Disclosure: Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti is a former member of Grace Episcopal Alexandria
Today’s visit by bishop diocesan Mark Stevenson to Grace Episcopal Alexandria marks another milestone in what is proving to be the meltdown of the diocese’s only Anglo-Catholic parish.
Stevenson’s visit raises various questions about the myriad problems facing the parish. This post flags just a few of these challenges.
Lack of Christian worldview
It sounds ironic when talking about a church, but the foundational problem at Grace is that it lacks a Christian worldview.
Over the years, the church has slowly morphed into a faith-free social club. Yes, there is the empty rote of the creeds and the baptismal covenant, but parishioners recite these without introspection.
Grace is a parish where people go to Mass at 10:30 or 11:15 a.m., then give people the middle finger on their way out of the parking lot. It’s a parish in which it’s okay to:
- Lie about fellow parishioners.
- Gossip about others, aka talking about others, versus with others.
- Hit on married parishioners.
- Shun others because they did something parishioners don’t like.
Moreover, parishioners take the view that the ends justify the means.
For example, we have situations like Sugarland Chiow’s courtroom fabrications involving a former parishioner, false statements of law and fact, and more. (Sugarland gained his nickname for a fake town he invited for his pleadings, replete with an imaginary church shooting.)
Moreover, it’s a safe bet that Sugarland will never have the integrity to admit his misconduct. Christian faith within the parish doesn’t run that deep, and going to church is something he does so “the kids have a foundation.” It’s not something relevant to his day-to-day conduct.
Nor is most formation effective. Yes, it’s good to have a mix of fun and faithful, but much of what passes for Christian formation at Grace is fluff, like providing background on the stained glass windows.
Thus, Grace needs to focus on growing and living a Christian faith.
Lack of internalization
Relatedly, many at Grace have failed to internalize their purported faith.
We see this in attendees at Education for Ministry (EFM). Some of the most regular participants are also among the least spiritually healthy in the church. Whether it’s substance abuse, gossip, bullying, or other misconduct, it’s a damning thing when parishioners can attend EFM for three years and not see a disconnect between their conduct and their purported faith.
This disconnect comes right from the top. Whether it’s feckless clergy just going through the motions, priests who refer to their congregants as “assholes” or “domestic terrorists,” or priests who think it’s okay to have extramarital affairs, parishioners have the right to expect their clergy to be who they say they are.
Thus, because there’s long been a disconnect between clergy’s alleged beliefs and their behavior, parishioners don’t see any reason to align their behavior with their purported beliefs.
And so, parishioners need to examine their conduct and that of the church and ask, “How does the behavior align with the faith?”
Lack of leadership
Another challenge is that most real leaders left Grace Church long ago. Thus, what passes for leadership is often the best of a bad bunch.
Much of that problem arises from past tampering with the vestry. Long ago, the rector removed decision-making authority from the vestry by appointing the executive committee and choosing loyalists.
Thus, instead of decisions based on what’s best from a Christian perspective, vestry members and other leaders have long made decisions based on the rector’s personal views.
And while past rectors have always been down for a good time — including the drunken blow-out that is Shrine Mont — they have had little appetite for making tough decisions. This gap in decision-making includes:
- Addressing issues like extramarital affairs or theft from the parish by parishioners.
- Making budget decisions based on the parish’s best interests versus the rector’s.
- Ensuring the parish has top-quality employees who are adequately supervised and compensated.
- Addressing issues like a lack of evangelism. (Sorry folks, but at best, a few yard signs and Art on the Avenue are illusory.)
Thus, parishioners need to learn to ask, “Is this someone who makes decisions from a Christian perspective based on what is best for the parish and those who comprise it?”
Hand in hand with leadership and internalizing Christian faith is the need for accountability.
Accountability is something that real leaders impose on themselves. It means:
- Holding oneself to the highest standards.
- Making changes when one sees they have made a mistake.
- Operating with transparency and openness versus conducting business behind closed doors.
- Helping others live up to their full potential.
Thus, church members need to learn to be accountable at every level. That includes accountability to God, each other, and self.
Like many Episcopal churches, Grace operates with a lack of urgency. The parish prefers to kick the can down the road whenever possible versus dealing with reality.
For example, the debacle with the HVAC systems in 2015 was years in the making. Not only had the church ignored the imminent demise of these systems for years, but members also ignored multiple written warnings.
Indeed, soon after the outdoor line ruptured right before Thanksgiving in 2014, churchwardens ignored warnings to flush the HVAC lines before further operating the system. The result was catastrophic failure.
In short, there was zero planning for these issues and no concept that there was any need to do anything beyond kicking the can down the road.
The parish needs to stop playing games and get on with things.
Lack of planning
This issue goes back decades.
The old saw is true: If you fail to plan, you’ll surely wind up there.
These days, the parish is doing better on the tactical level. For example, after years of urging, the parish finally has a replacement reserve study. (A previous study, paid for by a private donor, was thrown in the trash by the donor in response to childish, hateful behavior by Lisa Medley.)
But there’s still no top-level plan. Where is God calling the parish? Where do we dream of being five years from now? Ten years from now? How will we grow?
And for the record, churches can and do plan successfully for growth. For example, members were able to grow the parish at The Falls Church Episcopal. Parishioners did the same at Epiphany, Herndon.
Yet it doesn’t even occur to members of Grace Church that the place can and must grow if it wants to survive.
Instead, the place focuses on details like the flowers for the next service. Or what kind of wine to bring to Shrine Mont.
Nor does the church try to identify resources to begin this discussion. There are numerous churches out there that are growing, but does anyone ask how they do it? No.
Thus, the parish needs to start thinking and dreaming of the future.
Developing healthy family systems
At every level, Grace Church has unhealthy family systems.
Like any toxic family system, Grace parishioners think there’s nothing wrong with things as they are. Yet that overlooks the departure of two-thirds of the church’s pledging units over the past ten years, the loss of one-third of the church’s purchasing power during that time, and the fact most employees no longer even stay for the time specified in the contract.
That begs the question: Why is it imploding if Grace is such a slice of stained-glass paradise?
Part of the problem is that parishioners, including those who should know better, view any criticism of the place or its clergy as somehow “disloyal.” That in itself indicates a toxic system.
Nor will blaming the church’s woes on bloggers or other “domestic terrorists” work. Grace Church is in free fall all on its own, and many newcomers have left after being ignored at services. Or being yelled at by parishioners who think they are in charge of this green earth. Or overhearing parishioners gossip about them.
And while idiots like Lisa Medley claim these issues are ones that, inter alia, our editor “narcissistically attributes to himself,” that is a complete fabrication. Indeed, we give full credit to assholes like Medley, Alison Campbell, Jan Spence and others who, thanks to their bad behavior, have managed to send a parish that predates the civil war into a death spiral.
Nor is it reasonable for parishioners to conclude that former members who have been pushed out of the church, referred to as “dysfunctional,” “serial liars,” and “domestic terrorists,” or otherwise badly treated have any obligation to the parish. That’s the thing about acting badly towards other Christians—you can reasonably expect them to tell others about their experiences.
Thus, parishioners need to choose life or death for their parish. If things continue in their present direction, including the childish and petty behavior, the church will die.
If the parish changes, it may live. Those choices are entirely in the hands of parishioners.
Worshiping false gods
Remember the bit about not worshiping false gods? That’s every bit as true today as when Moses came rolling through, only to discover the Israelites had started worshipping a golden calf.
Today, members of Grace parish far too often worship their rector. That’s sad, because so far we have not yet met a single clergyperson at Grace even worthy of emulation, let alone worship.
If the parish wants to survive, it’s going to need to let go of the over-the-top clericalism. If the place put half as much time and effort into worshipping God as it does its rector, the place would be a center of pilgrimage for Christians of every ilk.
As things stand, Grace church is fast imploding. Absent a focus on the things that matter, it will be gone in the not distant future.
It’s tough to turn around an organizationally narcissistic parish like Grace. That’s particularly true when, as here, parishioners lack even rudimentary introspection.
Additionally, such efforts are costly, emotionally taxing, and take a long time. Members also must understand that some issues involving the church are irreparable. That’s simply a function of the magnitude of the church’s self-inflicted damage.
Will Grace Church decide to live? We are not sure. But we will continue to watch closely, as the parish is, in many ways, a microcosm of the diocese and the larger Episcopal Church.