Episcopal Cafe Faces Calls to Close over Moderation Issues

By | March 21, 2021
Amy Haynie

Some time ago, I wrote about the possibility that Episcopal Cafe, the independent news and commentary blog that serves the Episcopal church, is dying. The post can be found here.

Recent events suggest that may indeed be the case, with some commenters even calling for the platform to close.

The recent uproar involved the Daily Sip, a meditative piece by Charles LaFond. In a recent piece, Charles stereotyped Chinese and Japanese persons in a way that many found offensive. Episcopal Cafe pulled the piece and announced that it will no longer run his articles, further issuing an apology and promise to do better.

There are lessons for us woven throughout this situation, and I’m going to try to unravel them, thread by thread.

Racial Stereotyping

Let me start off by saying that LaFond’s comments were wrong. Resorting to stereotypes tramples individual human worth.

That said, I may have some idea why he went out on the thin ice.

My own experience with Japan indeed was marked by people who were gentle, kind, and compassionate. That is not to diminish other aspects of the culture that may differ; I simply note that I have had a very positive experience.

On the other hand, while my experience with the Chinese is much more limited, I have several Chinese-American friends who came to this country as adults, who would agree with notions of China as harsh and oppressive.

In short, this was not one of LaFond’s better moments, but rather than deplatforming him, it might have made sense to privately work with him on the issue. Of course, we don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but tossing him off Episcopal Cafe, then running a victory lap with an apology straight out of the Bishop Budde “I’ve screwed up and I’m sorry” playbook may not have been helpful, either to the publication or LaFond.

My experience too, is that public humiliation of this sort is rarely useful or productive, and is probably best reserved for egregious bigots who refuse all efforts at informal resolution.

Moderation Issues

Another issue for the publication is proving to be the hit-or-miss nature of moderation.

Many commenters, including Helen Kromm, whose views I have come to find consistently thoughtful and relevant, have posted replies to the apology, noting ongoing issues with moderation of comments on Episcopal Cafe. Indeed, Helen went on to suggest that, based in part on this issue, its time to consider pulling the plug on the publication, a view with which I agree.

Since the passing of the late Anne Fontaine, who was an editor and friend to many of us, my observation has been that there is a marked decline in the quality of the publication, levels of participation, and most particularly erratic and heavy-handed moderation.

For example, I have seen comments mildly critical of the church get pulled almost immediately, while racist and xenophobic comments stay for months.

Similarly, Prof. Christopher Seitz, well-known for his ties to GAFCON and other conservative groups, has been a regular troll, getting away with posting some really nasty stuff over the past few years, seemingly with no reaction from the editorial staff.

And there were some really outrageous and stupid pieces at the start of the pandemic, including ones from bishops lamenting the lack of in-person worship. Sorry folks, but protecting the lives of others transcends your desire to see our smiling faces in the pews every Sunday. And in other cases, we saw coverage of non-fact-based comments from zany TV reality show doctors, many of whom in reality were nothing but anti-masking trolls.

But perhaps the ugliest of all has been Episcopal Cafe’s suppression of comments critical of TEC. My experience is that the editorial staff have difficulty differentiating that which is true and fair, but critical, of the church, from that which is unfair or mean-spirited.

Particularly ugly was the publication’s recent suppression of my comments about the use of language from Brown v. Board of Education II in the Sewanee letter. Those of us who are old enough to remember the result of that language — which was an additional 20+ years of segregation — know all too well that the phrase was and is a dog whistle to racists.

Nor did others find it offensive. The Wartburg Watch, run by my dear friend Dee Parsons, ran a piece based on my comments, as did several other publications. I can only say that it is a sad day for the Episcopal Church when our evangelical sisters and brothers are willing to have these painful discussions about race, but our denomination is not.

Coming back to LaFond for a moment, he made a mistake in his depiction of Chinese and Japanese culture. For that, he got deplatformed. But the Sewanee bishops made a similar mistake in their use of segregationist language, and Episcopal Cafe is not only okay with that, but it is running interference for them. In short, the publication has lost any claim to independence or editorial integrity as it picks and chooses which comments to moderate based largely on whether editorial staff like those comments. Nor is it helpful to insulate the Sewanee bishops from the notion that they are pretty clueless when it comes to race.

Apologies and the Church

There’s another aspect of editor Amy Haynie’s “apology” that is troubling, which is that is seems insincere and self-serving.

For starters, it opens with “We’re listening.”

That reminds me of the good old days in the telecoms bubble, when I watched myriad companies announce, “We are a viable business enterprise,” only to go out of business days later when they failed to access another tranche of funding.

In other words, if you have to announce it, rather than live it, my money is on the notion that it’s not true.

In the case of Episcopal Cafe, the apology includes a statement encouraging readers to share feedback, and promising a response. But that simply is untrue, for I wrote Amy Haynie some months ago expressing my concern over the publication’s direction, only to be met with a typical Episcopal response: passive-aggressive silence.

Nor did I get a response when I sent a list of hyperlinks to the Episcopal Cafe feedback email address, showing how the phrase “all deliberate speed” is a dog whistle to racists.

The reality is that, if the editors of Episcopal Cafe have already slapped a label on you (think malcontent, anti-church, etc.), you won’t get a response. Thus, the claim that you will get a response is a lie.

And when an apology comes bundled with a lie, that inevitably calls into question the motivation underlying the apology.

It’s also worth noting that I have seen far too many clergy do whatever they want, sometimes for years at a time, then on their way out the door try to escape accountability with profuse apologies, hugs, and more. (Narcissists often will try to play the game of citing specifics of their nonfeasance to try to obtain buy-in, like saying, ‘Of the last 20 vestry meetings, I missed 16!” Yup. Uh-huh. But that didn’t stop you from finding reasons to miss those 16 vestry meetings, now did it?)

These sorts of apologies are not really apologies at all, but instead forms of manipulation intended to evade accountability. And in Amy’s case, it appears that’s exactly what she is trying to do.

Input and Feedback

Input and feedback also loom large in this matter.

Time and time again, we see the Episcopal Church get itself in trouble when leaders conclude they know best, then plow forward with zero empirical evidence to back their conclusion.

We saw that with Randy Hollerith and his, “We need to be open to other perspectives,” routine in the Max Debacle,  even as he was absolutely opposed to any views other than his own.

We see that with bishop Susan Goff and her long-running dispute with me, in which she is so resistant to any outside perspective that challenges her preconceived notions that she’s even willing to say that clergy perjury is okay, just so long as there are no criminal charges.

And we see this with Amy Haynie and the rest of the Episcopal Cafe editorial staff, which makes no effort to solicit feedback, then blunders around yanking comments and feedback at random.

My advice, which I have posted as a comment on Episcopal Cafe, is that if the publication chooses to remain open — and I am not sure it should — it actively solicit feedback from users, then act on that feedback.

Of course, this being a backwater of TEC, I suspect the suggestion will either be ignored, or this will be like the DioVA racial reconciliation listening sessions of 2016. In those sessions, the diocese pulled in all sorts of data, but none of that data went anywhere, and five years later the diocese is finally slowing moving towards some mild follow-up, by appointing people to — you guessed it — yet another commission. No doubt that commission will, in true TEC fashion, grind out a few reports, post a few videos here and there, and call it a day, ignored on every front and having spent a whole lot of time and money with nothing to show for it.

Knowing When to Quit

In all of this, there’s a larger lesson to be learned, and that is the importance of knowing when to pull up stakes and move on.

One friend of mine has noted that at some point I am beating a dead horse in my ongoing critiques of the denomination. After 50+ years in the Episcopal Church, I’m okay with that, at least as long as I find meaning in it, for I consider myself a cultural Episcopalian.

Perhaps part of me secretly hopes that the church will get its act together, despite the fact that, if past indeed is any prologue to the future, such an outcome is unlikely.

In the case of Episcopal Cafe, Helen Kromm rightly notes that the publication has caused hurt for many of us. That raises the question, “Has the publication outlived its usefulness?”

The answer depends on how the publication responds. Amy’s apology asserts that it seeks to keep the trust of its readers, but most of us have transitioned discussion to Facebook and other fora less mercurial in their moderation. In short, our trust is long gone, and Amy’s assertion is clueless and self-serving.

If Episcopal Cafe wants to experience resurrection and rebirth, then I am all for it. But that takes work, painful discussions, and an openness and willingness to engage in a long and difficult task. My sense is that the all-volunteer staff does not have the will to engage in this process. And that would be typical for the church, which wants to sit back and long for the good old days of the 1970’s, when pews were full and money rained down on churches, without really doing anything to achieve that result.

If that indeed is the case — which is that folks aren’t willing to do the heavy lifting needed to effect change — then it indeed is time for Episcopal Cafe to acknowledge it’s been a good run, that the publication as it existed in its prime will be sorely missed, and it’s time to move in new directions.

Unfortunately, being willing to make tough decisions is a novel concept in the church, and I suspect Episcopal Cafe is about to go the way of the larger Episcopal Church — unwilling to change, unwilling to let go, unwilling to survive. Thus, it most likely will slowly collapse into the rot that afflicts the denomination at every level.

Indeed, just as “leaders” in the church resist the need to sell church headquarters, the Madmen-era heap located at 815 Second Avenue in Manhattan, despite the fact that it is a costly, wasteful monument to the hubris of the church and stands in the way of meaningful evangelism, both Episcopal Cafe and the church as a whole appear dedicated to clinging to the last vestiges of glory as the quasi-state church, right up until it’s time to turn the lights off for the last time.

How very sad.

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