Anglican Watch

Forgotten victims: Episcopal church musicians

Episcopal musicians far too often face abuse

“We’re only as sick as our secrets” — AA

”Some of the most harmful abuse faced by employees is the least obvious, because it is not necessarily physical or sexual. How will the church take seriously the insidious and detrimental effects of psychological and emotional abuse?” — Association of Anglican Musicians

In our coverage of abuse in the Episcopal Church, there is one victim that emerges in almost every case. Unfortunately, that victim gets too little attention from us and even less from judicatories, bishops, clergy, and lay leaders. That person is the church musician, who often endures long hours, modest pay, and workplace conditions — including harassment, bullying, abuse, and intimidation — that would quickly result in intervention by the courts or the human resource department in a for-profit organization.

Music: an Anglican heritage

One of the glories of Anglicanism is the long tradition of glorious music, including Evensong and the great cathedral choirs of England.

This beautiful legacy has its roots in the Elizabethan Settlement, in which Queen Elizabeth I, beset by Roman Catholics on one side and Puritans on the other, herself a lover of music, fought vigorously to preserve and grow the church’s musical heritage. Indeed, Elizabeth was an avid patron of music, employing a large number of musicians in the royal court and chapel. As a result, music itself became an instrument of power politics in royal circles, used to convey messages, defuse conflict, and curry favor.

Today, that legacy, while diminished, continues.

Indeed, even many otherwise unconnected with Anglicanism are familiar with the Festival of Lessons and Carols, which dates to the late 19th century.

Similarly, the choirs of Westminster and Kings College are recognized the world over for their glorious works, which are widely available in a variety of mediums. And Elizabethan church music, particularly that of Tallis and Byrd (both Roman Catholic), remains a staple of classical music, while Anglican chant is regarded by many as gloriously beautiful.

The role of musicians today

Parishes in the Episcopal Church today, almost without exception, have musical programs. Whether it’s a part-time choir director and all-volunteer choir or paid musicians (like St. Paul’s K Street, St. John’s Cathedral in Detroit, and many others), music remains a staple of life in the Episcopal Church.

Of course, as times change, there exist inherent tensions. For instance, one church we know ignores its majestic pipe organ, badly in need of repair, yet has three keyboards in the sanctuary. Another parish has a praise band, much to the dismay of the choir director. Others struggle to integrate seemingly high-brow Anglican music with other musical traditions, including New Age and Christian Rock.

Not surprisingly, these tensions often result in bad behavior within the church, with church musicians routinely bearing the brunt.

Indeed, we have seen church members who can’t even hum a tune lecture highly proficient church musicians on how to play the organ. Or church staff members tell music directors, “It’s nice of you to join us,” when the latter rolls in at 10 AM, conveniently overlooking the fact the musician worked until 10 PM the previous day.

Nor are clergy much better. Whether it’s the allegations that Dan McClain fired a previous music director by email, or allegations that Bill AllportBill Allport, the alcoholic former rector of St. Paul’s, Englewood, bullied his director of music, or the literally dozens of other cases we have followed, Episcopal clergy seem, far too often, to view church musicians as their punching bags.

There’s also another variation on the theme of clergy bullying church musicians, and that is clergy ignoring the bullying of musicians under their supervision. Both other staff and laity often feel free to mistreat musicians, yet when the issue comes up, priests may intone nonsense like, “father can’t fix everything” (you know who you are.)

Of course, that doesn’t justify fixing nothing. Nor does it justify ignoring the obligation to resist injustice and oppression — particularly when, as a rector, priest in charge, or bishop, you are responsible for HR issues.

Relatedly, bishops often are reluctant to “undercut” clergy when a church musician complains of sexual harassment or other abuse. Indeed, in one case we have covered, Bishop Shannon Johnston covered up a particularly egregious case of sexual harassment by a priest under his supervision; the female organist who filed the complaint received no care or support from Johnston or the diocese at all.

The role of gender and sexual orientation

We also want to name the elephant in the living room. Specifically, musicians tend to be easy targets because they comprise a high percentage of women and gay men. (Don’t even get us started on gender-based pay equity in the church.)

Thus, a church that claims to be radically inclusive far too often acts in a way that is either not inclusive or in a way that makes the disenfranchised believe they’re better off NOT being included.

In either case, actions speak louder than words.

Church pay structures also reflect bias. Male rectors in cardinal parishes often pull down more than $100K a year, and $200K a year certainly is not unheard of.

But musicians, who may have every bit as much education as a priest, are lucky if they break 60K in the same parish.


And how does paying a barely living wage comport with the church’s commitment to social justice?

Church musicians respond

In 2023, the Association of Anglican Musicians (AAM) a non-profit that represents musicians in the Episcopal Church, issued a report on the problems its members face in the denomination. We won’t recount at length the findings and recommendations in the report, but we do agree with both.

As a result, we commend the report, which we republish below, to our readers.

A couple of key points we’d like to flag:

  • The observation that Title IV, in practice, applies only to financial and sexual misconduct, is spot on.
  • The statement that the church lacks accountability and that retaliation is, in practice, okay in Episcopal workplaces is painfully accurate.

Taking action

Anglican Watch hopes that the AAM will work to bring its concerns to the floor at the upcoming General Convention. We also encourage AAM members to participate in the discussions around Title IV and the need for changes in the church’s clergy disciplinary processes, which are largely the work of the Title IV task force and the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons.

Far too often, we see church musicians thrown under the bus, and this needs to end.

Further, the notion that Title IV only applies to sex and money needs to stop. Title IV is supposed to be a path toward healing and reconciliation, but far too often, it’s a path to further pain, trauma, and frustration. Additionally, the implementation of Title IV frequently reflects profound corruption, especially when judicatories wrongfully dismiss cases during intake. Shannon Johnston, Susan Goff, Alan Gates, Chilton Knudsen, Paula Clark, and Todd Ousley, that would be you.

Thus, we hope that all members of the General Convention will collaborate to address the issues raised by the AAM versus relying on musicians to bring these issues to the fore. As we have said many times, the church as she is now is not the church as we wish it to be. Nor is it the church that God wishes it to be.

The time to end abuse by clergy, including in the workplace, is now.


  1. At one Episcopal church I attended, I learned a choir director threw an object, I think an eraser, at an older lady when she nodded off during practice (turns out she had cancer, though hadn’t announced it yet).
    My understanding is that this incident was not sufficient cause to dismiss this choir director, though he was later terminated for other things.

  2. This is a great article. The idea that we are “as sick as our secrets” is very true. Many times people think that a secret is something that nobody knows. That is not true. I once heard this explained by a psychotherapy colleague that a “secret” is NOT something we do not know about, but rather it something that everyone knows, but no one TALKS about it.

    This is so true in institutions, especially in churches. People know what the sick secrets are, but they refuse to talk about it. Consequently, the sickness only gets worse.

    Currently, scores and scores of churches are imploding, albeit some more slowly than others. Yet, the leadership will not address the problem. Additionally, dysfunctional clergy will perpetuate the problem by denying the problem, usually by saying, “We will not talk about that, so don’t bring it up.” I am thinking of about three particular congregations where many members are tired of what is happening. Yet, their ministers keep the parishioners at bay and refuses to be honest and transparent. In one particular instance, the parish musician’s job is allegedly on the chopping block, and the individual doesn’t seem to even know it.

    Thank you for the article! Maybe this will be the catalyst for change somewhere, and somehow. One can only hope!

    1. Thanks Rich. Here’s hoping we see a push for integrity at the upcoming General Convention. We note that several of the candidates for Presiding Bishop have Title IV meltdowns in their past, so our hope is that delegates will look long and hard at these issues as they make a decision.

      If the church is to have any hope of survival, integrity going forward is essential.

  3. I wonder if this has something to do with the reckoning that happened in the church not too long ago where it had to choose between shuttering forever or become inclusive. The difference can be felt you welcome LGBT+ people for financial reasons and not because deep down in your heart you believe in radical justice.

    That’s why the top earners in the church are often cishet and white.

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