When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. People know themselves much better than you do. That’s why it’s important to stop expecting them to be something other than who they are.
As Grace Episcopal Alexandria (the spiritual sinkhole that gave rise to Anglican Watch) contemplates its future, there is an alarming new aspect to the conversation. Specifically, there is a discussion about reconciling with Anne Turner, whether or not she returns as rector.
For the record, that is a load of BS.
It’s BS because the notion of reconciling with Anne Turner is nothing but another gust of blind clericalism.
Specifically, it overlooks the fact that there are many people, far more critical than Anne Turner, with whom the parish should be worried about reconciling.
These include those who’ve left the parish because of bad behavior, both by members and by Bob Malm. These individuals include:
- Michael Smith was received into TEC in 2014 and forced out by Bob Malm seven months later.
- John Cunningham left Grace because of the toxic atmosphere.
- Various music directors left after being bullied.
- Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti faced perjury and fabricated police reports from Jeffery Chiow and Bob Malm.
And there are many, many more, as evinced by the steep decline in pledging units.
If we look at for-profit business models, existing customers offered a new product are about 60-70 percent likely to buy. But selling to new customers involves only a 5-20 percent likelihood of success.
Similarly, it’s much less expensive to retain customers than to acquire new ones. Indeed, for-profits spend five times as much to get new customers as to keep the ones they have.
For the Episcopal Church, the numbers are even more daunting. Facing the Great De-Churching, growth is difficult for even the most vibrant churches, with 40 million fewer churchgoing Americans than even a few years ago.
That begs the question: Why not at least pretend to be Christian and reach out to people Grace Church has driven away? Isn’t an apology and restitution in order?
The immature, childish, and dishonest behavior of people like Bob Malm, Jeffery Chiow, Alison Campbell, and Lisa Medley has already wreaked devastation on the parish. Nor should we forget that a significant portion of the behavior in question is criminal.
Yet people at Grace act as though it’s somehow wrong to tell people about one’s negative experiences with the parish and its people.
The implications of Grace’s devastatingly stupid attitude toward its misconduct all but guarantee that the church will close sooner rather than later.
Indeed, studies consistently show that 96 percent of unhappy customers won’t say anything to you, but they’ll tell 15 friends.
While we don’t have hard evidence, Anglican Watch believes the number is higher for churches due primarily to the sense of betrayal that often accompanies departure from a church.
Relatedly, when a business responds to a disgruntled customer quickly, non-defensively, and in a collaborative manner that includes making amends, the result often is not only customer retention but increased loyalty.
But at Grace Church, it’s okay for people to leave disgruntled. In fact, people like Lisa Medley like to brush off critics as “disgruntled,” as if this somehow discredits their experiences. But the reality is this paradigm shows how thin the Christian faith really is at Grace. It’s not only okay, but perfectly appropriate to be “disgruntled” when a church abuses your trust, whether via spiritual abuse, adultery, or criminal conduct.
And not only do people tell others about their experience, but in some cases, millions of people have learned about the debacle that is Grace Church. Given that the parish is already losing market share in a fast-growing area of the country, the church’s reputation and conduct all but guarantee its failure.
Why reconcile with Anne Turner?
All of this begs the question: Why is Grace Church giving time and attention to the possibility of reconciling with Anne Turner?
For starters, former priests are supposed to have no contact with their former parish. It’s unfair to their successor, and whoever comes next will have their hands full with the mess created by Turner’s adultery and lies. So she can do all involved a favor and stay away.
Then, we come to the unanswered questions in this situation:
- For example, if Turner used parish funds for her purported church retreats, she’s a thief as well as an adulterer and liar.
- Similarly, if she took leave under false pretenses, like claiming to go on a spiritual retreat so she could road trip through New England with her boyfriend, we have payroll theft.
- Turner’s conduct also raises questions about her suitability as a priest. Besides violating her marriage vows, anyone who thinks they can find real love in an affair is one seriously troubled soul and someone with an appalling lack of judgment.
- Moreover, if Turner’s marriage is unhappy, as it appears to be, there are right ways to handle it and wrong ways. Having an affair is wrong, and nowhere in her public love letters do we see any contemplation of the ethical or spiritual aspects of her misconduct.
- We also find Turner’s claims that her affair ended some time ago and that she was just friends highly suspect. If that’s true, why would any rational actor keep in touch? That’s like an alcoholic who keeps the home bar stocked, just in case. In other words, she’s either lying about ending her affair, or her judgment is profoundly deficient. Nor should we discount the possibility that Turner has a mental illness.
- Relatedly, we find allegations about her texting heart emoticons and other indicia of a romantic relationship inconsistent with Turner’s claims. Simply put, we can’t prove it, but we strongly suspect Turner is still lying.
- In many ways, Turner’s affair is the tip of the iceberg. She talks about Grace as being in trauma, and after 30 years of Bob Malm, she’s spot on. But she’s neither courageous, nor a truthteller, and we have little patience for milquetoast Christians whose primary purpose in going to church is to make sure the altar is arranged correctly. In other words, in the best of circumstances, Turner was a bad choice as rector. And now we know she was a horrible choice.
On top of that, dimwits at Grace paid Turner severance. On what planet does an adulterer who resigns after cheating on her husband and lying to her congregation get paid a severance? Anglican Watch strongly recommends against giving money to any church that uses the money to subsidize adultery.
In other words, the parish has been inappropriately generous with Turner, so there’s no reason to sweat reconciliation. And Turner is the wrongdoer, so it’s her issue to work.
There’s also an offensive side to all of this, and it’s not just about empty clericalism and wasting money given for the Glory of God, versus subsidizing adultery.
What we find obnoxious about the proposal involving Turner is the church is worried about making nice with someone who’s not particularly deserving, even though it’s never considered addressing the hurt it has caused to people like Mike Smith, John Cunningham, or the almost 200 pledging units that have left in recent years. (Disclosure: Mike Smith is the husband of Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti.)
As we’ve said before, we also should not disregard those abused by Grace for whom no reconciliation is possible. Sigrid Yahner (Bonetti’s mother) was bullied by Bob Malm and Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow, even during her time in hospice. (How on earth they thought they could depose a dying woman, incontinent, and relying on oxygen and morphine to survive, is beyond us. What was she supposed to do? Have her bed rolled into the courthouse?)
Thus, not only is no apology possible, but the situation illustrates how broken the spiritual life of the church is. Any church that thinks going after someone in hospice is okay is, in many ways, an ideal place for the likes of Turner. After all, what’s a little lying and adultery when it’s okay to bully the dying?
A better approach
A far better approach than worrying about Turner–who’s not exactly suffering as she hangs out in her $1 million+ North Arlington home–is for Grace to cast a critical eye on itself. Questions might include:
- What does being welcoming and inclusive really mean?
- If I were an outsider and watching behavior within Grace, would I want to be included in the life of the church?
- Does behavior at Grace align with the church’s purported values?
- If Jesus were to wander through coffee hour, Shrine Mont, or observe the bullying that goes on within the parish, what would his reaction be?
- Are the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts worthy reflections of our faith in God?
- How many people can we identify by name who have left Grace Church, or the Christian faith, because of our conduct or that of others in the parish? What have we done to reconcile with them? Why don’t we seek reconciliation with those we have hurt?
- Is our theology of forgiveness Christian? Does it include repentance, apology, truthtelling, and reparation? Or do we adhere to cheap Grace, like Bob Malm’s infamous phrase, “Well, I said I’m sorry?”
- When we see bullying in the parish, how do we respond? Is our response Christ-like? Or do we ignore it? Or maybe even join in?
- Are the people we’re electing to vestry actual leaders, or are they warm bodies that fill seats?
- Do we continue to care for people after they leave Grace, or do we treat them as valuable only when we can get something from them?
- Have we ever called people who’ve left the church, asked them about their experiences, tried to learn from this information, and invited them to come back? If not, why not?
- Do we have the courage to tell the truth about ourselves?
In short, having just rewarded adulterous liar and possible thief Turner with a severance package, reconciliation with her should be the least of Grace Church’s worries. That’s particularly true when she actively tried to suppress media coverage of her misconduct, which makes clear she is not repentant. She should be the one to show what genuine repentance looks like, not vice versa. And if she doesn’t, no biggie. She’s another priest in name only.
Of course, if the church really does grow a spine and seek reconciliation with the hundreds who have left — and counting the pledge units will make clear that number’s not an exaggeration — many will no doubt brush off the church’s efforts.
That’s the thing about Grace’s stock in trade: spiritual abuse. It’s a little like jumping headfirst into an empty swimming pool: No matter how things turn out, the damage often is irreparable,
It also needs to be noted that victims of abuse are under no obligation to reconcile with the church. Yes, the church and its members are obligated to try, but victims can and do say no. In many cases, victims are better off going no-contact.
Even so, there is an obligation to come clean, to tell the truth about the past, and to avoid revisionist history. Until Grace Church is willing to own its sins, repent of those sins, and make restitution, the babble about reconciling with Turner is just empty noise, feel-good theology, and virtue signaling.
As for both Turner and Grace Church, they have shown us who they really are. Here at Anglican Watch, we’re believing them the first time unless they prove otherwise. And given the track record of both, it’s going to be an uphill battle to convince us that what we have seen isn’t the real deal.