I Can’t Breathe: The Episcopal Church and Cheap Grace

By | October 5, 2020

Lately there’s been a lot of talk in the Episcopal Church (TEC) about reconciliation, forgiveness and becoming the beloved community. But much of what passes for reconciliation is nothing but cheap grace and feel-good theology.

Consider the church’s apology for slavery. To be clear, the church needs to atone and repent for its role in slavery. But apologizing for something that ended over 100 years ago doesn’t mean much to those it hurt, and it doesn’t cost the church anything. (That is not to discount those seminaries and other organizations that are paying reparations.)

Similarly, gender-based discrimination is high on the church’s repentance list. But the reality is that the church’s own studies (as well as one done by this author) reveal that the gender pay gap in TEC exceeds that of the private sector. Moreover, the vast majority of so-called cardinal rector positions in the church are held by old white men. And when the last general convention looked at the matter, there was the predictable attempt to refer the matter out for study. Sorry folks. Been there. Done that. Women have been facing an uphill battle for centuries. Don’t need your study to prove it. I need your action to fix it.

Same for LGBT issues. The church finally started to do something beyond bloviate only when the train of larger society already had left that station. So it didn’t take a whole lot of courage to go there. And spare me the bit about the property recovery litigation. That was all about fusty old heaps of ancient real estate, nothing more.

And while many Episcopal churches are okay with gays and lesbians, throw a transgender, a cross-dresser, or a non-gender binary in the mix and things get awkward really quickly.

As to race and ethnicity, every church in which I have been a member has had next to no African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or other minorities. Those churches may hold Zoom meetings, book studies, and Lenten lectures in which they babble on about these issues, but nothing ever comes from them, and far too many devolve into glorified coffee hours, replete with tales of the most recent vacation, who’s having a baby, upcoming weddings, and more. But I have yet to see anyone actually do anything about it.

Here in DioVA, racial reconciliation listening sessions happened in 2015, and five years later we’re just seeing the first signs of follow-up. At this pace, society will have preempted the issue, for good or bad, long before the church ever does anything meaningful. And given the precipitous rate of decline in the Episcopal Church, and given the age of many members, myself included, I simply don’t have 50 more years to spend watching the church dither.

As to sexual harassment, a great many of the provisions that were passed by the House of Delegates at the last general convention were watered down in the House of Bishops, to the point that many were rendered illusory. For example, the anti-retaliation measures in Title IV were changed to cover only conduct prohibited by Title IV, So if, as happened to me, your diocese decides that things like perjury are not proscribed by Title IV, your complaint is not covered, and you are a sitting duck.

Of course, the House of Bishops’ effort to protect its prerogatives smacks of the rampant clericalism in the church. The notion that some dork wearing a collar suddenly has “magic hands” and is entitled to deference and adulation is just silly, and there are far too many clergy aka professional Christians running around TEC, getting paid far too much, with far too little to do.

And then we get bishops like Susan Goff telling clergy that God rejoices when they take their sabbath and take a break from the stress and anxiety. That may be true, but it’s very clear that she has not worked in a “civilian” job in a long time, if ever. My only vacation in the last 20 years was three days for my honeymoon, and I am far from atypical. So I’m not feeling it when she urges clergy to engage in self-care, particularly in larger, more affluent parishes.

Then there’s the issue of nonverbal messaging and the church—a topic I will cover further in an upcoming post. As an example, consider diocesan headquarters Mayo House here in Virginia. A costly, antebellum house with a big, crumbling portico; a locked front gate; a clumsy entrance addition on the back; an unkempt lawn; humongous energy bills and painfully bad climate control;  Mayo House sits right across from the Jefferson Hotel, the four-star, Belle Époque hangout for the good and the beautiful of the area.

What message does that send to others about the diocese and its priorities? And why are there no food pantry, public chapel, or other community services located there? I submit that the message is that the diocese’s priority is to hang onto the crumbling vestiges of its role as a quasi-state church, versus actually engaging with the world around it. Indeed, all it needs is the caricature of Mammy leaning out the window, bellowing to Miss Scarlett about her shawl, and we’re magically carried back to Clayton County and Tara. Hardly conducive to welcoming African-Americans. Or anyone else who cares about inclusion and diversity.

While we’re at it, let’s consider some of the less obvious areas in which the church could become the beloved community.

Shortly after the debacle of the Bishop Cook DUI, the Diocese of Virginia announced it would do something that had been discussed for years, which was to address misuse of alcohol in the church. But nothing happened until several years later, when I noted on Episcopal Cafe that the diocese’s promise that it would update its alcohol policy shortly was left undone several years later, Shortly afterwards, the diocese published a perfunctorily tweaked version of its existing, amorphous alcohol policy. Task accomplished, inbox emptied, next.

And lest we forget, when the national executive committee met a few miles down the road from the place where Cook was imprisoned, no one went to see Cook. So much for the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. Potential legal liability, I guess.

Ironically, allegedly recovering alcoholic Bishop Chilton Knudsen is one of the few who visited Cook. In doing so, she said:

Bishop Chilton Knudsen, 72, who was chosen to replace Cook in the Maryland Diocese, said she has met with her predecessor “on my own volition” and because “I also want Heather to know that not everybody in the Episcopal Church has it out for her.”

Knudsen, an expert on alcoholism who is celebrating 31 years of sobriety this month, said people in the Baltimore-based Diocese of Maryland continue to have a range of emotions about Cook.”

I am so glad to hear that “not everyone in the Episcopal Church has it out for her.”

In the meantime, given that Knudsen, in her role as bishop adjudicatory in my Title IV case against my former priest, says that clergy perjury is not actionable under church disciplinary rubrics, all I can say is that while she may be a recovering alcoholic, her judgment and ethical reference point need a serious bout of recovery.

Nor did she comply with the Title IV requirement of a “pastoral response” in my case, so perhaps it is best that she stick to hanging out with fellow alcoholics.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church lags behind the Catholic church in clergy ethics. Increasingly, Catholic dioceses have written policies that forbid bullying, harassment, disrespect and other forms of non-sexual misconduct, aka spiritual abuse. Yet speaking from experience, I can assure readers that most Episcopal dioceses would either take a complete pass on such issues, proclaiming them not to be “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” In other words, not worth its lofty time and attention. Or the bishop diocesan might issue some wishy-washy suggestion that the clergy in question not rock the boat. Hardly the stuff of beloved community.

In short, grace, reconciliation and healing don’t come from studies. They don’t come from resolutions. Nor do they come from book groups, vestry meetings, studies, diocesan conventions, or Lenten lecture series.

Grace, reconciliation, healing come from actions, large and small. They come from accountability. They come from respecting the dignity of every human being. They come from telling the truth.

When, as here, the Episcopal Church spends its time and resources talking about reconciliation, versus living into reconciliation, that in itself is sin. It’s cheap grace. It’s fraud. It’s hypocrisy.

I can’t breathe.

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