One of the things that is interesting in watching the Episcopal Church over the years is how customs start out being progressive, then become normative, and finally become outdated. That is the case with funeral customs in the Episcopal Church, which at one time were greener than most, but today are increasingly outdated. Indeed, many today no longer consider the typical Episcopal funeral to be environmentally friendly.
Thus, given the aging demographics of the Episcopal church and the burgeoning death count due to the pandemic, the time has come to rethink the Episcopal way of death.
Growing up in the church, I well remember traditional Episcopal funerals. The closed casket sat in front of the chancel, draped in a pall, often surrounded by four vigil candles and with the Paschal candle nearby.
Such services often included several viewings at the funeral home, a graveside service, and a reception afterwards, resulting in a costly production involving embalming, myriad limousines, flower cars, and a cast of characters adequate to produce a minor motion picture. And while the pall over the casket and the customary limit of two flower arrangements on the altar ostensibly made all decedents equal in the eyes of God, lavish receptions, costly monuments, and mountains of flowers at the viewing made sure that all involved were suitably apprised of the survivors’ financial and social position.
At the same time, these funerals were like 60’s muscle cars — all about appearance and performance, with no consideration for the environmental consequences, or even whether they were sensible choices for most people.
The Rise of Cremation
But even as society increasingly embraced cremation in the 1970’s, so too did the Episcopal Church lead the way.
Beginning with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which set out specific provisions for use in conjunction with cremations (and was the first prayer book in the Anglican Communion to do so), cremation became increasingly prevalent in the church. Indeed, in many cases, cremation was less expensive, and perceived as environmentally friendly.
The shift in funeral customs was also beneficial to many parishes. Not only could churches offer members the opportunity for a church burial — a tradition dating to the earliest days of the church — but those with churchyards experienced less pressure to find additional burial plots. And columbariums and memorial gardens offered a helpful revenue stream for many churches, even as America’s aging demographics created financial stressors for parishes. And while few would admit it, church burials were a way to ensure continuing connections between a church and a decedent’s extended family, even as society became increasingly mobile.
As a result, it’s been many years since I’ve seen a “traditional” Episcopal funeral, in the sense of a closed casket, hearse, and related accoutrements.
Indeed, a few years ago, I attended a funeral at an Episcopal church, only to be shocked to discover a viewing under way in the narthex. To be fair, the family in question was of limited means, and the parish, like most, did not permit an open casket in the nave. Thus, a compromise was reached to permit the family to have the viewing in the narthex, which saved the expense of a separate viewing at the funeral home. A sound decision by all involved, but sufficiently rare as to be a surprise.
Instead, most Episcopalians today now choose cremation, with the ashes later present in the church for a memorial service. Thus, cremation, which was an newfound trend in the 1970’s, has become the status quo in the Episcopal church, even as much of the world around the church moves in new and different directions.
Emerging Funeral Trends
Today, outside the church, Americans increasingly trend towards green burials, in which the cemetery does not permit embalmed remains, sometimes referred to as natural burial. Such arrangements account for five percent of funerals, while 72 percent of cemeteries reporting getting the question regularly, and 54 percent of Americans expressing interest in such arrangements.
Some, like liquid cremation, have been around for years for pets and research cadavers, but are slowly getting traction in the funeral industry. Other options are really out there, like hiring the team in Russia that maintains Lenin’s mummified remains. (Yes, for $200K a year, you can spend eternity in a glass box, providing the grandkids with a Halloween unmatched by any of the other kids in the hood.)
Meanwhile, cremation is looking less desirable to many consumers, primarily for its environmental implications. Each cremation results in an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide, generating a total of 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the US every year.
Nor is cremation a guarantee of cost savings, as funeral directors increasingly think of ways to increase profits. These range from reef burials for ashes, to shooting them into space, to mausoleum niches and costly urns. Indeed, grandma’s or even Fluffy’s ashes can now even be made into high-end gemstones.
And absent the right equipment, thus mercury fillings you got in 70’s will aersolize, and head right up flue and into the air, from where they will eventually enter the food chain. Not good.
Predictably, with so many options, new funeral technologies also draw their fair share of criticism. Some, for example, cringe at the notion of flushing remains down the drain in liquid cremation, all the while forgetting that bodily fluids get flushed down the drain with embalming, while cremation sends those fluids up the flue. Even tree planting, one of the greenest solutions out there, carries with it the risk of resurfacing human remains, a situation not unheard of even before modern funeral practices.
Nor is green embalming altogether environmentally friendly, for even the so-called green embalming fluids require hazard warning stickers. Or as one wag puts it, don’t try to show off by swilling a pint of the green stuff. Please.
The Church’s Role — Or Lack Thereof
Despite all these changes, the Episcopal Church has done little, if anything, to adjust to the changing times. This, even as Los Angeles lifts air pollution-related restrictions on cremation due to excess deaths resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, part of the problem is that the Episcopal Church is engaged in its usual dithering over proposed revisions to the Book of Common Prayer. The vote to begin the process was held in 2018, and at the rate we’re going, we may not have a new edition before the Episcopal church collapses into the dustbin of history.
But the issue extends beyond being merely liturgical.
Even now, where we are fast heading towards 500,000 deaths, Americans face a powerful funeral industry that keeps costs unnaturally high, while restricting consumer choice and fostering an unhealthy attitude towards death. And these issues are particularly acute in the pandemic, for a 2018 Federal Reserve study found that only 61 percent of Americans could cope with an unexpected $400 expense. Now, with surging unemployment and a shuddering economy, and an average funeral with a vault costing $8,900, a COVID-related death would be financially devastating to many American families.
Indeed, some advocate for a more death-positive approach, for death is a natural act and a normal part of the human condition.
That goes to the heart of the church, its theology around death and dying, and the pastoral care it affords members. Real death is not the pretty, cosmetized, sanitized affair presented by much of the modern funeral industry. Nor does the corollary of that approach apply; death is not inherently ugly.
Speaking from personal experience, when my mother died last year, I arrived at her side moments after she stopped breathing. It was the wee hours of the morning, and the roads were covered in black ice, adding hours to an already long drive.
As a result, it was hours before the hospice nurse arrived to declare Mom dead. So I sat with her, smoothed her hair, held her soft, frail hand, and sang the songs to her that she sang to me when, as a small child, I would wake up in the night, screaming in terror due to a bad dream.
And while it’s difficult to explain why or how, holding her hand as she cooled and slowly turned pale as the life slipped away from her was neither scary nor frightening; it was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life, and my hope is that everyone has the opportunity for a similar experience at some point in their lives. Indeed, it was one of the few good things about Mom’s protracted and difficult death due to emphysema and heart failure, and offset some of the grief I experienced from watching her prolonged suffering.
Of course, there are circumstances where cosmetology and a traditional funeral may be appropriate, even for those who might otherwise seek a green alternative. Autopsies, for example, leave results that would make a non-cosmeticized viewing traumatic for all but the most resilient. Similarly — and I have some firsthand experience in this matter as well — traffic accident victims may require traditional funeral, including restoration work and cosmetology, if family members wish to see the deceased.
How Might the Church Help?
As we face the soaring death count of the pandemic, there are specific ways the church might help.
For example, some parishes might consider providing hands-on funeral care. This idea is not as shocking as it may seem, for many synagogues maintain, or have connections with, burial societies. In these cases, synagogue members wash and prepare the dead for burial, and sit shiva. All or most of this is done by volunteers, and I have heard consistently positive comments from all involved. Indeed, some of my Jewish friends report that this hands-on caring for each other during some of life’s most difficult moments results in close interpersonal connections within the schul that might otherwise be impossible.
Another option would be a funeral society.
In such an arrangement, a church or diocese might use its size and leverage to offer pre-planned funeral options in which cost and logistics are pre-arranged, thus alleviating the stress and anxiety that confront parishioners in the difficult hours after a death. Such an arrangement could be cost effective, and offer the comfort of being predictable and easy to arrange, while ensuring that church customs and protocols were followed without a hitch.
Indeed, a willing funeral home — most likely one independently owned, versus one controlled by the four big corporate players in the industry — might help churches and their members consider a range of funeral choices, including natural burial, human composting, tree planting, liquid cremation, and other emerging options. Again, this could be done in a way that prevents members from being exploited as they contemplate options not available 20 or 30 years previously, and with which they may have little firsthand knowledge or experience.
Speaking of exploitation, while such arrangements might afford additional revenue streams to parishes, it’s important not to fall prey to the approach of the Catholic church. In this situation, some allege that dioceses have retained ownership of Catholic cemeteries, while outsourcing cemetery operations to for-profit companies.
The result? Enormous profits to all parties, possibly at the expense of the bereaved.
Nor are the sums of cash involved insignificant, for Catholic dioceses allegedly have sheltered tens of millions of dollars in assets during the abuse settlements via their cemeteries. This illustrates the need for transparency, accountability, and good governance — all things for which the Episcopal church is not well known — should the church choose to become involved in helping members make funeral arrangements. In other words, it is important that any church foray into these space be first and foremost a service, versus a source of income. And funeral care must be free of the petty politics, personal conflicts, and amateur-hour service delivery that all too often become part of the mix when church gets involved.
Simpler solutions might also be possible.
Drawing on parishioners with suitable knowledge and experience, churches and dioceses might offer written or online funeral planning guides. A mid-tier solution might be setting up pre-payment investment vehicles for funerals, which might even be structured to provide assets to the church after payment of funeral expenses. This could be a win-win for all involved, while offering certainty to those engaging in estate planning.
And of course, preparing appropriate liturgical resources is appropriate. The beauty of liturgy is that it affords predictability, wisdom and grace, particularly important in the trying days after the loss of a loved one. So thinking about how clergy bless, for example, a human composting is important. And trust me, somewhere out there is the priest who, absent a written liturgy, will solemnly intone, “God, bless this compost heap, even as we commit the body of [insert name of old church lady] to its depths.” Sooner or later, it will happen.
Needless to say, with the rapidly aging demographics of the Episcopal church, those parishes and dioceses that wish to survive should consider that a huge amount of wealth will change hands in the next 20 years as baby boomers reach end of life. Rethinking the Episcopal way of death can be a helpful way to support those engaging in estate planning and other end-of-life decisions, even as it helps churches and dioceses work towards future financial stability.
Ed.: The following was written and published by Tom Ferguson aka Crusty Old Dean, for his blog located here. Reprinted with permission.
With just 4 percent of Episcopalians being black, versus 13.4 percent of the US population as a whole, the church’s dismal track record on race warrants closer scrutiny. And while the church talks a good game, my experience is it does little to affect change.
The Episcopal Church’s Lost Causism
Though I’m a full time parish priest, I still do some teaching at Episcopal seminaries, have taught a little bit of everything on the history front but most of my teaching has been in Anglican & Episcopal Church History. About 20 years ago I became concerned with how the Episcopal Church generally told its history around race and racism, which I summarize to my classes like this:
“We usually skip from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and skip over everything in between. We talk about Absalom Jones then slip to Jonathan Myrick Daniels because we don’t want to talk about how the church’s complicity with racism and slavery and want to pat ourselves on the back and only tell what we think are the good parts.”
This at times willful refusal to look at our own history of race and racism has shaped some of the received historical narrative of the Episcopal Church.
Here’s one: “The Episcopal Church is the only/one of the few denominations that didn’t split over slavery.”
My response to this is usually something like, “Blithely asserting the Episcopal Church did not split over slavery, when, in fact, it did, has been our own version of the Lost Cause: a whitewashing and rewriting of the past by those in power to avoid confronting systemic racism.”
There are a number of problems with asserting the Episcopal Church did not split over slavery.
Problem 1) Yes, on one level, the Episcopal Church did not split in the 1840s or 1850s like Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other denominations. But that’s largely because the Episcopal Church did not take a stand, at times viewing slavery as a “political” issue and not one the church should come down on. When Kansas Territory was being torn apart by armed conflict between pro- and anti-slavery factions in 1856, the General Convention refused to say anything about the violence or about how slavery was tearing the country apart. It issued the following statement: the Church has “nothing to do [with] party politics, with sectional disputes, with earthly distinctions, with the wealth, the splendor, and the ambition of the world.”
So while perhaps technically true at best this statement should reveal deep shame: that unlike many Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church did not split because it did not take a stand.
Problem 2) But there’s another problem: this statement simply isn’t true. The Episcopal Church did split, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States was created, issued its own Prayer Book, approved a Constitution, chose Presiding Bishop, reorganized some its missionary districts, and elected a bishop, among other things.
See, it’s the parsing that “splitting over secession” does not equal “splitting over slavery” that is the tell that reveals something. Secession WAS over slavery. We know this because lots of people said so at the time. Southern senators and representatives resigned from Congress, and, in their resignation speeches, cited the legal and God-given right to own their slaves as the reason for secession. We know this because the Confederate Constitution permitted amendments, except in one place: the right to own slaves could never be changed or amended. Also, regarding the question of extending slavery to any territories acquired by the Confederacy: the Confederate constitution automatically extended slavery to any new states or territory acquired, even if the people resident there did not want it (so much for states rights!). So, you see, “States Rights” really means “the right to own slaves.” We also know this because Confederate politicians on more than one occasion propounded the “correction” theory: that with the Confederacy, the mistakes of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution could be corrected. And that mistake? That African Americans could ever be considered people and not an inferior race whose proper status was servitude.
This is parsing to avoid saying the separation in the Episcopal Church is our own piece of the broader revisionist history of the Lost Cause movement: an effort for over 100 years to rewrite the history of the Civil War to be about “states rights” and downplay slavery. Even when most historians had already been debunking this for decades, Ken Burns helped to give this continued life by making Shelby Foote’s half-baked drawling Lost Cause nostalgia somehow the centerpiece of his epic Civil War television documentary in the 1990s. You know, Shelby Foote — the guy who had a picture of Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, on his wall.
We see the Episcopal Church’s version of Lost Causism reflected in another piece of folk history. It’s often stated: “The Episcopal Church quickly and seamlessly reunited after the Civil War, denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians took decades to reunite, and some never did, like Northern and Southern Baptists.”
Guess what? Same two problems!
Problem 1) Perhaps technically true with some parsing. Yes, several Southern bishops attended the 1865 General Convention. Yes, the one Southern bishop elected in the Confederate Church was seated in the House of Bishops, even though that bishop’s election had not been consented to by the General Convention.
But: Sure, three bishops attended the 1865 Convention. The rest didn’t, and one Southern bishop had been under house arrest by occupying Federal troops because he told his clergy not to pray for the Union, since he considered the Confederate government to be the legitimate government in his state. Several other bishops did not attend General Convention until they met as a rump group in late 1865 and 1866 and formally dissolved the Confederate Church. They didn’t attend because they believed that since they had left the Episcopal Church and joined another body, they could not return to the Episcopal Church until that body had been formally dissolved.
Problem 2) That reunion was at the expense of the marginalization and oppression of freed African American Episcopalians. After the Civil War, Black Episcopalians exited the denomination in the South in massive numbers. In some dioceses, there had been thousands of Black communicants, nearly 50% in the diocese of South Carolina, for instance. We can wonder at how much these persons were “Episcopalians,” since many had no choice in the matter and were baptized Episcopalian because the slave chapel had been built by their Episcopal master. Yet we do know of many Black Episcopalians who did want to remain Episcopalians, and asked for Black clergy to be ordained for those congregations. And we know that, by and large, bishops did not comply: only about 20 African Americans in the entire church, north and south, were ordained between 1866-1876. We know that six congregations were formed by freed African Americans in South Carolina alone. These congregations chose to be received into the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1875, which ordained clergy and a bishop for them, because the Episcopal diocese refused to ordain Black clergy for those congregations. The refusal to ordain Black clergy was rooted directly in white supremacy: the reasons given were that Blacks were barely removed from barbarism and savagery, and were not fit to serve in any kind of leadership. They said it, plainly and clearly, in writing.
The Episcopal Church’s Freedmen’s Commission, set up in 1868, wound down its operations by and large in 1877 and 1878 — in part because Southern dioceses resented “national” church intrusion into their internal affairs, an echo of the resentment against Reconstruction. In 1883, the southern bishops met at Sewanee and debated several different proposals to bring to General Convention to establish, by canon, segregation in the church.
While the so-called “Sewanee Proposal” of 1883 never did get passed and never did set up formal separate missionary districts for African Americans by canon, some version of it was introduced at every General Convention until 1940. Southern dioceses pioneered the concept of “provinces”, introducing proposals in the 1890s and following that would, in essence, allow for a church-within-a-church, another blatant effort to find a mechanism to allow for legislated segregation. One proposal put forward for provinces by Southerners would have created a Province which encompassed most southern dioceses, and each Province would have its own Archbishop/Presiding Bishop, and the General Convention would meet once every 10 years solely to deal with the Constitution and Prayer Book, with Provinces allowed wide leeway to manage their internal affairs.
Eventually the Episcopal Church, as a whole, acquiesced to this “unity,” after the Civil War but at the price of a segregated church. “Colored” convocations were eventually established in the South, and, through the establishment of the office of Suffragan Bishop, two African Americans were ordained bishop to minister to African American Episcopalians. Sometimes students ask, “Why were only two Black suffragans consecrated?” The answer is, “Because when the bishop of South Carolina called for the consecration of a third Black Suffragan in his diocese, a white supremacist gunned him down and murdered him in his office, and no proposals for Black suffragans were made after that. White supremacy had to be enforced by violence and murder to be most effective.”
Yet we should not assume this was solely a “Southern” phenomenon. Blacks were routinely denied admission at Northern seminaries, northern dioceses were rigidly segregated and it would have been unthinkable to have African American members or clergy in a predominantly white church. And not in the past, by the way. An African American clergy person who was ordained in the 1970s shared with me that he was told by his diocesan bishop that he would likely need to take a secular job for a few years because “there were no black parishes available.”
So that’s where this is coming from: these two shibboleths
“The Episcopal Church didn’t split over slavery” and
“The Episcopal Church quickly reunited after the Civil War”
are the Episcopal Church’s own version of the Lost Cause because they are rewritten versions of history by the those in power to downplay or ignore addressing issues of systemic racism.
Sometimes people ask, “Where did all of this come from? How did this version of history happen?”
This is part of the pernicious poison of revisionism. There’s nothing more baffling than when people say, “We can’t judge people in the past because things were different in the olden days” because PEOPLE AT THAT TIME judged their fellow people in the past. People in the 1850s said slavery was wrong, barbaric, inhumane, and unjust. People at the time it was happening pointed out and condemned southern states for disenfranchising African Americans in the 1870s and onward (again, it was all out there in plain sight; over 100,000 African Americans were registered to vote in Louisiana in the 1870s and 1880s and barely 1,200 were registered to vote in 1900). People pointed out that white mobs routinely murdered African Americans (Wilmington; Atlanta; Memphis; New Orleans; Rosewood; Tulsa; Chicago; New York and on and on and on and on and on…) without anyone being held accountable. The first federal anti-lynching law WAS INTRODUCED INTO CONGRESS IN 1900. (And, by the way, today, in 2020, we still do not have a federal anti-lynching law.) When Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House Residence for dinner in 1901, a Southern Senator openly said “How many will we have to lynch to remind them of their proper place?” Of course we can judge the past because people at the time knew damn well what was happening was wrong.
In the Church, there were Episcopalians AT THE TIME who saw and named exactly what was happening with the inhumanity of slavery the failure of Reconstruction, and the abandonment of African American Episcopalians in the 1870s: Alexander Crummell, George Freeman Bragg, and Anna Cooper, among others. They wrote about these issues, organized, and lobbied. There were white abolitionists, too, most notably the Jay family of New York, but overall the number of abolitionists in the Episcopal Church was less than in other denominations with a significant northern presence.
This is the true evil of revisionism: it rewrites the past, and, when that narrative becomes the received narrative, it somehow absolves those in the present from responsibility. Voila! Erasing the past allows those with power and privilege in the present to vacate responsibility, thus ensuring justice is never done.
These two statements around splitting and reuniting are reflected in the mid-century historiography of the Episcopal Church. The standard church histories used in seminary history classes well into the 1980s were written in the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t want to imply in any way that these Epsicopal Church history texbooks invented this revisionist history: rather, they reflected the way Lost Causism had become such a part of the air that people breathed, and that the marginalized voices had been completely erased.
Let’s see what they have to say!
A) One standard history of the Episcopal Church was published in 1967 and was used widely into the 1980s. This text devoted 6 pages out of 366 to slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. All three of these in their entirety covered in 6 pages out of 366 pages in the book. These three topics do not even get their own chapter, they are combined with one that also covers 19th century domestic and foreign missionary expansion.
In this text, the Southern Church is purely an accident of circumstance, as the author notes that after secession the southern bishops “were in full authority in their dioceses but no longer in the United States of America” and “under the necessity of reorganizing the general structure of the church.” Just an accident of history! This text also states “Many denominations were permanently divided…the Episcopal Church in the North and South never declared a separation.”
While spending 6 pages on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and never mentioning the segregation of the church, this text spends 26 pages in a single chapter on the history of the Oxford Movement in the United States, and 4 pages alone on prominent Episcopalians who became Roman Catholics.
This text does not mention the Sewanee Conference of 1883, and Alexander Crummell’s name does not appear once. Like Voldemort, racism and prominent Black voices Are-Not-To-Be-Named.
B) A second widespread standard history, published in 1951 and going through several later editions over the years, is more balanced. It speaks of the “malignant cancer of slavery” and openly states “the Episcopal Church never split on the issue of slavery because it refused to take any position.”
Yet it has some interesting explanations of whythe Church refused to take a position. One explanation is because the whole question was just so gosh-darned complicated: “The heritage of slavery had created a situation for which neither the diagnosis nor the remedy of the Abolitionist was adequate…it was hard to see, even from a Christian point of view, what ought to be done with three or four million slaves in the midst of a white population.”
But the gravest concern of all has nothing to do with what the author had named as the “cancer” of slavery.
The author solemnly concludes, “Strongest and perhaps worthiest of all motives to avoid pressing for a verdict on slavery was the dread of schism in the church.”
Here the author is not just recounting a historical fact — that many at the time did in fact cite this notion that schism was to be avoided — but editorializes, calling this “perhaps worthiest” of reasons. There’s another “tell”. We have no better example, right there on the written page, prizing the unity of white people at the expense of the marginalization and genocide of Black Americans. Gosh, slavery might be bad, but [clutching pearls] WE CAN’T HAZ US A SCHISM.
And, despite acknowledging this “cancer” of slavery, this text asserts “When division came it was…the actual fact of secession.” While spending 10 pages of 390 pages in the book on slavery and the Civil War, this text also spend 8 pages devoted entirely to life and career of Bishop William Lawrence of Massachusetts. This text does not mention the Sewanee proposal and Alexander Crummell’s name does not appear. Erasure is not just an awesome 80s British pop group: segregation and African American voices are simply erased in these histories.
This shows the intentional historical constructs white supremacy creates: it not only edits the past, it erases the voices and witness of marginalized peoples, and ignores the fact that plenty of people about it at the time talked about all of this stuff quite openly.
Where did I find out about the real narrative of those times? In two places!
A) I learned about it by reading about the white supremacy in plain sight, in their own words. Racists aren’t hiding out in caves, meeting in secret. They are shouting their racism, in public, for everyone to see, then and now, BTW. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States issued its own Pastoral Letter which clearly spells out what it is and what it stands for.
The Southern bishops in their Pastoral Letter themselves helped to establish this narrative, noting they were “Forced by the providence of God to separate ourselves from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States” and “Believing, with a wonderful unanimity, that the providence of God had guided our footsteps, and for His own inscrutable purposes, had forced us into a separate organization…” and “With one mind and with one heart we have entered upon this blessed work, and we stand together this day a band of brothers, one in faith, one in hope, one in charity.” Separation is due to secession, and this, in turn, is part of God’s will and Providence. Never mind that secession was about slavery, which northern and southern political leaders openly named at the time.
And even better — as part of God’s providence, there is the wonderful opportunity that comes with slavery! They write, “The religious instruction of the negroes has been thrust upon us in such a wonderful manner.”
Slavery is inherent in the apartheid, white supremacist nation they were fighting to establish. According to the bishops, slaves “are a sacred trust committed to us, as a people…While under this tutelage He freely gives to us their labor, but expects us to give back to them religious and moral instruction.” God appointed slavery for Black people to give whites their labor, in return for religious and moral instruction. They make a quick move into whataboutism, noting “The systems of labor which prevail in Europe and which are, in many respects, more severe than ours.”
And, there’s more to be thankful for with secession as a gift from God’s providence! Previously, in this work of ministering to slaves southern Christians had “been hindered by the pressure of Abolitionism; now we have thrown off from us that hateful and infidel pestilence.” “Infidel” is a key tell here: an infidel is a non-Christian. Abolition is infidel, and thus non-Christian, because slavery and racial superiority are part of the Christian God’s will and providence for the ordering of creation and the church.
We have them all in their own words, over and over again, that secession was about slavery and white supremacy. I have an original copy of the Journals of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States. There are numerous, numerous sermons from clergy which were collected and published. I could go on, but it really gets spiritually draining reading pages and pages of this racist s**t. You can read the Presiding Bishop of the Confederate church’s sermon for a Day of Prayer and Fasting proclaimed by the Confederate government here. Please, just trust me that I have the receipts.
B) And I learned about all of this this by reading African Americans Episcopalians. W.E.B. duBois’ chapter on Alexander Crummell in “Souls of Black Folk” is one of the more powerful historical essays I have read. I always think of these words duBois writes about Crummell: “The more I met Alexander Crummell, the more I felt how much that world was losing which knew so little of him. In another age he might have sat among the elders of the land in purple–bordered toga; in another country mothers might have sung him to the cradles. He did his work,—he did it nobly and well; and yet I sorrow that here he worked alone, with so little human sympathy. His name to–day, in this broad land, means little, and comes to fifty million ears laden with no incense of memory or emulation. And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”
Other important texts for me have included George Freeman Bragg’s “History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church” and “The Episcopal Church and the Black Man.” Born into slavery in 1863, serving in the ministry of the Episcopal Church for over 53 years, Bragg wrote several definitive histories of the African American experience and was the leader for generations of African American Episcopalians. In just one of his several books, Bragg spends over 30 pages talking about the Reconstruction years alone. Unlike the other mid-20th century histories, he mentions the Sewanee Conference of 1883, noting “Of course no Negroes, clergy or laity, were invited to participate.” And he names the Sewanee Proposal for what is was, that it “authorized the segregation of the colored people under the direction and authority of the diocesan.” All there, on the written page, by someone alive at the time the events happened and who lived through it all.
I knew all these historical folkways were untrue because I read Bragg, Alexander Crummell, Anna Cooper, and others. I certainly don’t mean to limit the contributions of African American Episcopalians to those three, there are many other voices important in the life of the Episcopal Church. Their writings, the organizations they founded, the lobbying they did — the real narrative was always there for those to see, if not for the barriers erected by our Lost Causism.
We can see the damage this kind of revisionist history can do in so many ways we live out our lives in the church. Here’s a couple.
I remember an incident from a seminary I was involved with. I’ve taught at 5 different seminaries and attended 3 different ones, and I don’t want to name the one where this took place and single it out, because, frankly, I think it could have happened anywhere.
There was an end of year gathering, with students and some faculty present. It then kind of morphed into a talent show, very unplanned and impromptu. Some people sang or played instruments, recited poetry, that kind of stuff. Then a group of students stood up and started singing.
With a jolt a realized they were singing “Dixie.” I was stunned and looked around and saw only white faces in that entire room. I got up and walked out, went into the next room where the food and drinks were. I just couldn’t believe what had happened, and that nobody seemed to notice or care. Someone came in, apparently I had gotten up and left rather abruptly, and asked if I was OK, perhaps thinking I wasn’t feeling well.
I said, “I have ancestors who enlisted and fought in the Civil War to preserve the Union, there is no way in a million years I am going to sit in a room and have people sing the de facto Confederate national anthem nostalgically.”
The person frowned, thought for a moment, then said, “Well it’s part of their heritage, like your ancestors serving for the Union is part of yours.”
I said, “An all white group of people singing that song to a room full of only white people doesn’t get to define the heritage of that song.”
Here’s another! I had someone come to me saying they were thinking of proposing a resolution to add W.E.B. duBois to the calendar of commemorations, and if I was interested in writing in support of that. I said, “DuBois wrote that [this is a paraphrase of the quote] ‘Of all denominations, the Episcopal Church has done the least for Black people.’ His chapter on Alexander Crummell in ‘Souls of Black Folk’ is a searing indictment of the racism of the Episcopal Church at the turn of the 20th century. Adding him to the calendar without specifically lifting up and naming that, and without the church committing to take real, tangible steps to right the wrongs of the systemic racism duBois named, would be just historical whitewashing.”
The person did not forward their resolution after our conversation, but was surprised to hear this about duBois, saying, “I didn’t know all of that.” Again, this shows the ways in which history can be an extension of white privilege: how could someone put forth duBois for the calendar of commemoration and not be familiar with his writings on race and the church??
In order to counter these false narratives of revisionism, we have to name the systemic white supremacy what it is. We also must lift up the voices of the marginalized to accurately tell the story. We must also remember that issues of white supremacy and racism are not confined solely to this Church’s relationship with African Americans: similar dynamics are present in interactions with Hispanic/Latinx, Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans/First Peoples. The Episcopal Church’s missionary work with Native Americans expanded in the 1870s and 1880s — the funding from the Freedmen’s Commission was folded over into this missionary work. Yet this missionary work was an extension of white supremacy and cultural genocide: Native American children were sent to church-run boarding schools; converts were required to take a new, white, Christian name and give up their Indian name at baptism; cut their hair; wear Western/American/European clothes, and forbidden from speaking their native languages.
Thankfully, there have been a number of really great histories written in the past 25 years, efforts to correct the systemic racism in how we have told our history: Prichard’s “History of the Episcopal Church,” Hein & Shattuck’s “The Episcopalians” among them. There has been a number of works specifically on the history of race and racism in the Episcopal Church. Harold Lewis literally wrote the book on this subject in “Yet With a Steady Beat.” Gardiner Shattuck’s “Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights” is a conscious effort to right some of the historiographic wrongs I note in this post.
But it’s also clear that we have not done enough. The sheer number of people who say “The Episcopal Church didn’t split over slavery” and sheer number of people who do not know the Church’s complicity with racism, slavery, and white supremacy are evidence of that.
We must name these aspects of telling our history that fail to challenge or acknowledge our systemic racism. We have to stop teaching people in confirmation classes “The Episcopal Church never split over slavery.” One of the reasons statements like these persist, despite the fact that most Episcopal Church historical scholarship for the past 40 years has not said this, is because repeating them has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with something else, mainly, the unwillingness and reluctance to address issues of systemic racism. (A related issue, for another post, is the continued repeating of the whole “The Episcopal Church Constitution is based on the U.S. Constitution and was written in the same city by some of the same people.” This is utter nonsense, and persists because it reflects the lust for the Episcopal Church to be a quasi-established national church that was a fever dream of much of the 19th and 20th century. But again, another post for another time, only reinforcing the notion that the real reasons for the persistence of patently un-historical folk wisdom has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with our own prejudices.)
It is far, far past time to abandon the lazy racism that allows whites to avoid addressing the systemic racism of our church. It’s past time because it NEVER should have had its time. Faithful voices throughout the ages called these issues out when they were happening. It is the Church that is complicit in constructing this apparatus that fails to challenge this systemic racism.
As part of my history classes, I also present the demographics of the Episcopal Church. In 1960, the Episcopal Church was about 89% white. In the 2010s, it was about 84% white. Sometime students ask, “Why is that?” and my reply is, “Because for the overwhelming majority of our history, that’s exactly how the church wanted it, because of systemic racism, segregation, and denial of opportunities for African Americans.”
It is far, far past time to stop prizing unity at the expense of the marginalized. The statement the Episcopal Church reunited quickly and seamlessly after the Civil War stands as a monument to prizing unity over justice. It is far, far past time because we repeat that sin time and again: with the ordination of women and with full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons, when those who were marginalized were told to wait at the expense of preserving so-called “unity.” We will continue to repeat it. I also do not want to think we should confine this solely to history, and we should also be asking ourselves how our theology, liturgy, polity/decision making, and other elements of the church have also been shaped by white supremacy and the erasure and marginalization of other voices.
Unity cannot be built on the blood of the marginalized so as not to trouble those in power. That is called oppression, not unity.
In this kairos time of broader conversations about race and racism, with the witness of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is time for the Church finally to answer this question: These are the legacies of our past; will they continue to be our future?
Remember Pontius Pilate? He’s often perceived as the consummate bad guy. But a close reading of scripture makes clear that, if not a good guy, he came very close to being a good guy, failing only due to his equivocation.
And so it is with Fr. David Nix, the reactionary conservative Catholic priest in Colorado, whose YouTube and other social media posts draw a large number of like-minded Catholics.
Long a thorn in the side of mainstream Catholics, Nix advocates Q-Anon type theories, conversion therapy, and other largely discredited beliefs on fora like Parler, all the while using his status as clergy to engage in partisan politics.
Even so, Catholic church officials not only refuse to lower the boom on him, but they urge others not to do so.
In short, they pull a Pontius Pilate, even as Nix and his weird theories undercut mainstream Catholics. tear at the fabric of American democracy, and violate US laws prohibiting churches from engaging in partisan politics.
Conspiracy Theories Galore
Among Nix’s strange theories is what appears to be a Catholic version of Q-Anon, in which he suggests Pope Emeritus Benedict is being held against his will. Leaving aside the logical fallacies in his arguments, one finds it highly improbable that Benedict cannot communicate with the outside world if he so chooses.
Even more unlikely is his notion that lockdowns are part of some vast Communist conspiracy, and that the COVID-19 vaccine is an effort to impose birth control on unwitting Catholics. And the Catholic Church is not immune to Nix’s weird ramblings, for he claims that a “deep church” is in cahoots with a “deep state.”
And in keeping with my previous posts about toxic masculinity,Nix wants to make sure we know he’s straight, blue-collar, and if not an alpha male, certainly no pushover. That begs the question: Why do we, or anyone else for that matter, need to know Nix’s sexual orientation? While he’s not my priest, and never will be, I prefer not to know too much about the clergy in my life.
For the record, if so-called traditional Catholics want to adhere to Nix’s religious views, that is their prerogative. But it is troubling when a priest engages in blatantly partisan politics.
For example, in one tweet, Nix suggests that both the White House and the papacy have been stolen. That, even as he appears to suggest he’s engaging in betting with the money that faithful Catholics donate to him as a “solitary,’ or person who lives along while adhering to monastic vows.
Indeed, one of Nix’s posts even skates close to the ugly canard about Catholics with guns in the basement, even as it talks about the French Revolution and suggests that Catholics should be prepared to resist a new world order.
In a post on Gab, haven of conspiracy theorists now displaced from Twitter, Nix manages some incredible sleight of hand, rolling assertions that Donald Trump is the victim of lies into assertions about invalid Marian theology. Of course, this conveniently sidesteps an inconvenient truth, which is that, angelic visitations notwithstanding, Mary and Joseph were refugees, skating the very edge of society, even as Mary delivered a child conceived in questionable circumstances.
Before we go further, it’s important to bring up an unavoidable issue when examining Nix’s so-called ministry, which is the possibility of mental illness.
To be clear, I have no first-hand knowledge in this area, and I’m not prepared to venture a guess. But the weird conspiracy theories, the suggestions of a new world order, the suggestions that traditional Catholics are being persecuted, and more certainly suggest serious issues.
This notion is supported by the Catholic News Agency (CNA), which recounts Nix’s multiple failed parish assignments, his inability to get along with others, his alleged threats and manipulation in an effort to control church officials, and more. One source allegedly told the CNA that Nix told him he was initially held back from ordination due to “psychological issues.”
All of this plays out in a church that some regard as the world’s last absolute monarchy. While the size of the church and its myriad layers of bureaucracy make this a somewhat questionable assertion, there is little doubt that, at the end of the day, the hierarchy is in control.
Indeed, one has only to look at my recent post on Fr. Mark White to realize that the Vatican and its hierarchy retains the right and authority to shut down dissent when it chooses to do so.
Thus, the response of the Very Rev. R. Michael Dollins, Vicar for Clergy in the Archdiocese of Denver, which I received after complaining about Nix’s flagrant fabrications and illegal involvement in partisan politics is troubling. Not only does it refuse to take action, but it urges me to do the same, even while acknowledging that there are Catholics who adhere to Nix’s beliefs.
Here is a screen cap:
That begs the issue: Can the Catholic Church legally ignore priests who violate the laws against partisan political activity? Is it ethical to do so? Or to allow practicing Catholics to be dragged into weird deep-church, deep-state theories? What about allowing a Catholic priest to willingly undercut our democracy with lies and falsehoods?
Nor is this the only damage wrought by Nix.
Alana Chan, the young lady who committed suicide after being encouraged to engage in conversion therapy by Nix, is one victim.
Another victim is Chan’s parents, who have roundly condemned the archdiocese, even as the latter denies that Nix or the church engaged in conversion therapy.
In its response to Chan’s parents, church officials confirmed that there have been problems with Nix, even while noting that he remains in good standing with the diocese. Supra.
Will the Archdiocese of Denver pull a Pontius Pilate by continuing to allow Nix to harm American democracy, even as it washes his hands of him? Will it allow faithful Catholics to be misled with his weird brand of “traditional Catholicism,” mixed with weird conspiracy theories?
Only time will tell.
In the meantime, this member of the “endless talking heads,” to use Dollins’ phrase, is going to continue to shine light on this issue.
Ed.: We recently had the opportunity to interview Fr. Mark White, the Catholic priest who has been suspended from parish ministry due to his criticism of the church’s handling of sexual abuse. Here are our questions and his responses. We believe his thoughts are important to all who are concerned about abuse in the church, both sexual and non-sexual, and hope that persons of conscience can provide him with support and encouragement during this difficult time. His excellent blog is here.
My understanding is that the Vatican has essentially taken a pass on your complaint. Where does this leave you? How do you spend your days? And what are your next steps?
Yes, it appears that the Vatican will let Bishop Knestout’s decisions stand. This leaves me suspended from public ministry indefinitely, for no good reason. I continue to celebrate Mass and the Divine Office, with the good Lord and the denizens of heaven for company.
Since it appears that this strange situation will likely stretch on, I have been busy lately trying to set up a long-term place to live. Once I get that settled, I will return to writing daily, which seems to be the ministry that divine Providence is giving me at this point.
The public has read your story with interest. From your perspective, what is the biggest issue in your dispute with the church?
I think there are two inseparable issues involved in my case. One, honest accountability regarding sex-abuse cover-ups. Two, freedom of speech regarding Topic 1.
Is the larger issue perhaps with power, and how it is used in the church, versus the still appalling issues with sexual abuse?
I think that sex abuse by clergy, especially bishops, and episcopal abuse of power are two sides of the same evil coin. According to my limited understanding of it, clergy sex-abuse does damage, above all, by abusing the sublime power of the sacerdotal office. The abuse wounds the victim’s most-important relationship—with God. The wound comes not solely, or even primarily, through the physical violation of the body, but by the manipulation—and crushing distortion—of the victim’s interior religion. Clerical abuse of power—even when no sex is involved—does the same damage, in the same deep region of the soul.
How do you respond to those who say you should have just stayed quiet and let things sort themselves out?
I have lived through enough cycles of the recurring Catholic sex-abuse scandal to know that the problem will never “sort itself out.” Rule by self-interested Mafiosi never ends on its own. People who want a better kind of society have to take risks, make powerful enemies, and seek the truth no matter what it costs. The Catholic Church, considered as a human society, is a community ruled by self-interested Mafiosi, at this point in time.
How do you respond to those who say that your comments are blasphemous, brash, or disrespectful? Or perhaps not “easygoing?”
I have tried to maintain equanimity and humility. I have failed in that at times, and I have begged pardon of my readership when I did. But the anger many of us Catholics feel towards our hierarchy springs from a just and honest assessment of the well-known facts.
We owe our prelates respect and the benefit of the doubt—until they forfeit the right to it. If the Vatican McCarrick report shows anything, it’s that too many people gave the benefit of the doubt to a man who manifestly did not deserve it, just because he was a bishop and then a Cardinal—with vast damage ensuing as the result of that misplaced trust and deference.
Setting aside for a moment the issue of sexual misconduct in the church, how prevalent is non-sexual abuse, like abuse of power?
Forgive me for putting it this way, but it is not an overstatement: Abuse of power is really the only thing holding the Catholic Church together right now. The facts now on the table have left conscientious people with no choice but to dissociate themselves from the institution, at least to some extent. Everyone who is “all-in” for Catholicism at this point in history has a compromised conscience, at least partially so. Intellectual or spiritual laziness, or fear of having to face difficult spiritual realities alone, currently binds Catholics together with hierarchy–not honest religion or real Christian communion. We believe it’s the real Church; we believe in the grace conferred by the sacraments. But honest people, considering the Catholic Church as a human institution, see an unrepentant international organized crime syndicate.
What about sexual abuse? How common is it in the church? Has the church gotten better in dealing with it? Better in preventing it?
When sexual abuse occurs, evil triumphs; when a victim speaks out about it, good triumphs. Our hierarchy continues to fail at grasping this fundamental and obvious distinction. They think that clerical sexual abuse becomes an evil WHEN the victim speaks openly about it.
You don’t know how prevalent clerical sexual abuse is until 20-40 years later. We know now that clerical sexual abuse was alarmingly prevalent thirty years ago. We will likely know the same thing about now, in 20-40 years.
To my mind, though, that’s not really the issue. Right here and now what we can control is: How do I react, when someone confides in me about being sexually abused? How do I carry myself, and talk, and listen–so as to make such a confidence possible? How do I respond in a Christian manner? If I have any kind of authority over the situation, what ought I to do with that authority, to redress the grave injustice? As an institution, we seem to be light years away from having solid answers to these questions.
Some say that unbridled clericalism is one of the root causes of the problems facing the Catholic Church. Is this accurate? Do you think this is an issue for other faith traditions?
I think “clericalism” makes sense as a term, if defined precisely. In the Church, a deacon, priest, or bishop, has the role of representing Christ as the giver of saving grace. As such, the clergyman deserves commensurate reverence from the Christian, who humbly knows that he or she needs the grace. But ordination does NOT give personal holiness to the ordained. The ordained person remains a sinful human being like everyone else, needs grace like everyone else, and is as capable of committing a crime as anyone else is. A criminal clergyman deserves the same prosecution and punishment as any other criminal.
I think confusion about this distinction between the religious leader as a representative of something, and the religious leader as a fellow human being, runs through all organized religion as a constant danger.
How did you discern the path to priesthood?
I converted to Catholicism in college, after I fell in love with Christ crucified, living on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. The Lord called me into the Church and to the priesthood at the same time.
Situations like this can lead to growth for those involved. How has this experience shaped your faith? Would you do anything differently?
I have some regrets: in November 2019, I published an intemperate post that I should have waited 24 hours to edit and then publish. In 2000-2003, when I was a seminarian under Theodore McCarrick, and during the Boston Globe Spotlight scandal, I did not study the issues well at all, did not understand them. I wish I had thought the whole thing through better, back then.
All that said, I feel closer to God now than I ever have, more loved by Him than ever. I am in the situation I am in because it is His will for me, for the sake of some good too mysterious for me to comprehend at the moment.
What advice do you have for those who are ousted from the church, or perhaps quietly pushed aside, for criticizing the church and its conduct?
My advice would be: Double-check all your facts, think through all your conclusions as carefully as possible, pray, and keep fighting. We are living through a period of Christian history when the institutions are deeply compromised. Living peacefully in them is no sign of virtue, in itself. Quite the contrary.
In the best of all possible worlds, what would you like to see as an outcome?
If I could go back tomorrow to the life of pastoring the two parishes here in Rocky Mount and Martinsville, I would be very happy. I have loved doing that more than anything I have ever done.
Many faith traditions are seeing precipitous declines in membership in recent years. Is the church in decline? And what do you say to those who believe that organized faith is in trouble?
I think the coronavirus crisis has quickly brought organized Christianity in the Western world to the brink of mortal peril. We cannot imagine that “normal” parish life will return. The money will gradually run out and the institutions will fail. I think our hope lies in understanding that this age is like the Apostolic Age, as far as the life of the Church is concerned.
Do you have any further thoughts or comments you’d like to share?
I appreciate your kind interest and the excellent questions 🙂
Okay, I admit. It sounds improbable. But hear me out.
For several years, the Episcopal church has talked about the need for racial reconciliation. And even as it does so, we now have some saying that there needs to be reconciliation following the coup attempt at the US Capitol.
But both the Episcopal church and those who urge political reconciliation miss the importance of accountability and making reparation as essential parts of the healing process.
Perhaps, as the Episcopal church brings its witness to bear in the political arena, and in race relations, it will have the opportunity both to think through its theology of forgiveness, and to perhaps improve it. And in so doing, perhaps we will finally see the Episcopal Church actually make progress on its stated goals of further social justice and racial reconciliation.
We can only hope.
The Perils of Universalism
One of the challenges, I suspect, is that many in the Episcopal Church are, for practical purposes, universalists who do not believe in a literal heaven or hell.
So what does that mean for the theology of forgiveness?
It means that, with little notion of divine judgment, there’s often little notion of earthly judgment. Or accountability, for that matter.
Instead, the emphasis becomes on maintaining the church as an organization, maintaining relationships within the church, protecting the status quo, or protecting the privilege associated with unbridled clericalism.
As a result, far too many Episcopalians, including bishops, clergy, and denominational officials, de facto view accountability as the opposite of forgiveness.
But can a church, or a relationship, be healthy if the underlying offense is brushed aside? If someone tries to shut down the discussion that needs to happen with, “How can we move on?”
I think the answer is no.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to the question in 1967 when, standing outside a prison where protestors against the Viet Nam war were being held, he said, “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.”
Dr. King’s experience mirrors that of South Africa and other areas that have sought to move past intense hatred and conflict. In those situations, peacemakers have consistently found that healing and reconciliation requires truth telling and accountability.
Why Can’t He Just Move On?
My experience with conflict in the church is that demands to “move on” are all too common when doing so would let the other side off the hook.
In other words, it’s all too often a hit-and-run tactic used by those who behave badly to try to extricate themselves from the mess they created.
Or the offender may try the line, “But I apologized.”
But many apologies in the church are fauxpologies, intended not to heal, but instead to shut down open conflict. When that happens, the conflict doesn’t end—it simply goes underground, where it festers and rots relationships and the church from within.
Of course, that’s not to say that a sincere apology isn’t a good starting point. A sincere apology, in which the offender tries to place himself in the position of the person or organization he has hurt, can lead to a deeper, more meaningful conversation. But assuming that healing or reconciliation will occur solely on the basis of an apology is nothing but cheap grace. And as a practical matter, it’s unlikely, without sincere efforts to address the underlying root issues, to work in real life.
Restitution and Reparation
In addition to truth telling and an apology, restitution and reparation are vital. That is not only a biblical requirement, but its an essential component of restorative justice. In the latter, injury typically is perceived as creating an obligation to the injured party. When that obligation is fulfilled, it releases the victim from the negative power of the injury they have suffered, while freeing the perpetrator from his obligation to the victim.
In short, restitution helps both the perpetrator and the victim actually move on, versus “moving on” in the sense of walking away from the conflict. It brings closure, healing, and recovery. It addresses the “things left undone” part of the Book of Common Prayer’s confession.
Civil Society, Race, and Reconciliation
So what does all this have to do with the coup attempt?
Anglican Watch tries to steer clear of partisan politics. But at the same time, we don’t make any effort to hide the blog’s progressive perspective. And given the dire situation facing American society, it seems appropriate to wade at least into some aspects of the recent events at the US Capitol.
Most notably, we see demands, primarily from the GOP, to not proceed with impeachment on the basis that doing so will prevent healing.
But as we saw above, healing is all but impossible without truthtelling, accountability, and restitution. In short, “healing” without these things is not healing at all, but further trauma in the form of repressing legitimate anger and hurt, as well as a sense of betrayal. And while we cannot open windows into the hearts of men, it appears Trump’s actions have hurt persons on both sides of the aisle.
So what might truthtelling and restitution look like?
First, we need to see Donald Trump, or failing him, the GOP leadership, tell the truth. That includes saying, without hesitation or equivocation, that:
The election was not stolen.
There is no Q-Anon conspiracy. No pedophiles, no rapture in which Donald Trump frees the country from control by secret elites
The Trump administration’s policies of xenophobia, racism and hatred are wrong and unacceptable.
The coup attempt was illegal and immoral.
The Trump administration bollixed its response to the pandemic.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
It may also be time for leaders on both sides of the aisle to band together to form a truth and reconciliation commission.
Such a group could draw on the collective wisdom and skills of past presidents of both parties, as well as the past members of similar commissions, to not only issue a Warren Commission-style report, but to go one step further by inviting stakeholders into further discussion.
In that regard, the Episcopal Church, if it clearly states that it is not going to lobby for cheap grace and an easy exit for the president, could play an important role in furthering the discussion. Certainly, the denomination has both the physical assets, like the National Cathedral, often proclaimed as a “house of prayer for all people,” as well as the convening power. Indeed, the Bush family is Episcopal, as are several key former members of Congress. And all sides recognize that influence, as evinced by Trump’s tragic photo op in front of St. John’s Lafayette Square.
To be sure, telling the truth would end Trump’s relationship with his base. But that’s not a bad thing. And his current base — which is heavily populated with Q-Anon conspiracy theorists and other marginal characters — should not be preserved solely in order to provide Trump with future access to the levers of power.
And while telling the truth likely would end the possibility of a second term for Trump, it would defang calls for an impeachment. Plus it is the one thing that could really end the nation’s current wave of hatred, conflict, and suffering.
In other words, it would be both the patriotic and the Christian thing to do.
Perhaps we can even hope that the Episcopal church might take a closer look at its own theology and help further the difficult conversations that need to occur.
The recent coup attempt at the US Capitol raises myriad questions. Among them is the role of toxic masculinity and its implications for society, as well as its implications for the Episcopal Church.
A key example is the now infamous Jacob Anthony Chansley, aka Jake Angeli, aka the Q Shaman. An avowed practitioner of shamanism and self-proclaimed clergy, Angeli, as he likes to be called, allegedly first began doing psychedelic drugs with his father at age 11. His father purportedly provided the drugs.
And while Angeli likes to babble on about his path to ascension, the chakras, compassion, and their links to psychedelic drugs, that does not appear to conflict in his mind with his Q-Anon theories, his use of Aryan hate symbols in his tattoos, or his alleged written threats against members of Congress. Or, for that matter, his protests objecting to BLM.
The rubber really meets the road when one looks at Angeli’s now suspended Twitter feed, @USAwolfpack. There, Angeli described himself as an “Alpha Male.”
But the reality is far different. Prior to his recent arrest, the 33-year-old Angeli lived with his mother, after getting evicted for unpaid rent. He is unemployed. He drives a beat-up, decrepit Hyundai. And he is often seen wandering his mother’s neighborhood, replete with horns and face paint.
Now, his mother says she is frantic to get in touch with her son, even as she laments the fact he is not eating because the food in prison isn’t organic, arguing that he gets violently ill when he eats food that is not organic. She has not indicated whether the psychedelic drugs her son has used are organic or not, or whether those too cause him to become violently ill. Nor has anyone offered an explanation how Angeli reconciles his worldview, which often skids very close to something straight out of the Elders of Zion, with his purported Shamanistic religious practices.
In short, Angeli looks increasingly like a hyper-indulged momma’s boy, possibly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and drug abuse, even as neighbors report he likes to dance on his mom’s roof. Nor does he look remotely like an alpha male, even needing to bum a ride home to Phoenix from his little coup attempt road trip, while his attorney is now asking that the president grant this particular alpha male a pardon.
Connection to Q-Anon and Trump
What’s notable in all of this is how sex is wound through the threads of Q-Anon conspiracy theories. Many believe that there is a secret pedophile plot running through myriad layers of government and civil society. This heartens back to the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s, in which many Americans believed there was a Satanist on every corner — and if not at every corner, certainly every day care center.
Part and parcel of this is an even older and still more offensive myth, rooted in anti-Semitism. That is the myth that Jews and other cabals not only control the world, but they drink the blood of Christian children. This myth goes back to medieval ages, and was often invoked as the basis for pogroms and other hate activities.
Nor is this ugly canard, founded in conspiracy theories, merely an anecdotal part of his beliefs. Indeed, on more than one occasion, Angeli has loudly proclaimed shopping mall signage to be a secret pedophile code, set up by the FBI.
Many of these issues also touch on Donald Trump and his expressions of masculinity. These range from his all-too-predictable playing football in high school, to his need for a trophy wife, to his never-complain-never-explain routine, to his narcissistic refusal to admit defeat.
Nor are Trump’s weird and stereotypical notions of masculinity confined to these relatively mild manifestations. Whether it is references to his big hands, to references to his big penis, to his penchant for degrading comments aimed at women, to grabbing women inappropriately, Trump is a throwback to the ugly notions of what it meant to be male in the 1950’s. And the similarity to Angeli is striking, even if on a much larger scale: Trump in many circles is regarded as the hyper-indulged billionaire’s brat, who is good at spending money, but even better at losing it.
Of course, the zip tie (pun intended) that binds this all together is the belief by Angeli and other Q-Anon supporters that Trump personally called on them to come to DC, invited them to the US Capitol, and thus owes them a pardon. In short, Trump occupies a messianic role, with many believing that the president is somehow poised, in a hyper masculine stroke of raw power, to deliver the country from the cabal of satanist pedophiles who now control things.
And yet even as the Donald Trumps and Jake Angelis of the world swagger around, they don’t seem to be all that successful in their romantic suits. Specifically, there appears to be no mention of anyone dating Angeli (I mean, would you join him on his mother’s rooftop for an evening of dancing?), while rumors have abounded for the last several years that Melania plans to divorce her husband at the first possible chance.
So much for the Trump/Q-Anon theories of true studliness.
Toxic Masculinity and the Church
Nor is the church immune from this sort of warped notion of masculinity.
On the one hand, we have the example of Jesus, whose care and compassion for others led to throngs outside his home. That love for others — including the outcasts, like Mary Magdalene — ultimately led Jesus to offer up life itself.
On the other hand, there are far too many in the clergy in the church who model Trump’s version of masculinity, or a slightly more palatable version. These range from the swaggering narcissists we see all too often in pulpits, noisy, aggressively friendly, into sports, and all about image; to the reach-out-and-grab ‘em clergy. And yes, there remain plenty of the latter, and the response to them all too often is the boys-will-be-boys routine.
That’s true even here in DIoVA, where former bishop Shannon Johnston reportedly has engaged in coverup of at least one egregious case of sexual harassment. And while clergy may in fact get nuked for having an affair (even while getting a generous golden parachute), stuff that doesn’t rise to that level, including sexual harassment, is dealt with quietly, almost on the sly.
Indeed, one such priest, known to Anglican Watch, canonically resident here in Virginia, continues to serve parishes in the southern states, despite conduct toward women that can only be described as egregious.
The upshot is that, while many in the Episcopal Church express horror and revulsion, both at the attack on the Capitol and Trump’s malignant brand of masculinity, the reality is that there’s plenty of toxic masculinity to go around in the church itself.
And much like an African-American family member, who used to say that she much preferred the South to the North, on the basis that the former was upfront about its racism, toxic masculinity, hate and disrespect in the Episcopal Church gets a primer coat of churchy-nice, followed by layers of stained glass, vestments, flowers, candles and, in some cases, incense.
In short, the church all too often is a narcissistic construct, in which outward appearances paper over a culture that still belittles women, that still maintains stereotypical gender roles, that still treats women and others who may lack power as objects to be used. Meanwhile, male clergy become objects of adulation, in which unbridled clericalism hold sway, even as it all too often are the women behind the scene (think altar guild) who make church possible.
So, before the church collectively pulls away in horror at recent events, while proclaiming, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.,” it needs to understand that it had a role in these events as well.
Few out there have noticed, but a review of World Health Organization (WHO) data makes clear that we are nearing a grim milestone in the pandemic, one that should information churches and church schools that are conducting any in-person activities. Specifically, we are teetering very close to our first 100,000 new cases day, with January 11 reflecting 99.100 new cases.
The data in question can be found in my COVID-19 feed, found here.
As Anglican Watch has previously written, the exploding number of new cases, combined with the advent of the more infectious UK and South African strains, presents a compelling case to cease all in-person worship and church school activities. That includes the small groups needed to stream worship services.
Moreover, while many Episcopal and Anglican churches appear to assume that small groups with masks and social distancing are safe, the UK COVID-19 strain, believed to be up to 70 percent more infectious, has been found in at least nine states, with 65 people known to be infected. Moreover, the US lacks adequate genetic testing to identify and track emerging strains of the virus, making it unlikely that we recognize the full extent to which the new strains are affected our population.
Anglican Watch urges all leaders of all faith traditions to reconsider even limited in-person worship, and to revert to the entirely virtual services many held at the start of the pandemic. We further recommend that religious schools immediately transition to entirely virtual instruction to avoid becoming superspreaders of the new, more infectious strains.
Did you ever have a moment of profound cognitive dissonance? Where you look around and just go, “Holy Toledo—what the heck just happened?”
That was this author’s reaction when he recently learned that Shannon Johnston, former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (DioVA), has been named as a fellow to George Mason University’s (GMU’s) Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution. His buddy, Tory Baucom, who left Truro Anglican in the midst of a report about his bullying management practices, joins him at the organization, which is located in Northern Virginia. Details of Johnston’s new gig can be found here.
Before we go further, this author has firsthand experience with Johnston and his “conflict resolution.” More on that later, but it needs to be said up front.
Johnston’s Dismal Track Record
Nor was Johnston’s time with DioVA exactly reassuring. While he gets a pass for the litigation with the CANA dissidents, Johnston left a diocese marked by conflict, including his now infamous dispute with the Trustees of the Funds.
Similarly, diocesan staff under Shannon Johnston were profoundly unproductive, marked by interpersonal strife, lack of direction, and more.
Indeed, well-placed sources tell Anglican Watch that, not long before Johnston’s abrupt resignation, a team of experts from the Lombard-Mennonite Peace Center was brought in to try to effect reconciliation within Mayo House, to no avail. In fact, the one constant theme allegedly was the need for Johnston to make himself scarce.
These conclusions appear to be confirmed by Johnston’s announcement of internal strife at the diocese, available here. And Johnston’s abrupt departure was proceeded by the equally abrupt announcement that Canon Pat Wingo, who had formal training at the Lombard-Mennonite Peace Center, was leaving the diocese.
Even more troubling, and a sure sign of larger dysfunction, during his tenure Johnston repeatedly refused to deal appropriately with clergy misconduct, including:
Refusing to provide St. Thomas’ church in McLean with the pastoral response mandated by church disciplinary canons after the diocese forced the church’s former rector out in disciplinary proceedings. His alleged reason? That diocesan legal counsel told him not to “get too involved.” Without going into detail, it’s also fair to say that other specifics of that situation were handled appallingly badly.
Allegedly engaging in cover-up in a disciplinary proceeding in which a female church employee experienced egregious sexual harassment. As in the case with the parish in McLean, to date the diocese has failed to provide the requisite pastoral response, nor has it made any effort to assist the victim.
In the case of this author, repeatedly refusing to get involved in a situation involving allegations of gender-based harassment; bullying; questionable HR, cash management, financial reporting, and other parish issues; and allegations of criminal conduct by clergy. In every instance, Johnston brushed the allegations aside, either trying to ignore them, or claiming that they were “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” And when the clergyperson in question attempted to drag the author’s mother, dying of COPD, into court in violation of state law, Johnston refused to even acknowledge the issue. As with the other cases, Johnston refused to comply with church canons mandating a pastoral response, even after being reminded by national church officials of his obligation to do so.
Not to be outdone, my late mother, often an insightful judge of character, referred to Johnston as “Janus,” the two-faced god.
Why the moniker? Because of Johnston’s two-faced handling of her conflict with this author’s former rector.
In short, Johnston’s tenure was just this side of an epic fail. And while society was such that folks might have ignored his shortcomings in the 1950’s, church members in the 21st century simply aren’t prepared to do so.
Tory Baucom’s Equally Dismal Track Record
Similarly, a report released by leaders at Truro at the time of Baucom’s abrupt 2020 resignation allegedly found that Baucom’s tenure was marked by conduct described as “abusive,” “intimidating,” “coarse,” “vulgar” and “unpredictable.” The Washington Post further reports that Baucom has agreed not to set foot on church property again—a telling indicator of just how bad things were at the church.
There also are signs that Truro was just about as troubled in its governance during Baucom’s tenure as DioVA was during Johnston’s tenure. Not only did we have the foolish decision to litigate over the property, but allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy at the church suggest a lack of appropriate supervision, accountability and training.
Adding to the questions surrounding this situation is DioVA’s recent announcement, done almost on the low, that it is considering selling to Truro property to the ACNA crowd. That, despite the fact that the church has a longstanding history of supporting conversion therapy, forcing youth out of the church perceived to be LGBTQ+, and other actions profoundly at variance with current bishop Goff’s positive comments about the news.
Do we see the hidden hands of Johnston and Baucom at work, even as DioVA tries to sell assets in order to hang on financially in the midst of the pandemic? We may never know, but the juxtaposition of events certainly suggests that the two continue to have ties to the nomenklatura of the diocese.
The Diocese Today
Nor is DioVA doing well following Johnston’s purported departure.
Shortly after his retirement was announced, the diocese brought in outside experts to help straighten out the mess at diocesan headquarters, Mayo House. At the same time, the diocese announced efforts to find a bishop provisional — an effort that fell flat on its face, with none of the candidates agreeing to serve. This, despite the fact that plenty of parishes in the area, including St. Paul’s K Street, have had bishops serve as interims. That speaks volumes about the mess Johnston left behind, and the fact that the standing committee didn’t see the issue coming is damning, indeed.
The result was that the DioVA standing committee left Susan Goff in place as Ecclesiastical Authority. Goff has said that she will stick around until the next bishop diocesan is elected in 2022 — a stay that increasingly is looking like a bad case of overstaying one’s welcome.
Initially, Goff seemed to get off to a good start, holding listening sessions in five locations across the diocese in February and March, 2019. But in keeping with diocesan tradition, two years later, we have seen nothing come of the effort. That begs the question: If Goff wasn’t going to do anything with the information gleaned, why did she take up everyone’s time?
To be fair, it does appear that, in July 2019, Goff managed to repair the rift with the Trustees of the Funds. But since then, other than a lot of communication about social distancing and the pandemic, and the potential sale of Truro, we have heard relatively little from Mayo House, possibly due to Goff’s treatment for breast cancer.
Meanwhile, even the pandemic guidance from Goff has become thin, with the last clergy conference call minutes now more a month old; during that call, Goff again shut down all in-person worship in the diocese due to the pandemic, with a possible exception for Christmas.
Yet during the intervening weeks, the pandemic has continued to spiral out of control, even as Episcopal schools in the diocese reopen at the worst possible time. Still, silence from Mayo House, even as deaths and infections soar.
Nor have we seen any meaningful progress on other issues confronting the diocese:
Racial reconciliation has gone nowhere since the diocesan listening sessions of 2015.
The diocese continues to shed Average Sunday Attendance and membership, even as the remaining members ramp up giving.
The diocese has appointed the feckless and ethically questionable Sven vanBaar to look at ways to stabilize giving to the diocese. Good luck there.
Conflict remains alive and well in many corners of the diocese, ignored by Goff and diocesan staff, which still refuses even to investigate allegations of illegal conduct by clergy, as evinced by this author’s experience with the diocese.
It appears that the arrival of Johnston and Baucom at GMU is relatively recent, for there is no information on the GMU site about upcoming courses, or entries on the site’s blog. So it’s too early to predict what will become of the program.
Meanwhile, Johnston’s bio on the GMU site also appears to be a bit of revisionist history. For example, he talks about his historical commitment to social justice. Yet one of the reasons Johnston was elected bishop diocesan is that he was largely viewed as a conservative, who would not pose much of a threat to the dissident factions in the diocese.
Nor is his statement that the CANA crowd left over the role of LGBT persons in the church entirely accurate, and he would certainly have reason to know that; it is a grave over-simplification of a complicated issue.
Indeed, the dissident factions had formed an epicenter for conservatives in the denomination that long predated the ordination of Gene Robinson. Moreover, plenty of evidence emerged during the property recovery litigation to suggest that the schism had been in the planning for many years, and had its roots largely over issues of power and influence. Indeed, John Yates of Falls Church and Tory Baucom had been egging each other on for years, especially after Yates allegedly got passed over as a TEC bishop.
It’s also interesting to note that Foley Beach, and the rest of the ACNA hierarchy, were not big fans of the Johnston/Baucom mutual man-crush, with Beach putting his foot down hard on the proposed center for reconciliation at Truro, calling the whole deal a “counterfeit reconciliation” and claiming that Baucom had ignored his authority of bishop. Big surprise there—Truro’s track record when it comes to Episcopal authority was hardly one of eager compliance.
In other words, the conflict between the diocese and the dissidents had little to do with same-sex marriage, property issues, or anything other than power and control.
So why are two of the folks seemingly among the least likely in all of Christendom to affect peacemaking pursuing this initiative? It’s a fair question and one that can only be answered via speculation.
This author believes the answer is, in part, that neither Baucom nor Johnson like to be told no. Both have big egos, and both like to get their way. So when Johnston’s tenure at DioVA collapsed, as did Baucom’s gig at Truro, both appear to have been been hunting around for a Plan B that would place their project outside the jurisdiction of their respective denominations.
But beyond that, my best guess is that both are narcissists. One has only to look at their management styles, their reputation for conflict, their relationships with others, and even Johnston’s rather monarchical signature to reach that conclusion.
And like all good narcissists, Johnston and Baucom like to portray themselves as larger than life heroes, as role models, as exemplary Christians.
Yet if we apply the biblical standard, “by their fruits you shall know them,” we see men mired in conflict, feckless about the management of their organizations, and high-handed and unkind towards others. Yes, both will tell you what they think you want to hear, and they are both good at playing the game, right up until they implode due to their hubris.
So, my hunch is that the center is not actually about affecting peace and reconciliation, and it’s certainly not about Christian faith. Instead, it seems to be all about reputation management for two spectacularly unattractive individuals.
After all, if Shannon Johnston is so concerned about peacemaking, he might start by offering to help resolve some of the messes he left behind within DioVA. Opportunities abound.
It’s no secret that, as employers, churches rarely attract the best and brightest. That is particularly the case for non-clergy positions, which often comprise long hours, low pay, and numerous high-ego constituencies. But this paradigm is nowhere better illustrated than the Episcopal Church’s recent ad for a copywriter and editor, reporting to staff at denominational headquarters.
While I didn’t take the time to do a thorough review, the ad is replete with the errors that typically mark a group effort, with no final arbiter of what’s included or not included. Indeed, a cursory look reveals at least 18 errors, ranging from subject-verb agreement, to faulty time references, to content not compliant with the church style guide, to problems with capitalization.
Further, while it is mildly amusing to parse the ad while hoping that the church gets more value than it deserves with a salary not to exceed $42,500, there’s a more serious underlying issue, which is the message this sloppy communication sends to the world at large. Yes, the thrust may be the Jesus Movement, but this ad does little to further that goal.
To be sure, it’s hard to edit one’s own work, and I am no exception. Indeed, more often than not, I come back to articles after they are posted for some quick cleanup. But when a written piece like this is so replete with errors, it sends a damning message about the church and its goals for the future.
Anyone know a good copyeditor willing to work on the cheap?
A recurring theme here at Anglican Watch is the issue of in-person worship or participation in the life of the church, including church schools and related activities. Recent information from the CDC and studies conducted in South Korea make clear that preventing COVID-19 transmission in these settings is problematic and almost certainly unsuccessful over time.
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, roughly 40 percent of persons infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. This includes those who are pre-symptomatic, and those who never show any outward signs of infection. Others place the number as high as 50 percent, with about 40 percent of children remaining asymptomatic throughout the progression of the disease.
In the Korean study, which differentiated between pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers, 30 percent of patients were found to be asymptomatic. Yet these individuals showed viral loads in their noses, sinuses, and lungs equal to those experiencing symptoms. Additionally, the study found that asymptomatic persons could transmit the virus for roughly 17 days, while those who showed symptoms were contagious for roughly 20 days — longer than American estimates.
A Lancet medical journal study also showed that social distancing is more effective than facial coverings in preventing transmission, with a distance of roughly nine feet reducing infection from 12.8 to 2.6 percent. Wearing a mask reduced the risk of infection and transmission from 17.4 percent to 3.1 percent.
Further, one British expert believes that up to 70 percent of children may not know they are infected until they have a positive test. He further theorizes that, as a result, children may be a primary vector for disease transmission.
Implications for Churches
It is important to remember that the data above was amassed during spread of the less-infectious strain, versus the UK and Indian variants. Thus, even when mitigation measures reduce the transmission rate, a 2 or 3 percent incidence of spread means one does not need a large number of exposures before infection becomes statistically likely with the old strain. Transmission becomes even more likely with the newer, more infectious strain.
Moreover, asymptomatic children have been found to carry viral loads equal or higher to those of infected adults, with one Harvard study showing very high viral loads in children during the first two days of infection. Viral load is associated with increased transmissibility of the virus, with Harvard experts adding:
“I was surprised by the high levels of virus we found in children of all ages, especially in the first two days of infection,” says Lael Yonker, director of the MGH Cystic Fibrosis Center and lead author of the study. “I was not expecting the viral load to be so high. You think of a hospital, and of all of the precautions taken to treat severely ill adults, but the viral loads of these hospitalized patients are significantly lower than a ‘healthy child’ who is walking around with a high SARS-CoV-2 viral load.”
Transmissibility or risk of contagion is greater with a high viral load. And even when children exhibit symptoms typical of COVID-19, like fever, runny nose and cough, they often overlap with common childhood illnesses, including influenza and the common cold. This confounds an accurate diagnosis of COVID-19, the illness derived from the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, says Yonker. Along with viral load, researchers examined expression of the viral receptor and antibody response in healthy children, children with acute SARS-CoV-2 infection and a smaller number of children with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).
Thus, churches that have children present for services face an increased risk of transmission, particularly if they experience difficulty in implementing adequate social distancing and other risk mitigation strategies.
Of particular concern are church schools, particularly those with in-person classes one or more days a week. In those situations, the high prevalence of asymptomatic infection among children, combined with the high viral loads of many pediatric patients, and the close proximity inherent in most teaching settings, create a high risk for transmission. Thus, church schools run the real risk of being superspreader locations that can, within the space of a few days or weeks, create widespread swaths of infection across the communities they serve. This paradigm is exacerbated by the fact that churches already are established high-risk locations.
In short, churches that continue to hold services, or even worse, hold in-person classes at their schools, risk practical and reputational disaster by assuming that temperature checks, mandatory sick days for symptomatic children, and other risk mitigation efforts will prevent their becoming COVID-19 hotspots.