One of the popular conversations among Anglican Watch staff is the importance of courage to the Christian faith. In that regard, we believe lack of Christian courage is a leading factor in the impending death of the Episcopl church as we know it.
For this author, my first fleeting recognition of this issue stems from my days at Grace Episcopal in Alexandria, Va.
Several years before I began attending the parish, then-rector Bob Malm negotiated a new compensation package.
Actually, that’s not quite right.
The situation might better be described as Malm bludgeoning the parish into a new deal.
At issue was the rectory, a nondescript two-story home next to the church.
Like many rectories of the time, it was large, marginally maintained, and a bit of a counterpoint to the gloriously beautiful church next door.
And it needed about $200,000 in improvements.
But lured by tales of booming equity in the Northern Va. housing market, Malm wanted to tear down the rectory.
Instead, he would get roughly an additional $100,000 a year.
When the church finally acquiesced to Malm’s demands,, it wound up:
- Spending roughly $200,000 to tear down an asset worth about $700,000,
- Lending Malm $100,000 for the down payment on the mortgage for his personal residence,
- Giving a bonus of $100,000 by writing off interest on the loan. This was because Malm had made no payments on the loan from the church, which was permitted under the agreement.
Thus, the parish lost about $2.4 million under the deal — money it could ill afford, as demonstrated when it had to borrow several million to undertake the long overdue replacement of its failed HVAC system.
As for Malm, he traded a large, marginally maintained home for a small, dismally maintained home that ultimately proved to be a tear-down when he moved out. But yes, he did walk away with some equity, thanks to the church’s $100,000 bonus.
You’re asking, “Where was the vestry in all this?”
The answer is, “Very aware that it didn’t want to go there.”
And Malm sat in the room during the vestry vote.
So, years later, when I asked former vestry members why they voted for the deal, several said, “I was afraid [Malm] would force me out.”
Full confession: I am guilty of saying “Pfffft,” more than once in response.
And I asked one person why they’d want to be part of a church where this would even be an issue.
But I quickly forgot about the issue, only to discover first-hand that Malm indeed forced people out of the parish.
Nor would my forced departure be a first in the parish, as I would later learn.
More of the same
Over time, I realized that people trading on disparities in real or perceived power were endemic in the Episcopal church.
But rarely was it for the benefit of others.
Sometimes, it would be to “feed the beast” or fill the hundreds of slots for the apparatchiks who attend meetings and push paper at every level of the tiny yet bloated denomination.
In that regard, two people- Julia Ayala Harris and the presiding bishop- fill most positions at the national level.
And while Harris and ++Curry bloviate about love and truthtelling, neither typically respond to those who tell them the truth. (Been there, done that. And yes, Curry has personally seen our messages.)
That paradigm underscores another point: power within TEC isn’t only used for mundane purposes, like filling the bloated ranks of the bureaucracy.
Indeed, more than one bishop, unwilling to “get involved,” despite canonical requirements to the contrary, has been willing to oust even clergy who engage in lèse-majesté.
In short, these bishops lack the courage to do their jobs but are willing to act up behind the scenes if they think they can pull it off.
And the finger points squarely at the office of the presiding bishop and Todd Ousley for this situation. If bishops — and the list is long — won’t do their jobs, and their standing committees won’t do their jobs, then it’s time for an intervention.
Nor are we talking about raiding diocesan coffers to provide a golden parachute a la Whayne Hougland. We’re talking about accountability and real consequences.
At every level
Nor is this lack of courage confined to the national or diocesan levels.
Our original example shows that it operates at the parish level and within family systems.
Indeed, how many parishes have quietly emptied out in true Episcopal fashion, with no one willing to admit that the rector is a serial bully or narcissist? That’s sad because, as the declining fortunes at St. James Texarkana and countless other churches and dioceses illustrate, recovery is rare in the denomination once misconduct occurs.
In many cases, parishioners won’t admit to the underlying issues even after leaving an abusive parish or church. Priests and bishops who recognize this will push out real leaders, intimidate church staff, or even abuse family members.
Ironically, this lack of Christian courage within the denomination is no secret.
Go to any big church- the few left- and you’ll quickly discover a subgroup comprised of exiles from other area churches. And there’s an even larger group on social media who walked away from organized faith altogether.
And every diocese has a fair number of toxic priests, who’ve been cautioned about their behavior dozens of times, yet continue to run off staff and volunteers.
Indeed, there are several right here in Northern Va. where parishes get staff only because people want to “prove they can do it,” to win a bet, or because they simply didn’t know any better.
And while judicatories may come down hard on clergy who have affairs (or in the Diocese of Virginia, reward them with free counseling), there’s little courage regarding other issues.
Indeed, even well-regarded dioceses often let repeat offender clergy off with an agreement to make themselves scarce. Like one prominent priest in the mid-Atlantic, inexplicably caught climbing through a downtown office building window in the middle of the night, who was allowed to quietly resign–even though significant misuse of funds later came to light within his parish.
As to personal accountability, forget it.
In that vein, we have the infamous Heather Cook of DUI fame, who loved to babble on about personal accountability before killing cyclist Tom Palermo.
Yet after her release from prison, Cook proclaimed part of her recovery and restitution is being interviewed about lessons learned.
Despite this, Cook and her husband, also a defrocked Episcopal priest, have rejected multiple requests for interviews from this publication.
Even more tellingly, when the Executive Committee met in Maryland, just down the road from where Cook was in jail, the only person to visit her was allegedly recovering alcoholic Chilton Knudsen.
Setting to one side Knudsen’s dismal ethics track record, including disregarding criminal conduct while serving as a bishop and repeated failures to report child sexual abuse, Knudsen’s comment about visiting Cook in jail is telling:
Bishop Chilton Knudsen, 72, who was chosen to replace Cook in the Maryland Diocese, said she has met with her predecessor “on my own volition” and because “I also want Heather to know that not everybody in the Episcopal Church has it out for her.”
At that point, count even the Anglican Watch team amazed.
Yes, we are chronically irritable these days. And we probably are not as patient as we should be with the church and its antics.
But isn’t the notion of compassion towards the least of these intrinsic to Christianity?
“For I was in prison and you visited me.” Mt 25:35, 36
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Hebrews 13:1-3
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
Nor do we see even modest courage among Episcopal clergy. Forget being eaten by lions–your average Episcopal priest won’t even apologize when they behave badly.
Or, if they do, it’s with the expectation that they say, “I’m sorry,” and go right back to their antics. That undercuts the theological underpinnings of forgiveness, in which repentance goes hand in hand with restitution and amendment of life.
In other words, although she’s a scumbag, Chilton Knudsen announced a profound truth when she said that not everyone in the denomination is out to get Heather Cook. (We’re not big Cook fans, but that’s based on what we believe is a lack of genuine remorse, not her mistakes.)
And yet again, we denounce the ongoing failure of the Episcopal church to address its systemic failures. These failures include:
- Its refusal to address clergy misconduct, including refusal by Todd Ousley and multiple bishops, among them Glenda Curry and Chilton Knudsen, to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse. And yes, we know of multiple pedophiles who remain Episcopal priests in good standing.
- Its refusal to address clergy impairment, an issue that has been the subject of countless reports and studies since the 1970s, but no action.
- Its willful ignorance of the dynamics of domestic abuse in clergy families. Specifically, we have seen multiple instances of dioceses ignoring these situations, withdrawing Title IV complaints at the request of an abused spouse, and other appalling missteps. (For the record, much like the obligation in many jurisdictions to prosecute domestic violence, even if the victim declines to participate, the church must move forward with Title IV proceedings when clergy are abusive. And yes, that includes bishops.
- Its refusal to fully adopt the model abuse prevention policies approved at General Convention 79. Indeed, at no level are these fully implemented.
- Its refusal to insist on the highest standards of clergy conduct. Indeed, the church still fails to meet even basic standards for ethical corporate conduct for publicly traded companies–which is not exactly a high standard.
- Its endorsement of retaliation for whistleblowers. Yes, the canons forbid this — and implicitly always have, as conduct unbecoming — but these provisions are consistently ignored.
- Its focus on amorphous, transactional “formation,” via study groups, sacred circles, labyrinths, and other often irrelevant hoo-ha, versus formation focused on Christian basics, like integrity and honesty.
Meanwhile, the truth remains: the Episcopal church has it in for those who rock the boat because it’s not built on faith, but instead the shifting sands of perpetuating itself as an institution.