A family business.
Bishop MacVean-Brown grew up in Detroit, in what she describes as “the family business of all my parents.”
“My father, Dr. Albert Brown, now deceased, was a professor of early childhood development. My mother was a public school principal and served on a reconciliation team comprised of leaders from several intentional communities of assorted denominations, including Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr, and Gene Beerens.
“My mother’s second husband and my dad, the Rev. Canon Ronald Spann*, was then rector of Episcopal Church of the Messiah, Detroit. Maybe it was by osmosis that I came by my commitment to bridging differences.”
An early call.
At about age 5, MacVean-Brown asked her mother to take her to church. Messiah Detroit was a logical choice. Her future stepfather was serving there as rector, and her mother had established Messiah Learning Center, a school for the children of Messiah and their neighborhood. It was there MacVean-Brown first heard a call to the priesthood, at age six.
Rector Spann encouraged strong lay leadership, including women, so it was commonplace for MacVean-Brown to see women assisting at the altar. Little did she know that the Episcopal Church was not yet ordaining women.
Following her studies at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MacVean-Brown began working as a commercial interior designer and became an active participant and leader in parish programs at Messiah Detroit. With consistent encouragement of parish leadership, she took on more responsibility, even through her return to school to pursue a master’s degree in art education.
By the time MacVean-Brown became certified and began teaching art to K–8th grade students, she had been elected senior-warden-in-charge at Messiah Detroit, tasked with leading the congregation through the discernment process for new ordained leadership. Her expanding role in the congregation led to formalized training through the Diocese of Michigan’s Total Ministry Team program.
MacVean-Brown was fully invested in the program, looking forward to a diocesan commission as a local priest and liturgist at Messiah Detroit with the full support of her new diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs, Jr. (Seabury-Western ’87). Soon, her path changed.
MacVean-Brown and her father, Dr. Albert Brown, had entered into a series of deep conversations about life as he was dying of cancer. Through these conversations, she developed a clear understanding that her ordained life was not meant to be lived in her local congregation. This would mean a change in the formation process she had been engaged in for more than four years, a change that required Bishop Gibbs’ blessing.
MacVean-Brown described Bishop Gibbs’ recommendation to “go to seminary and we’ll figure out the process for our new understanding,” as the first in a series of “God’s surprises”—an invitation from God to relinquish control and embrace something that wasn’t part of her plan. She suggests anyone who is considering a call be on the lookout for, and take such surprises to heart.
“Relinquishing control is part of the process of discernment and ordination,” MacVean-Brown said. “‘Will you…obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?’ Every time I’ve let go and said yes, my experience has been richer and I learn more about myself … and what I’m called to do. So it’s an oxymoron, but it’s relinquishing control that makes things more clear.”
A week after her meeting with Bishop Gibbs, MacVean-Brown enrolled in the Master of Divinity program offered collaboratively by Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit and Seabury-Western.
“I really appreciated being able to study close to home for two years, [and then be in residence in Evanston for the third year],” MacVean-Brown said. “It really was responsive [to my needs at the time] and I appreciate that Bexley Seabury has continued to … be responsive to the reality [of students’ lives] and not being stuck on a [residential] model that maybe isn’t working for us anymore in the church.”
Ministry of otherness.
As much as she looked forward to it, MacVean-Brown’s time at Seabury-Western wasn’t easy. Being Black in a sea of white faces and being pregnant, in her last trimester, was challenging. But the seminary had a bigger problem.
At an orientation gathering, a faculty member speaking about the “Lift Every Voice and Sing Hymnal” said, “The theology is not very good,” which prompted a student to ask, “How much do we have to sing their music anyway?” The professor’s dismissive critique of the hymnal and the student’s racist question went unanswered, and attention quickly turned to the next topic.
Not so for MacVean-Brown, who was deeply wounded. After meeting with her advisor, who reported the incident to the academic dean, the seminary began what MacVean-Brown described as a “pretty extensive” reconciliation process. That process stirred its own controversy, including open resistance by some students. All of which led the seminary to what became an ongoing commitment to intentional and proactive anti-racism initiatives. Still, the seminary’s failure that day was epic.
“There were people who supported me,” MacVean-Brown was quick to say. “I had a few really good classmates; they always called me by my name and not somebody else’s name. I was more than just a pregnant woman—more than the pregnant Black woman.”
MacVean-Brown named staff and other faculty members as supportive, too, through the reconciliation process, and through her time in the hospital to deliver her daughter as well as, days later, spending Christmas Day with President Jim Lemler’s family and few other people.
The seminary’s failure was a turning point for MacVean-Brown: the start of her commitment to social justice issues and inclusivity, and her first realization that “one of the implications of my ministry and my place in the church, is my being made to feel other.” She understood she was being called to a ministry of otherness—a lonely place of extreme discomfort. A place she didn’t want to be.
In her doctoral dissertation MacVean-Brown explored the importance of the ministry and leadership of Black women priests as foundational for the church to realize its aspiration to be fully inclusive. “Since then, I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities where I would be other, instead of running from it,” MacVean-Brown said.
“Once I said, ‘yes’ there has been a certain peace and conviction that led me to be willing to consider other types of leadership in the church. … Ministry certainly wasn’t comfortable for Jesus. So I’ve embraced that and I absolutely credit my experience at Seabury for beginning that awareness and my commitment to it.”
A historic election.
Elected in May, from a slate of three women and on the first ballot, Bishop MacVean-Brown is the first African American to serve as bishop of the Episcopal Church in Vermont, and the first African American woman to serve as diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church in New England (Province I). Two other African American women hold the title of bishop in Province I: the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris and the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris.
Bishop MacVean-Brown’s episcopacy is all the more historic given the views and actions of John Henry Hopkins, who served as the first bishop of Vermont 1832–1865 and later, owing to the death of Thomas Church Brownwell, became 8thPresiding Bishop for the last three years of his life, 1865–1868.
In 1861, Episcopal congregations and dioceses in 11 Confederate states broke away from the American Episcopal Church. That same year, Hopkins wrote and published “The Bible View of Slavery,” a pamphlet in which he argued there was no scriptural basis for ending slavery. All of which was unknown to MacVean-Brown until she learned of it in conversation with Maurice Harris, the diocesan communications director, who is also Black. That same day, she mentioned the pamphlet to her husband, Phil, and discovered that he had come across a copy while sorting books in the library of the bishop’s residence.
Hopkins’ thesis, that slavery “may be” a physical evil but is not a sin per se, was condemned broadly by clergy in Union states. Hopkins responded with a more expansive (350+ pages) defense of his position. As Presiding Bishop, Hopkins accommodated Confederacy bishops and led a campaign to bring them back to the Episcopal Church.
“I’ve long said that I love how Episcopalians are committed to living with difference, MacVean-Brown said. “But there’s one time when we really did not get it right. Other denominations broke up over slavery and we should have. When southern churches decided to keep their slaves, Presiding Bishop Hopkins was okay with that … What a history for Church and for the diocese of Vermont with Hopkins as their first bishop and for them to call me now.”
Once again, MacVean-Brown’s ministry seems to be rooted in the potential for redemption.
Saying yes to the unknown.
What is Bishop MacVean-Brown most mindful of as she begins this phase of her ministry? Briefly stated, baptismal waters.
“I’m thinking a lot more about our baptismal vow to respect the human dignity of every person,” Bishop MacVean-Brown said. “I’m also very aware of our call to follow in the apostles steps, discovering things that are new. They didn’t have all this history behind them. It was a new beginning for them. … I think we’re at a new beginning again.
“What does it mean to do and be church right now? … [Part of it is] throwing away preconceived notions. I’m grateful that my first sacramental act for the Episcopal Church in Vermont was a baptism with me in the water, not in a church. That is so perfect, along with loving and including everybody.
“I am also thinking about saying yes to the unknown and the ways that Bexley Seabury has done that, recreating herself over and over again and that’s been a faithful thing, even though it’s hard. … Saying yes to the unknown in this post-Christendom society we’re living in now … doing things that seem impossible or inconceivable is clearly what we’re supposed to be doing. I’m grateful that Bexley Seabury continues to do that. … I’m grateful.”
*The Rev. Canon Spann now serves at Christ Church, Grosse Point, Mich., as assisting priest and director of the Christ Church Spirituality Center