The Black Christ

I first encountered the work of Richard Mammana back when I was researching the Society of Saint John the Evangelist — a community of monks that had captured my attention and of which I eventually became a member. His website, “Project Canterbury” (anglicanhistory.org), contained an incredible amount of archival material not only about SSJE, but also about other out-of-print Anglican books, pamphlets, documents, and historical records. Richard is an author, archivist, and book reviewer, as well as a member of Saint Clement’s Church in Philadelphia — a church of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that was once under the care of SSJE in the late 1800s. His essay, “The Black Christ of Stamford, CT,” recently captured my attention as it highlighted the work of SSJE in Boston’s Beacon Hill, as well as our relationship with artist Allan Crite. The following is an excerpt from that piece. You can read the full essay here. – Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE


Richard Mammana

In my early twenties, just after college, I happened upon a small urban Anglo-Catholic church in New England where I worshiped for a necklace of Sundays over two years that were happier than I ever knew. A handful of dedicated Poles and WASPs were nearly invisible in a congregation of people of deep faith and strong hearts from the West Indies, and I was invited onto the vestry to break the tie among grandmothers from Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts, British Honduras, and the Virgin Islands. With my Bahamian American wife, I knelt week after week with tears in my eyes after communion because we were already worshiping in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Although I live in a theological world, I am not a theologian. I am a bibliographer and a worshiper and an historian, and so it is through books and kneeling that I have sought over two decades to know more about the Anglo-Catholicism of people of African descent. I wanted to know how their Anglo-Catholicism in the Boston-Washington corridor came to be in the many referential poles of Anglicanism, so I set about listening and reading.

One pole that emerged quickly is the work of the Cowley Fathers — the Society of Mission Priests of S John the Evangelist or SSJE— long the most doctrinally severe, the most abstemiously poor, the most abjectly Prayer Book-loyal marines of Anglican monasticism. They memorized the Coverdale Psalter, fought malaria, and went virtually anywhere they were called to teach that the Incarnation of the Son of God had obliterated race as a category of human division.

The Cowley Fathers are misunderstood as a conservative order in the diverse constellation of Anglican communities. They have always instead been both profoundly traditional and bafflingly radical. Some sign of this is one of my favorite photographs of Anglo-Catholic life, taken in Boston in the late 1890s, when Richard Meux Benson was about to lose his sight. He is seated, surrounded by African Americans ready to play ball, a rood screen and two of his Cowley brethren in the background. Everyone in the photograph is his own best self: Fr. Benson glowing with prayer and presence, the boys about to begin their lives in a precarious century in which their very rights to personhood would be challenged at every step. They are unsullied by a world that cannot break any of them.

It was in this milieu of Bostonian Anglo-Catholicism that Allan Rohan Crite was born, and where he showed generations of waning Brahmins a Black Christ surrounded by seraphim and apostles of the same color. Crite’s series of Black Madonnas at local mass transit stations and retellings of stories from first century Palestine in urban African American settings are among the most exciting things to come out of English-speaking religious art in the twentieth century.

Episcopalians did not know what to do with Crite, but the Cowley Fathers did. The Protestant Episcopal Church instituted its own sacramental drinking fountain segregation through the propagation of intinction rather than a shared cup with increasing frequency as parishes were racially integrated after the Second World War. It looked and felt like congregational inclusion, but actually sipping from the same drinking vessel was a bridge too far, and so polite people opted for a dip rather than a sip. It was more hygienic; it had been approved during the Spanish Flu; there are all sorts of germs out there, people said.

Against such a background, the SSJE put Crite’s work everywhere they could: in missals, prayer cards, postcards, service leaflets, tracts, books, posters, birthday cards, Christmas cards, ordination cards, woodblock prints. They forced the white eye to see the Black Christ from about the 1940s to the 1970s with a kind of intensity one does not expect for the places and the periods. But they themselves were in awe of Crite’s Christ because he had caught the same vision they guarded with holy jealousy.

If a history of Anglo-Catholicism can be written, it must claim again these peculiar and powerful expressions from Boston’s South End and from the Afro-Caribbean. It must know about them at all to begin with. It must wrestle with the truth that the books are not in footnotes, that the art is out of circulation, that the history right now is still largely oral and notional, and that the transatlantic dimensions of it have not begun to be explored.

Some of this work is archival, and I am committed to that in little ways. In archives as elsewhere, the dismantling axe for racism — of omission or commission — comes from the forest itself. Some greater part of it is I suspect relational, and that is the fun of it: sitting next to women of a certain age in hats at coffee hour (and it is almost always women) and just listening.

9 Comments

  1. Kay Evans+, SCHC on December 20, 2023 at 15:37

    Allan Crite’s mother was a member of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross,
    and we are honored to have in our Adelynrood Chapel of the Holy Cross
    his beautiful illustrations of the Way of the Cross. Adelynrood is a summer retreat and conference
    center in Byfield (Newbury), MA, open May – September — just5 miles from SSJE Emery House! —
    and all are invited to come and see these Allan Crite paintings and worship with us.

  2. Will Mebane on December 20, 2023 at 15:31

    My interest in this article was initially prompted by the reference to “The Black Christ.” However, the explanation of intinction as an extension of segregation proved to be of even greater importance.

  3. carol carlson on December 20, 2023 at 14:34

    Thank you so much for this article. Long a fan of both SJE and Allan Crite, I’m so glad to have the article to share with others in my congregation. (One also thinks of the heroic service of SSJE in its early years among the other ‘lower classes’ of England too.)
    We would prescind a little from associating intinction too closely with racial segregation: in my small parish what we wanted to segregate ourselves from was COVID (there ARE lots of germs out there – shades of the ‘Spanish’ flu!), and still have communion; so we began to have the priest (masked and gloved) intinct each wafer from the same cup and hand it to each communicant. It may lack the extreme intimacy of the sipped-from cup, but it enabled as much communion as was feasible for 2 years, and we have stuck with it (post-masks and gloves) because of its efficiency and closeness to the traditional praxis. The medical personnel in the parish are solidly behind it, as the viruses wax and wane; the only objections have come from one or two of those ladies of a certain age (without the hats)…..

  4. Randy LaRosa on December 20, 2023 at 12:51

    Makes me very proud of being a part of the SSJE Fellowship since the early 1980s.
    Thank you for this article.

  5. Janet Hobbs on December 20, 2023 at 11:51

    Thank you for publishing this article. Alan Rohan Crite’s work is very powerful and it is so good that the Cowley Fathers recognized his work showing a Black Christ and published his work in various forms for people to contemplate. It is also good that his work is being recognized by Governor Healey who has hung two of his paintings in the State House.

  6. George Bond on December 20, 2023 at 10:58

    Thank you. Conservative and radical are a good mix. My comment is not on this piece but rather on the concept of a “White” Christ starting with paintings in Europe by renaissance painters in snow covered stalls. Jesus was an Arab or Semite banned, it was hoped, by the trump administration. Knowing this I have no problem with a Black Jesus. Again thanks for an interesting and informative article

    • Sally Baynton on December 20, 2023 at 18:23

      Hello George…I am asking a very sincere question here. What does it mean when you write; “Jesus was an Arab or Semite banned, it was hoped, by the trump administration. I am showing a lot of ignorance here, but I am seeking to understand everything that Jesus is. I would love to know your thoughts on this. If you don’t mind. And, please understand this question does NOT come with a political “gotcha.” I am a student of my Savior. This is, sadly, all new to me.

  7. Sam Davis on December 20, 2023 at 10:29

    Thank you very much for publishing Richard Mammana’s article. As a lifelong Episcopalian and former civil rights worker, I knew nothing of the Ango-Catholic tradition and the participation in it by Black members from the West Indies. Mr. Mamma an enlightened me about another fact: the use of intention as a means for sharing the cup among those of different races. Having begun intimating during the COVID pandemic, I will now return to sharing the cup with greater intent.

  8. Dianne (Smith) Poole on December 20, 2023 at 10:24

    A magnificent mural by Alan Crite is located in the lower level Sunday School room at Grace Church. Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard.

Leave a Comment