Liberia: The Episcopal Church in Transition as Bishop Sellee Takes Over

The Very Rev. Fr. James B. Sellee.  

... H. Augustus Roberts, Jr.

On June 5, 2022, Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday of Pentecost, Episcopalians from around the country will converge in Monrovia at Trinity Cathedral, the National Cathedral, to witness and participate in the services of the enthronement of the Rt. Rev. Dr. James B. Sellee, Bishop Coadjutor, as the 13th Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Liberia.

Bishop Sellee will be taking over from the Most Rev. Jonathan B.B. Hart, Primate of The Church of the Province of West Africa (CPWA), Archbishop  of the Internal Province of West Africa (IPWA) and Bishop of the Diocese of Liberia. No, Bishop Sellee will not become Primate or Archbishop. Bishop Sellee will only be succeeding Bishop Hart as Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Liberia.

So why did we not just elect a Bishop instead of a Bishop Coadjutor? Because the Bishop Coadjutor is basically the bishop-in- waiting, and  is elected to support the Bishop as the bishop prepares to retire. The Bishop Coadjutor succeeds the Bishop on retirement as Sellee is doing on Sunday. 

Sounds confusing? Perhaps, a little history of our Church and how it works, in regards to the episcopacy, would be in place. Unlike many other churches, the episcopacy in our Church, including the Anglican Communion of West Africa, works quite differently.

An archbishop, in our Church, is the Spiritual leader and chief administrator of a province. A bishop heads a diocese. So, even though the Episcopal Church of Liberia is divided into four regions, called Archdeaconries (Bassa , Laboni, Southeastern, and Southwestern),  with hundreds of churches, it is just a single diocese headed by one bishop. The archdeaconries are headed, administratively and spiritually, by an Archdeacon. Even if the Church were to carve the diocese out of the four archdeaconries, and create four dioceses, it will still not have an Archbishop.

Each of the four dioceses will have a bishop of their own and will be run autonomously. In order for the Episcopal Church of Liberia to have an Archbishop, it will have to leave the CPWA, as the Nigerian Church did many years ago, and declare itself a Province. Until then, the four dioceses will be part of the CPWA and the IPCWA; and the four bishops of Liberia will be led by the Primate of the Province  and the  Archbishop of the Internal Province, the position held by the Most Rev. Jonathan B.B. Hart. After Sunday, Bishop Hart will no longer be Diocesan Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Liberia. 

To be honest, I started writing this article before the Special Elections to elect a Bishop Coadjutor, but somehow did not publish it; and quite frankly, this version is not very different from the original in many respects. In the first version, I was very concerned about the elections and how it was being managed and how we, Episcopalians, were behaving during the electoral processes; and how no one seemed concerned about the situation that we find our church in, which was obviously going to be inherited by our next bishop.

We seemed to care more about our candidate winning and were willing to do everything possible to get him elected as we are doing in our national elections, even if it contravened our so-called Christian ethics.

I am going to discuss some of the same issues that I raised in the original article but more focused on the situation of the church that our elected-Bishop Coadjutor is going to inherit come Sunday. Yes I am an Episcopalian, Some say a “Die-hard Episcopalian”, but for me, just another committed worker.

Elections are over, and therefore, we have to move on, but I think all of us have to look back and reflect, not only at these last elections, but also at the ones that brought Bishop Hart in as Diocesan Bishop. If we are honest and really reflect, many of you will agree with me that both of these elections were flawed, and that we did not behave as Christians, but more as people in the secular world. 

Episcopalians, in the midst of the Season of Epiphany, a time when we, as Christians, should be “manifesting” Christ and His Church to the world, we were instead behaving as non-believers castigating and destroying each other, including people from whose hands we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ — the new covenant established by Christ Himself.

I was disgusted and found it very repulsive that the issues of ethnicity and unsubstantiated claims of people’s lifestyles were introduced into these elections. One prominent Episcopalian told me to my face, “We are tired of names like ‘Browne’ and ‘Hart’, and we want a native name”. I was shocked, shocked not only to hear this nonsense and who it was coming from, but because I have never, and neither did I hear my mother or father raise that kind of issue.

Don't get me wrong. Everyone has the right to expect certain standards, moral and otherwise, from their leader, whether a priest, Bishop, legislator and I may add, their president; but somehow, I just think when it comes to the Church, we have to be very careful of the manner and style we engage in being very mindful of the language we use and the consequences thereof. 

My Priest is my Priest once the Bishop ordains him or her. His or her ethnic background is of no consequence to me and neither should it be to you. The only issues are his or her ability to preach the gospel, teach it, heal and counsel the troubled, administer the sacraments and manage the affairs of the church.

What difference does it make if my priest is a woman or a man, and comes from downtown Monrovia or a village in Maryland, Lofa County or up River?  All the scriptures we read in the Old and New Testaments were written by people thousands of miles from Liberia from ethnic backgrounds that have absolutely no affiliation with our African ethnicity or heritage; so why should  the ethnicity of my  Bishop be an issue? 

Do we have any idea what their sexual orientation were?  Many of them from Abraham to Jacob had character flaws. Even the Psalmist, David, himself had issues. But, honestly, this is not what I am writing about, so I will stop here. It is just food for thought, and I hope we will adjust ourselves.

My purpose here is look at the Church that Bishop Sellee is inheriting; and I am going to be honest, perhaps, brutally honest. In fact, in a way I feel sorry for Fr. Sellee. Yes, I know he is bishop now, and I should not refer to him as “Father Sellee”; but somehow, for the simple, cordial, modest and humble human being our new Bishop is, calling him “Father” seems more in place.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. James B. Sellee, former Dean of Trinity Cathedral and Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church (Camp Johnson Road) brings a wealth of experience to this, his new assignment. His last two assignments provide evidence of his experience. In addition to the two lofty positions in two of the Diocese’s very important churches, Fr. Sellee served as a Missionary Priest to the Diocese of the Gambia. Before that assignment, he served at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (10th Street) and Trinity Cathedral where he began his ministry as both a Deacon and Curate. Now after returning to Trinity as Dean, he comes back to Trinity as the Rector. What a journey!

But, he has inherited a church in trouble. No, it is not my opinion, it is the fact; and I think Episcopalians, especially those of us who think we own the church or are more privileged than others, better accept that reality. The Episcopal Church is basically broke and is in a malaise; and we, as a Church, cannot show any significant achievements in the last fifteen years. Like all other churches and institutions in Liberia, many of our educational facilities and some churches were either damaged or destroyed during our protracted-civil crisis.

While many churches seem to have rebuilt or are rebuilding, and others building, most, if not all of our traditional schools and institutions are still down, and no significant efforts have been or were made, at least not to my knowledge, to change the situation.

Except for Bromley Mission, which was reopened by the late Bishop Neufille, B.W. Harris, St. Augustine’s (Kakata) and St. Augustine’s (Gardnersville), most traditional Episcopal schools remain non-functional or are struggling to survive.  St. John’s Parish Day (Buchanan), Bethany and St. John’s (Cape Mount), Bishop Ferguson (Maryland), Bolahun Mission (Lofa)  and our feeder schools (mostly Elementary) in Cape Mount are completely shut down and nobody seems to have any idea when they will be restored.  

Many of our income sources have dwindled and the little that we do have can barely run the diocese. The Episcopal Church of the USA (TEC), once a major source of support, has significantly cut its support; and has continuously told the Diocese that it (TEC) is not in the position to continue to provide even the little it is providing.  In many cases the Diocese is unable to meet its financial obligations. 

Both the Jayne Travis Building and the Episcopal Church Plaza on Randall Street (Monrovia), major revenue sources, need serious renovation or are not providing the kinds of revenue they could. Coupled with this is the economic situation in the country, where many Episcopalians like many other Liberians are facing employment or a reduction in their incomes. Therefore, as a result of this, many parishes, even the traditional ones, are also struggling. According to the Report of The Diocesan Pension Board to the last Diocesan Convention, only three parishes are up-to-date on their payments of their priest pensions. Our churches are run and financed by their parishioners and members; and if these traditional and powerhouses of the diocese are struggling, then you and I can just imagine what is happening in our rural churches. That is a whole other story.

Well, to be honest, all is not bleak, but the situation is very serious, and I am quite sure that there will be some of us who will be defensive and say that I am “washing our dirty clothes in the street”. Hey, too bad. The truth is the truth. But, as I said above, the situation is not bleak and the potential to reverse the trajectory is ever-present.

  We have a strong youthful church backed by some very committed and power institutions, like the Episcopal Church Women (ECW), the OSDK (Sons and Daughters of the King) and the Episcopal Church Men (ECLM); and the traditional dependable, “always-ready to give” and committed Episcopalians.

These men and women are not only committed, they love their Church and are proud of its traditions and would do all and everything in their power to keep it afloat.  In all of the Diocese’s financial crises, these Episcopalians have always risen to the occasion, and I have no doubt they will continue to do their part. However, the Diocesan leadership, not just the Bishop, will have to take the lead.

To the Diocese’s credit, it has initiated two schemes to help ease the financial situation. Several years ago the Church initiated the Triple EY fund. In this scheme, each Episcopalian is supposed to pay a yearly tax of $10 (ten US dollars) to help fund the operations of the Diocese; and the Diocese has also embarked on a very ambitious plan.  

According to the reports of the Archdeaconries received by the last convention, many of our rural churches, led by their priests and Archdeacons, have embarked on their own self-help projects, building and renovating churches, constructing schools and rectories. These are great initiatives that must be applauded.

However, for them to be sustainable, the Archdeacons and priests need lots of support and direction from the Diocese and from all of us, particularly the larger Monrovia-based churches. Many of our archdeacons do not have vehicles, not even a motorbike. Some of these archdeacons supervise more than 30 (thirty) churches and preaching stations spread over vast areas which makes it almost impossible to do what is expected of them. This situation will have to change.

These are positive signs, but they are not enough. Our new Bishop will not only need our prayers and support, we will all have to all get on deck and get our hands dirty if he is to succeed. 

The Author

H. Augustus Roberts, Jr. is member of the State of The Church Committee, a Lay Reader and fromer Junior Warden of St. John’s Episcopal Church (Buchanan). He has served on the Standing Committee and was Chief Information Officer of the Diocese.