The late Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, an African-American named first female bishop in the Anglican Communion, was a powerful voice for equality, compassion, and respecting the dignity of every human being. A shrewd observer of human nature, she responded to outrage over her ordination by saying, “Nobody can hate like Christians.”
And while we have lost Harris’ prophetic voice, her words continue to ring true in the midst of the ongoing uproar at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Montvale NJ, where a group of parishioners and former parishioners have been trying to undercut the current priest in charge, the Rev. Jill Williams. The behavior of these parishioners includes picketing the church, disrupting services, and making hate-filled comments about Williams’ sexual orientation; she is married to a same-sex spouse.
Before we go further, we need to recognize the reality, which is that having a full-time rector is fast becoming a thing of the past. Facing declining membership, dismal numbers of baptisms, confirmations and weddings, any church that has a full-time rector is fortunate. And doubly so when their rector is as articulate, enthusiastic, and compassionate as Williams. Nor does any church or community benefit from acquiring a reputation as a toxic place to live, work, or worship.
So What Gives?
Conflict is, by nature, a difficult thing to parse. But per documents obtained from the Montvale police department, it is clear that parishioners believe that Williams has ruffled feathers by:
- Closing the church nursery school. But enrollment last year had declined to just three students, and the school simply wasn’t viable. Moreover, no rector acting within Episcopal polity has the ability to unilaterally make a decision of that sort. Nor do we see evidence that Williams made this decision unilaterally.
- Forbidding people from sledding on church property. Again, this was not a unilateral decision, and was driven by insurance issues.
- Asking for access to financial records, governance records, and more. These are not only appropriate requests, but they are required by canon. Specifically, clergy who fail to adequately safeguard church or community assets may be held accountable under the Title IV disciplinary canons, up to and including being defrocked.
- Asking, with vestry support, that those who cannot behave appropriately in church not enter the property.
In short, Anglican Watch sees no sign of pastoral misconduct, and we would be the first the sound the alarm were there signs of a priest gone rogue. (In fact, one person has said we seem to do so with “lip-smacking glee.” No comment.)
But Isn’t Conflict Normal?
Some may ask, “But isn’t conflict normal?”
The answer is of course it’s normal. Handled in a healthy way, conflict can by transformative, build stronger relationships, foster healthier churches, and more. And change invariably engenders conflict — or as one smart-aleck on Episcopal Cafe put it: “Of course I want the Kingdom of God on Earth. It’s just that I want it without any change.”
But conflict is profoundly damaging when handled in the way that parishioners are handling it:
- It is destructive within St. Paul’s,
- It erodes the souls of those who engage in it. As former senator Alan Simpson said at the funeral of George H.W. Bush, “hate corrodes the container it is carried in.”
- It damages the community. As Americans, we have already faced so many challenges, and we face so many right now, that we need each other more than ever. Far more unites us than divides us.
- It is the very sort of thing that causes young people to look at the church and say, “not for me.”
And before we go further, let’s be clear: Several of us here at Anglican Watch are the first to picket a church where the rector is abusive, commits perjury, or otherwise engages in misconduct. We have no objection when warranted, and we recognize the importance of calling out bullies. But that is not what is going on here.
To Be Episcopal
As readers know, Anglican Watch spends a lot of time calling out priests, bishops, and others in the church who misuse their authority. And to be clear, there are serious issues in the Episcopal Church. So much so that, absent reformation, we believe the denomination will cease to exist as we know it within the next 20 years.
But when the Episcopal Church works right — and we would be the first to admit it rarely does — it creates a unique faith experience where:
- People are welcomed wherever they are in their faith journey.
- Race, sexual orientation, gender, ancestry, national origin or other irrelevant factors are just that — irrelevant.
- The canons and Episcopacy provide guardrails on conduct, while welcoming a variety of worship styles, personal beliefs, and more, so long as they remain within Episcopal norms.
In short, at its best, the Episcopal Church is as Jesus would have wanted it—welcoming, tolerant, affirming, and loving.
The church structure is an important part of that paradigm:
- A priest acts as a missional partner with her or his vestry to ensure that church finances, business practices, and the spiritual needs of the parish are met.
- The bishop and diocesan staff provide pastoral care to clergy, ensure compliance with church canons, and help parishes work in collaboration with each other, and to engage with the larger world.
- General convention sets standards. One standard that it has set is the express canonical requirement that all persons are welcome in the church, in all roles, irrespective of sexual orientation.
Our Take on Things
Having read the voluminous police records in this case, St. Paul’s seems to be a parish with unresolved conflict. As the Rev. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban notes in her excellent book, unresolved conflict often lingers beneath the surface, bursting into the open years, sometimes decades, later. Often, this takes the form of inappropriate responses to conflict—which is clearly the case with ugly references to Williams’ sexual orientation and appearance.
We want to be very clear: The conduct of some former parishioners is not acceptable in any context. It is bullying. It is hatred. It is ugly. It has nothing to do with Christianity. It is not acceptable in the Episcopal Church. And it is every bit as ugly as the spiritual, emotional, sexual, and other abuse we report on at Anglican Watch.
It may also be that the diocese dropped the ball during the interim period. Per the Alban Institute’s study on the subject, interim periods are not just a time to “keep the seat warm.” Instead, the interim period is, or should be, a time to:
- Recognize that there is a season to all pastoral relationships.
- Appropriately say goodbye to former leaders.
- To understand and make peace with the past.
- To disclose, explore, and heal past conflicts.
- To ensure alignment with denominational norms.
- To plan, explore, and look at the future with joy and enthusiasm.
Anglican Watch deliberately has not explored the interim period at St. Paul’s. But we strongly suspect that the diocese took an approach that is all too common — find some old retired priest, often without formal interim training, who comes through, handing out hugs and smiles, and doesn’t do jack diddly. And St. Albans’ research reveals that this approach almost invariably sets a rector and parish up for failure.
Moreover, a successful interim period is particularly important when a prior rector has, as here, stayed for an extended period. (Some believe no priest should stay at any one calling for more than about seven years. While the evidence is primarily anecdotal, that seems to be about right. Longer than that and enthusiasm almost invariably wanes.)
The Role of the Bishop
Fortunately, it looks like the bishop is being supportive. The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center is an excellent resource and can help those who wish to find healing have the conversations needed to make that happen. It also can help those who don’t want reconciliation (sometimes the healthiest approach), make peace with the past and move on with health, dignity, and grace. Just like in marriage, sometimes people simply grow in different directions, and there is nothing wrong with recognizing and honoring that.
Of course, mediators often find that people want them to take sides. But good mediators focus on understanding the issues, recognizing the needs of the parties, exploring what is realistic and healthy, and then helping people find health and wholeness. That may include helping establish boundaries, such as what sorts of behavior are appropriate at worship, or how to raise concerns in a healthy manner.
Our Hope for the Future
Our hope at Anglican Watch is that members of St. Paul’s take a deep breath, avoid ad hominem attacks against Pastor Williams and her wife, and act in a way the incentivizes people to explore the Christian faith. Hate never helps, and any loving priest/vestry has an obligation to protect their church from hate, whether that is based on sexual orientation, dislike of change, race, ethnicity, or any other reason. And hate feeds into the feelings of young people, many of whom turn away from organized religion due to perceptions of hypocrisy and hatred. (If the issue really is about Pastor Williams’ sexual orientation, consider that 74 percent of millennials support same-sex marriage. If folks are going to town on that issue, they are on the wrong side of history. And it is a major reason young people turn away from church, even among evangelicals.)
All involved will benefit with having candid conversations in a safe environment. The diocese can help by sharing in a non-threatening way what it means to be Episcopal, and what expectations the larger church sets for clergy, vestries, and parishes. And while some may find their way to new churches, or perhaps to no church, our hope is that they can do so with a sense of love, peace, and joy.
We plan to publish updates on this situation, and look forward to positive news from this church. Meanwhile, we ask parishioners — current and former — as well as friends and allies — to treat all persons with respect, and for local community leaders to focus on building a welcoming environment for all persons.
Below are the letters from the diocese, the church’s vestry, and Pastor Williams.