The Episcopal church, like many, runs on a series of myths about itself. Some of these myths are good. Others, not so much. And some are just silly, like the claim that “all are welcome.”
For the record, all are not welcome. Nor are we the first to poke holes in this smug, self-congratulatory little deception.
For starters, if indeed all are welcome, why doesn’t the church do any evangelism?
If nothing else, it’s disingenuous to complain about the decline of the church when it makes no effort to bring in new members.
Right about now, some readers will gnash their teeth and say, “Well, we put up banners at Easter,” or “we go to the local street fair.”
But deep down, these people know their claims are hogwash. Indeed, many of these same people will ask new church members, “How did you find us?”
Of course, if their churches were evangelizing, the question would never come up.
That begs the question: if their church is such a slice of stained-glass paradise, why wouldn’t these people want to spread that news? And why are people leaving?
Culture and unconditional love
The myth of radical welcome and unconditional love is intertwined with a lack of evangelism.
If we’re honest, no one believes all are welcome. For instance, sex offenders aren’t unconditionally welcome. Nor should they be.
And we’ve all been to an Episcopal church, whether while traveling or on vacation, where no one comes up to say hello after the service. Or some old battleaxe gives you the evil eye for sitting in “her” pew.
Nor does it take long to realize that many parishes have their cliques, or as one person puts it, an “A list, a B list, and so-on.” And yes, you can give all kinds of time and money and make it to the B list, but in many of these churches, the A list involves membership of at least 20 years — even though fewer and fewer people stay in one place for that long.
There’s also an ugly paradigm in many churches, particularly those with a charismatic rector of long tenure, in which members view criticism as a personal affront.
In these churches, the pews are full of what one priest we know terms “the sort of people who would defriend you on Facebook.”
So what does it take to get defriended in these churches?
The answer is telling: Just about anything.
Not happy that money is missing from church coffers?
Your church friends on social media vanish without a word and you get the icy glare when you roll through on Sunday. Take that, miserable heathen. Shoulda kept your mouth shut about the money.
And because narcissistic clergy typically engender narcissistic parishes, these churches typically become like their rector: ostensibly very friendly and welcoming, but dangerously toxic right beneath the veneer.
As a result, newcomers may wax rhapsodic about what friendly places these churches are, oblivious to the dangerous undertow.
Nor is this paradigm confined to issues with governance or conduct within the parish.
One dear friend of ours, who volunteered in her parish for decades after her retirement, vividly recalls being shunned by her church in Texas after complaining that the rector, who like her was married, was hitting on her.
Fortunately, her husband’s employer approved a request for transfer just a few months later, so she and her husband moved to the DC area, where they lived together for many happy years to come.
But it was more than 30 years before she got a written apology from several former friends who still worshipped at the church in Texas.
Why did they apologize?
They did so because it turned out that the rector’s extramarital activities extended to dozens of married parishioners. But it took decades for this to come to light, and it was only then that parishioners realized they had added insult to injury by engaging in retaliation.
And it turned out that parishioners had pushed dozens of women out of the parish before they realized the true nature of the problem.
The vast majority left organized faith, never to return.
Of course, this illustrates that all never were welcome; the only welcome people were those who didn’t rock the boat.
Nor do parishioners necessarily need evidence to decide that someone’s on the unwelcome list.
In one parish we track, parishioners concluded that a series of derogatory online reviews were the fault of a well-known parishioner, thus warranting the whole unwelcome routine.
Ironically, the person actually behind those reviews was painfully obvious, but no one bothered to think for themselves. So, the parish wound up shedding almost 200 pledging units and looking foolish. But to this day, no one recognizes what a mess members made of the church, even as the church continues its precipitous decline.
And, true to form, the Episcopal church often gets this whole situation turned around. The faithful parishioner who complains about being bullied gets shunned, while the teen who stole computers from the church remains welcome.
And yes, that’s a real example.
Narcissism and unwelcome
With roughly one-third of clergy narcissists, it’s also worth mentioning that narcissistic clergy often manipulate family systems to push out persons not viewed as providing adequate narcissistic supply.
Typically, things start with a few well-placed rumors to the flying monkeys in the parish, often in the form of innuendo. “Anne’s a sad individual in a sad situation,” they say.
Skilled narcissists will take things a step further and play reverse shuttle diplomacy. So, when the rumor comes back to them, they will reinforce it with comments like, “I know. I am sorry you have to deal with Anne.”
Nor is this uncommon.
Indeed in 2013, one of our staff ran an article on Episcopal Cafe on the topic of shunning; he chose to have the piece run without attribution. It became one of the most commented pieces ever, with dozens of people posting about their experiences with being shunned.
And Anglican Watch hears of hundreds of such cases every year. Many are too thin in detail to result in coverage, but the sheer volume of these complaints suggests that many dioceses and parishes are okay with radical exclusion and that informal shunning is more norm than exception in the denomination.
The sad thing is that the damage done to all parties is irreparable in many of these situations.
Whether it’s the grouchy church lady who gives folks the evil eye for sitting in her pew, the altar guild member who decides to shun people over a decision they disagree with, the “frozen chosen” routine at coffee hour, the parish that retaliates against a victim of abuse, or the rector who misuses his authority, there’s rarely a second chance.
Even if the offender’s apology is accepted, chances are the person on the receiving end of things is done with church.
And people who’ve been bullied, mistreated, shunned, or abused will remember it for a lifetime and tell others — as they should. To paraphrase the Bible, the wages of sin are death, but that death may be reputational.
Moreover, people have a right to truth in advertising. If folks in a church are good with the usual childish church games, they should be good with owning their behavior. And they should be good with it when people warn others that they may have a similar experience if they choose to join that church.
After all, do we really want people joining the church without understanding what they are getting into?
Looking to the future
Will the Episcopal church’s cold shoulder to outsiders and those who rock the boat continue?
Time will tell.
But if it does continue, the story’s final chapter will be the end of the Episcopal church as we know it.
And that may not be a bad thing.