Anglican Watch

It’s official — the Diocese of Florida is “psychologically unsafe.” Along with much of the denomination

The Episcopal Church is psychologically unsafe

According to reports in the Church of England’s Church Times and other media outlets, an Episcopal bishop brought in to address long-running conflict in the Episcopal Diocese of Florida has concluded that the Diocese of Florida is “psychologically unsafe.”

No kidding, Captain Obvious.

In fact, the notion that the Diocese is psychologically unsafe is also true for broad swathes of the Episcopal Church.

Focusing on Florida

So what gives in Florida?

The answer is complex and goes far behind the recent failed effort to elect a new bishop diocesan.

Time-wise, issues go back decades and reflect the so-called culture wars within the denomination and American society.

Demographically, the Diocese reflects:

  • Florida’s juxtaposition of retirees (many of whom are conservative)
  • A (for the denomination) high percentage of ethnic minorities
  • An often fiercely outspoken LGBT community, already on high alert after years of conflict with state government officials. 

This combination of differing, sometimes competing, priorities results in numerous opportunities for conflict, particularly as the national church is seen by many as becoming increasingly inclusive and liberal. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Florida overall remains among the more conservative,

The combination of cultural issues and shifting demographics also reflects a trend throughout all mainline denominations, which includes tension between aging individuals with money, power, and access and younger persons who may feel they lack connections to the reins of power.

And to confuse things further, Florida, in particular, reflects the murky polity of the denomination, in which bishops, clergy, and laity alike often are unsure of roles and responsibilities. For example, in recent years, we have seen multiple conflicts within the Diocese over how things get done and who’s responsible versus the substance of the issue — although, invariably, members conflate the substantive and procedural.

This situation, in turn, is compounded by the Episcopal Church’s tendency to form committees, typically with unclear mandates, while controlling access to critical positions via nominating committees and other groups of insiders.

The cherry on top of all these issues was, of course, the abortive effort to elect Charlie Holt bishop diocesan. 

Marred by allegations of anti-LGBT behavior by the current bishop, claims of racism, and charges of election-rigging, the other dioceses, as part of their canonical obligation to approve or reject the elections of bishops across the denomination, rejected Holt’s election.

We can best understand the failed election of Charlie Holt as a symptom of the various challenges confronting the Diocese versus as a problem itself. 

Among the issues we saw play out were:

  • An already highly conflictive denomination that faces further sharp declines in attendance and giving brought about by the pandemic and the passing of the baby boomer generation. As a result, existing trends are exacerbated, including the preference for conflict over reconciliation.
  • Ambiguous lines of authority around the bishop diocesan. The role of the bishop diocesan and their relationship to their diocese and the national church is a perennial problem and one that is difficult to parse. Tension around this role is particularly evident in Florida, where Bishop Howard has played fast and loose with his authority when it’s convenient to do so. For example, Howard’s efforts to wire the election of Charlie Holt as his successor were painfully obvious. At the same time, this behavior led many to attribute other issues — including animus towards LGBTQ+ persons — directly to Howard, when his track record suggests the issue may be attributable to multiple persons and committees within the Diocese.
  • A tendency to protect the organization versus living out the Gospel. Indeed, many of the issues we saw during the abortive Holt election had no connection with faith but instead implicated power and control. A particular favorite of ours was the argument that Holt should be approved by the rest of the denomination as a matter of deference to the will of the individual diocese, as was argued in support of the consecration of openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. But both Florida and Central Florida voted against the Robinson consecration, so Florida clergy who trot out this argument are unlikely to convince anyone.
  • A culture that fails to teach healthy boundaries and normative behaviors. Like much of the Episcopal Church, conflict too often is ignored until it spirals out of control. When it does spin out of control, interventions often are on an individual or small-group basis versus from a parish- or diocesan-wide perspective. Similarly, while the church spends a lot of time and energy on sexual misconduct, it often treats non-sexual misconduct, even if criminal, as non-actionable. Meanwhile, few in the denomination understand conflict as a potentially positive outcome if handled correctly.
  • Unhealthy organizational norms including failing to communicate openly, refusing to take responsibility, lacking urgency, lack of trust, and encouraging an us-versus-them mentality. All of these behaviors are prevalent in the Diocese and detrimental to conflict resolution.
  • Passage of time. One of the great truths of conflict resolution is that conflict ignored is conflict multiplied. Florida has been simmering away for more than a decade, so it was inevitable that, at some point, the pot would boil over. That happening coincides with leadership changes, so things are now even worse, with far too many “leaders” saying, “That happened before I got there.” But being an effective leader means being accountable for all aspects of the organization, both good and bad, in the here and now. 
  • Lack of even a basic understanding of church canons. At one point, the Florida Standing Committee was bewailing the report by the provincial court about LGBTQ+ discrimination in the Diocese, adding the committee’s belief that the report was outside the ambit of the court’s authority. That claim contradicts the express provisions of Canon IV.4.1(f), which require clergy to report all acts of potential clergy misconduct. The fact that the Florida Standing Committee doesn’t understand this fundamental concept behind clergy discipline in the denomination makes clear that Diocesan leaders are woefully unfamiliar with essential aspects of Episcopal polity.
  • Organizational narcissism. More on this later, but one of the most telling signs of structural narcissism in any organization is that it fails to consider that it might be the source of problems. In the case of Florida, the Diocese even went so far as to trot out the racist trope about “outsiders” in order to avoid accountability.

In short, the only things newsworthy about the Florida Diocese being “psychologically unsafe” are that:

  1. Anyone thought the issue was newsworthy,
  2. Those reporting the story missed the larger story (itself scarcely news), which is that much of the Episcopal Church is “psychologically unsafe.”

Looking at the larger Episcopal Church

As we stated previously, the fact that the Diocese of Florida is a hot mess is no surprise, as much of the denomination meets a similar standard.

Indeed, when was the last time a diocese grabbed the bull by the horns and said, “One of our goals is to be a healthy, vibrant diocese. Here’s what we are doing to make this happen.”?

Yes, there are some efforts to promote organizational health afoot, including in the Episcopal Dioceses of Washington and Newark. 

But even those projects are piecemeal and not a centerpiece of diocesan life, as they should be. After all, absent extraordinary increases in life expectancy, one-half of all Episcopal Church members will be dead within 20 years. Thus, the denomination must put its house in order if it wishes to survive in any form to see 2050.

Of course, it is axiomatic that cultural change starts at the top, with an organization’s senior leaders. Yet, in this area, we see Michael Curry, Todd Ousley, and the rest of the drones from church headquarters babbling on about love, even as their actions suggest a different outcome. Indeed, Curry’s love for the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement is so deep he ignores complaints of abuse from within the church.

Similarly, Todd Ousley likes to tell people that the refusal of bishops diocesan to follow the provisions of Title IV is not actionable under the canons–even when it involves allegations of abuse and the rape of children.

That begs the question: Why even have church canons if they go unenforced? Or, worse, they are selectively enforced?

And what does it say about the Episcopal Church when neither Michael Curry, Todd Ousley, or Alabama bishop Glenda Curry (no relation) see any need to alert the public about the allegations in the Losch child rape case

Or the fact that predators often are serial in their conduct, so it’s highly likely that other claims of abuse will emerge? 

Nor should we forget that Glenda Curry is a former healthcare executive who, by definition, should understand the need to report all abuse allegations.

All of these points underscore the ongoing tension within the denomination over the role of the episcopacy. This tension starts with the Office of Presiding Bishop, which was quick to intervene as a plaintiff in the so-called property recovery litigation. The latter was an effort to retain church properties seized by dissidents who sought to affiliate with groups outside the Episcopal Church.

In the case of the property recovery litigation, the national church stridently asserted that the church is hierarchical in polity and holds an equitable interest in parish and diocesan assets based on — you guessed it — church canons. Under this interpretation, the Office of the Presiding Bishop can — and did — exercise its authority all the way down to control over prayer books in the pews.

Yet, when it comes to their fellow Christians and issues of abuse, Todd Ousley and the Office of the Presiding Bishop stridently insist that the denomination is presbyterian in the polity, meaning that if a diocese or bishop diocesan sandbags a Title IV complaint, the national church will not get involved. 

This unwillingness to get hands dirty at church headquarters is the case even in egregious cases involving child rape or other allegations of criminal conduct; in every instance, when pushed, Ousley will respond, “This remains a diocesan matter. Please do not contact me again.”

In other words, the church is hierarchical only when it comes to a bunch of ratty old church buildings. When it comes to clergy misconduct or abuse, forget any notion of hierarchy. Instead, we’re looking at a case of “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.”

A similar approach applies at the diocesan level. When confronted with allegations of clergy misconduct, many judicatories will say they have no authority over intra-parish issues. We get it — inserting oneself into an existing family system is neither easy nor pretty.

But that approach inevitably leads to an explosion of conflict at the parish level, resulting in the very thing bishops diocesan say they can’t do, which is intervention by judicatories on the parish level.

And let’s be clear — much of this is a matter of personal preference on the part of the bishop. 

Indeed, the same bishop who says she can’t overrule local decisions can — and we hope will — intervene if, for example, a local vestry goes rogue and adopts bylaws inconsistent with diocesan or national canons (think the Falls Church Episcopal pre-schism). 

Or endorses white nationalism or otherwise acts in ways not specifically violative of church canons while still conflicting with the baptismal covenant.

It’s also worth noting that this tendency towards overlooking problems at the local level proved disastrous to the denomination in the Texas and South Carolina property litigation, where courts de facto held that not demanding compliance with church canons resulted in the waiver of denominational rights to parish property.

Nor is this tragic refusal to address problems at multiple levels a thing of the past. Consider: Retiring Massachusetts bishop Alan Gates repeatedly ignored pleas for help from the victim of child rape by a priest who, at the time of the assault, was canonically resident in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

And Gates pretty much rolled over and played dead in the Anderson case, which was an appalling case of perjury before a church tribunal, along with alleged sexual harassment of an adult female.

All of these issues suggest a crucial point, which is that taken as a whole, the Episcopal Church is organizationally narcissistic. Thus, the church all too often acts up, with no notion that it might actually be the problem, versus the Diocese of Florida’s mythical “outsiders.” 

Consider this description by British researchers of organizational narcissism:

Extreme narcissistic organizations are unable to behave ethi-

cally because they lack a moral identity. While such organiza-

tions are not necessarily unethical intentionally, they become

self-obsessed and use a sense of entitlement, self-aggrandize-

ment, denial, and rationalizations to justify anything they

do. Extreme narcissistic organizations might develop formal

ethics programs, but such programs will have little effect on


This sounds alarmingly like many Episcopal bishops, including Michael Curry, Todd Ousley, Shannon Johnston, Alan Gates, Susan Goff, Jon Bruno, George Sumner, Chilton Knudsen, and many others.

Again, where else can people in senior leadership positions ignore allegations of child rape? Or the sexual harassment of adult women? Or bullying the dying?

Relatedly, as the Commission on Impairment and Leadership notes, the denomination lacks urgency, accountability, and consistency, even when it comes to the devastating implications of clergy impairment. Indeed, General Convention has been banging out resolutions on this topic since 1979, with zero cultural change.

We note as well that cultural issues within the church extend all the way to people in the pews. Yes, Episcopalians recite the Baptismal Covenant on a regular basis, but time and again, we see parishes where even the most egregious misconduct gets a pass. “I don’t want to get involved,” is the all-too-familiar refrain.

So what should the denomination do when a bishop, diocese, or parish goes rogue?

The answer is not easy and varies by circumstance. But a starting point may be the recognition that, per church canons, all who serve the church do so in a fiduciary capacity.

Relatedly, church members need to understand what it means to be a vestry, standing, or other committee member in a fiduciary capacity. This includes adhering to the highest ethical standards, avoiding self-dealing, and putting the organization’s needs first. We are tired of church members who think they are good Christians, even as they lie about others, bully fellow church members, and otherwise act like jackasses.

From there, at every level, the church needs cultural change. We need to let go of the notion that the Baptismal Covenant applies to thee but not to me. We need to embrace the idea that if one part of the Body of Christ is ill, the entire body also suffers.

Among the cultural changes needed:

  • Integrity
  • Accountability
  • Urgency

We also need the church to drag itself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. 

Right now, having an affair will (unless we’re talking about the Diocese of Virginia) get clergy suspended or defrocked. But unless it involves sex, kids, or money, chances are the church won’t touch it, even if the behavior in question is illegal. In other words, the church remains stuck in a Madmen-era time warp of three-martini lunches, sexual harassment, and men in charge.

Sorry, folks, it doesn’t work that way.

Moreover, we love when intake officers and judicatories say they won’t act unless there’s a criminal conviction. This is a common response, and it ignores the fact that something may, for example, be beyond the statute of limitations while still being illegal. Thus, lack of a criminal conviction is irrelevant, and would prevent clergy discipline in a high percentage of child sexual abuse cases.

But what we need most of all is a presiding bishop who walks the walk. Ignoring allegations of abuse, which we can document ++Curry and +Ousley have done repeatedly, is a recipe for disaster. Simply put, no one wants to join a church whose foundation is built on the shifting sands of hypocrisy.

In other words, more often than not, the Episcopal Church is not psychologically safe, and certainly not for survivors of prior abuse. Nor can anyone expect the church actually to follow a Christian approach to forgiveness and reconciliation, including a genuine apology, repentance, restitution, amendment of life, and more.

Thus, our advice remains the same: If you are interested in the denomination, approach it with great caution. The Episcopal Church talks a good game, but it rarely even tries to walk the talk.

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