Episcopal Diocese of Virginia Holds Convention, Approves $10 Million in Racial Reparations

By | November 14, 2021
Episcopal Diocese of Virginia

During its 227th annual convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia approved a fund of $10 million in reparations for its role in slavery and institutional racism. But while the news is commendable, the convention overall was a mixed bag, marked by resolutions and canonical amendments of varying quality.

Before we go further, it’s worth noting that one measure reached the floor the had already been approved via the consent agenda. Thus, even with lawyers and apparatchiks in all directions, diocesan staff and volunteers were not exactly on top of their game.

The Good

Racial reconciliation

The good news is that, after last year’s convention rejected calls for reparations, the diocese finally bit the bullet, approving creation of a $10 million Impact Fund for racial reparations.

Particularly compelling were the comments of Davette Himes, whose ancestors were held in slavery by a variety of persons connected with the church. Her remarks were a poignant reminder of the breadth and depth of racism, slavery, the church’s complicity in these sins, and the suffering that still occurs as a result.

But even as the diocese moves forward on this issue, we see ghosts of all-too-familiar issues lurking. These include the church’s propensity towards thinking that cash is the solution to every problem, versus changing hearts, and transactional, versus transformational, solutions. If nothing else, the fact the church needs an “Impact Fund” speaks compellingly about how other funds are used. I mean, if the church isn’t impactful, what use is it? That speaks to the denomination’s propensity for doing church, versus being church.

Also implicated is the church’s tendency towards bureaucracy.

In this case, the Reparations Task force disburses the funds, subject to potential veto by the executive board. This author cringes when he contemplates the endless squabbling that may arise, when advocates for one project or another start lobbying the executive board for overrides and vetos. And no doubt the diocese will be true to form, with the usual group of insiders in charge of doling out the dollars.

Transparency

There also were several positive moves towards transparency, including canonical changes concerning open meetings. These are much needed, as far too many decisions at both the diocesan and parish level are still made behind closed doors. And the best practices for virtual meetings are much-needed guidance at a time when far too many parishes are trying to clamber on board the virtual church bus, with very little understanding of the underlying issues.

At the same time, the practical result likely will be minimal. Absent training and education, cultural norms throughout the church will remain unchanged, with organizations and vestries committed to good governance already having open meetings, and those that play the insiders game doing their best to avoid scrutiny.

The So-So

Shrine Mont

 One of the more ironic discussions was around Shrine Mont, the diocesan retreat center and its summer camp program. Specifically, the resolution that reached the floor talked about how the Holy Spirit moved with “particular enthusiasm” at the various summer camps for youth held at Shrine Mont, even as it lamented continuing declines in enrollment.

Think about it.

If the Holy Spirit is spending its days hanging at Shrine Mont (and not the Holy Spirit of the various scotch tastings held by parishes at the site), why is enrollment declining? If we truly are made in God’s image, wouldn’t we be drawn to the workings of the Holy Spirit?

Nor was the resolution particularly useful.

At issue was whether to have the myriad camp programs that have been held in the past, but cancelled the last two years due to COVID. But the reality is that, resolution or not, Shrine Mont will hold as many camps as it can fill and staff. And while I have concerns about Shrine Mont, its approach to finances and its governance, I do not question the enthusiasm and motivation of its staff, clergy, and volunteers. Nor do I question their willingness to provide vibrant programs. As a result, a task force to provide guidance adds just another layer of distraction.

Covenantal Giving

 We also saw approval of a curious proposal to address parish giving to the diocese, which was a measure directing all vestries to pledge per calculations performed by the diocese, based on “Plate offerings, pledge payments & regular support,” with no definition supplied for the latter. For 2023, pledges would be at 8 percent of revenue, 9 percent the following year, and 10 percent the following.

For the record, the discussion spent considerable time on perceived confusion over what income is included in the current guidelines. That is a red herring, as the guidelines are clear: If it’s operating income, in it goes.

In other words, there’s no confusion, just folks playing games with the numbers.

And true to form, the measure is a masterpiece of weasel wording. It talks about parish pledges as voluntary, but if a parish doesn’t approve the full sum, the decision to reduce it is voted on by the executive board after a public discussion aka shaming session.

Sounds voluntary to me. Indeed, Fidel Castro would be proud.

The problem will come in as parishes treat programs as off-budget, whether this includes music funds, flowers, candles, ECW, or any of the dozens of programs that routinely fall into the shell game of parish governance. In short, the initiative incentivizes sneaky conduct and bad governance.

Another challenge will be enforcement. What will the diocese do if a parish simply pledges what it feels like, then ignores the summons to appear before the executive board? Take the place over? Revert it to mission status? Fire the rector? Send the bishop in full regalia to berate the wayward parish?

In short, enforcement involves myriad unpalatable decisions that may make things worse, not better.

To be clear, stabilizing diocesan revenue is important, to be sure. But parishes give joyfully when they perceive value from the diocese. When the diocese does little for them except to show up once a year for the episcopal visit (even that now is looking a whole lot less certain), mishandles clergy discipline, loses track of its assets, and takes years to accomplish even basic programmatic goals, parishes rightly don’t feel like giving.

There’s also a real risk, seemingly not considered by the task force, that those who dislike the diocese will choose to fund their parishes in ways that funds don’t reach the diocese. This may take the form of unannounced gifts late in December, restricted donations, or support for specific programs, versus general parish operations. In short, there are all sorts of ways to sidestep this “voluntary” giving, and you can bet your bottom dollar we will see folks try every trick out there to do so.

At the end of the day, this resolution fails to address root causes of declining giving, which include high levels of unresolved conflict in the diocese, lack of trust, lack of strategic direction, failure to live into the diocese’s goal of “healing across differences,” and a generally feckless approach by the diocese to its mission, governance, and ministry.

Thus, this initiative is likely to prove to be yet another case of rearranging the deck chairs, even as the ship takes on water.

Title IV

 One of the pleasant surprises was a resolution that passed to increase awareness of Title IV and how to file a complaint. Introduced by Alyse Viggiano, the associate rector at St. Paul’s Alexandria, the measure calls for the diocese to publicize how to file a Title IV complaint.

Given the prevalence of misconduct in the denomination, I’m all for the measure.

But there’s a larger issue here, which is that diocesan staff are poorly trained on Title IV and unwilling to follow its requirements. Thus, unless the conduct in question involves sex, children, or money, a Title IV complaint will go nowhere, add insult to injury, and likely result in retaliation from the respondent.

In other words, encouraging more people to participate in a broken program likely will result in greater harm, not less harm.

In that regard, the Catholic church recently announced that it is expanding the reach of its anti-abuse programs to include spiritual abuse of adults. That’s spot on, for sexual abuse typically occurs in environments in which abuse is acceptable. Thus, sexual misconduct is but one aspect of an array of abusive conduct.

Yet in the Episcopal church, there is next to no understanding of this continuum of abuse. And the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is utterly blind to its ethical deficit in this area, just as it has spent the last 400 years condoning slavery and racism.

Thus, I was glad to see this small step towards greater accountability. But the denomination’s track record is so bad when it comes to non-sexual abuse that this is a drop in the bucket of changes that need to occur.

Deacons

 Another measure that passed calls for parishes to make token payments to deacons to allow them to access Church Pension Group services, like Credo.

The move is a good one, as deacons often are the engines that make parishes turn, while getting very little in return.

But implicit in the discussion was the notion that deacons are, by definition, non-stipendiary. That’s undoubtedly the case for most, but I have known some excellent paid deacons, and believe that there is a role for compensated deacons, particularly when the deacon fills another role. For example, a deacon might serve as a family/youth minister, a parish administrator, or other key roles. Thus, it is important not to pigeonhole the diaconate, or to be closed to various theological understandings of their role in the church.

So, the measure was good, but it carried with it some implications that could be troublesome down the road.

The Ugly

 Climate Emergency

 Of course, no diocesan convention would be complete without some really bad resolutions. In this case, the climate emergency measure ranks high on the list of duds.

To be clear, I believe we are in a climate emergency. I support measures to address it. And I personally purchase carbon offsets to reduce my climate footprint as much as possible.

But passing an empty, feel-good measure calling for the diocese to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 is neither a solution, nor likely to lead to one.

Consider: Most of the church buildings in the diocese were built at a time when insulation wasn’t  available for most construction projects. They are not profoundly energy inefficient, and while some tinkering is possible along the margins, one cannot change their climate change footprint of these buildings in any meaningful way.

Indeed, we have only to look at the creaky, decaying, poorly maintained, splendidly energy inefficient and profoundly unwelcoming diocesan headquarters, Mayo House, aka Tara for its unfortunate plantation-like appearance (replete with locked front gate), to understand the issue. The heap speaks to a diocese hanging onto the vestiges of its former glory, profoundly out of touch with the world around it, and sitting in splendid isolation, surrounded by the red silk wall paper. The building has no insulation, single pane windows, and lots of deferred maintenance, including a crumbling front portico held up by “temporary” wooden supports that have been there for years.

Simply put, Mayo House is a public relations and environmental disaster on every front, and it should be unloaded as soon as possible. Whether as a museum, to a private investor, or via other means, it doesn’t matter how. Far better to pick up space in the many churches with unused space, or to be in a store front in a blighted area of the Richmond. But as it stands no one even considers selling Tara, and thus net zero greenhouse gas emissions simply is not going to happen.

Email Addresses

 Another measure that went down in flames was one to publicize email or snail mail addresses for the executive board and standing committee. That’s a shame, because it was a measure that should have passed.

The proposal garnered a lot of debate.

On the pro side, it was rightly suggested that it is hard to have openness and transparency when one cannot directly contact one’s elected officials.

On the other hand, some pointed to the possibility of being bombarded by haters. Indeed, one person said she didn’t want to hear from people she called out for being racists.

That begs the issue: How can we expect racists to change if we condemn them, then refuse to engage in dialogue? Similarly, all one has to do it it mark offensive emails as spam, or block the sender.

Or hit the delete button.

Moreover, Susan Goff waded in, saying that emails to the standing committee and executive board are forwarded by Mayo House to individual email addresses. But that misses the underlying point, which is that it makes diocesan staff the arbiter of what elected representatives receive.

In other words, it’s like Donald Trump forcing all cabinet members to receive email after its screened by the Oval Office. Yes, that would likely filter out junk messaging, but at the same time this approach exerts a profound chilling effect on free speech, and builds a nomenklatura that lives inside the walled garden of Mayo House.

That’s exactly the mindset that needs to change if the Episcopal Church is to live into its claim to be welcoming and inclusive. Inclusive means just that — including being open to differing perspectives. Yes, we may not like everything we hear or read, but that is the price of inclusion.

And no, I am not saying that there are “good people on both sides” when it comes to racism, or that it’s okay to be racist. I’m merely saying that not having individual contact info for the church’s elected representatives is a bad idea.

Parental Leave

Another debacle was a measure asking — but not requiring — vestries to expand parental leave. The measure was referred to the executive board for study of the potential fiscal impact of the measure, which was just plain dumb.

To be clear, the measure imposed no requirements. All it was was guidance.

As such, the measure was purely aspirational. Like most such measures, those parishes and organizations with the resources and inclination to do so will continue to be generous on this issue, regardless of the measure, Those that can’t or won’t go there wouldn’t have had to change were the measure adopted.

Thus, while I’m not a big fan of feel-good resolutions, I like it even less when such measures are referred for study aka busy work aka naval gazing.

There simply was no reason not to pass this measure and keep on trucking.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the more the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia changes, the more it stays the same. We still see the same creaky organization, focused on safe topics like race, with no emphasis on personal spiritual growth. We still see huge gaps in organizational integrity, akin to those that have allowed systemic racism to thrive well into the 21st century. We still see a diocese that is reactive, that lacks strategic direction, and that is painfully unwilling to acknowledge its own sinfulness.

Might the reparations measure be the start of transformation? One hopes so, but given the diocese’s track record, there’s little reason to suspect that will happen.

Nor do we see social justice close to home. The diocese remains mired in conflict, still lacks behavioral norms, and still behaves badly when questioned or confronted. Passive-aggressive behavior remains all too common.

In short, even as the diocese announces grand gestures like reparations, we see an organization with rot that extends to its very core and absolutely no ability to see the rot, or address the rot.

I remain deeply concerned about the future of the diocese.

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