge, had ever hosted a diocesan convention. It is true that most Black Episcopal churches in our diocese have small congregations and limited facilities. By sharing hosting duties, this was the first time that a historically black parish was in an equal partnership as Host of the annual convention.

It is important for Bishop Guerry’s vision and work to progress. It is important that he did not give his life in vain for the furtherance of an equal and accepting Church.

If things are going to change in the Episcopal Church in the Low Country of South Carolina, that change has to begin somewhere. Black congregations equally co-hosting the annual diocesan convention with my White congregation was a beginning. I am thankful that it began with me.

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Sue Cavanaugh
Laity, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina
Member, SCCAC Racial Justice and Healing Working Group
Judicatory Representative on Board of Directors SCCAC