The Elizabethan Compromise and Pluralism: Lessons for Today

Queen Elizabeth I

Anglicanism has its roots not just in Henry VIII’s split with Rome, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the so-called Elizabethan Compromise. As such, the Elizabethan Compromise contains within its underlying paradigm lessons for a pluralistic society, which are increasingly important for the United States in light of yesterday’s coup attempt.

What on Earth is The Elizabethan Compromise?

The so-called Elizabethan Compromise had its philosophic roots in Queen Elizabeth I’s comment, prior to her coronation, that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls.”

In keeping with this perspective, Elizabeth made the decision, remarkable for its time, that citizens had freedom of belief as long as they at least nominally adhered to worship in the Church of England.

That contrasted markedly with the prevailing view of the time, which is that the citizens of a country conformed with the religious views of their sovereign.

What is its Significance to a Pluralistic Society?

And while the Elizabethan Compromise was an amazing thing for its time, it carries with it lessons relevant even today to all western democracies.

One of the key practical tenets of the Elizabethan Compromise was that it required enforcement of the via media. In other words, Elizabeth and the Privy Council had to act, sometimes vigorously, to ensure that people maintained the terms and conditions of the Compromise, versus pursuing their own perceived self-interest.

This included suppression of Catholics, following several reports of assassination plots against Elizabeth by Catholics, who had been emboldened by papal and Spanish entreaties. By today’s standards, these efforts were appalling, involving torture, drawing and quartering, and other practices that are beyond barbaric.

And while several of Elizabeth’s closest privy councilors were Puritans, including Walsingham and Dudley, Elizabeth vigorously resisted their efforts to further repress Catholics. This, despite Puritan efforts, beginning shortly after her accession, to rid the country of Catholic influences.

In short, the Elizabethan Compromise was predicated on the notion that the via media, or middle ground, would not maintain itself, but required the government to impose guardrails to prevent groups from asserting their power over each other and, in turn destabilizing the government.

Thus, then as now, a pluralistic society cannot maintain itself without the assistance of government.

How Might the Government Maintain Plurality?

There is, of course, tremendous danger when the government seeks to teach people how to be part of society. One has only to look at the curriculum of totalitarian regimes to see how readily they fall into all too predictable patterns of glorifying government, creating imaginary threats, and trying to control the day-to-day discourse of society.

And yet, we need to see government at every level make clear the importance of plurality. Far too many in our society, much like the Puritans, seek to elevate their own interests about the greater good of society. If nothing else, it is perfectly appropriate to discuss this openly when considering legislation: Does it favor the needs of the few over the needs of the many? Does it build a stronger, more cohesive society, or one that is less so?

Near term, we need to see vigorous enforcement of existing legislation against traveling in interstate commerce to engage in sedition. We need enforcement of the laws against trespass, incitement to riot, assault on a federal law enforcement officer, and the myriad other federal laws that were violated as part of yesterday’s coup attempt. While only a starting point,  taking action to make sure that participants understand that such conduct is not acceptable in any democratic society.

The Need for Private Action

In addition to a vigorous response by state and federal government at all levels, yesterday’s events also make clear the need for the private sector.

Why do we need the involvement of the private sector? The simple answer is that the First Amendment does not apply to private actors, but only to the government and those acting under color of government authority.

Thus, we need Facebook, Twitter, and other social media fora, which have served as bully pulpits for Trump, to be responsible citizens and closely monitor their platforms for misuse. This may include denying access to those who abuse their platforms; this is particularly the case when, as here, current efforts by Twitter to add context to Trump’s fabrications have not been adequate.

What about the First Amendment and the implications for free speech?

On this issue, I offer no easy solutions.

Generally, I am a vigorous advocate for free speech rights. But when, as here, fabrications and conspiracy theories undermine the very fabric of our society, we need to give careful thought to where the boundaries of free speech rest. To be clear — just as the First Amendment does not permit Americans to shout fire in a crowded theater, neither does it permit incitement to sedition and riot.

Personal Responsibility

Private citizens, and the Episcopal Church itself, also have a responsibility to work to ensure a pluralistic society. This includes:

  • Arguing against Q-Anon and other conspiracy theories that undermine confidence in our democracy.
  • Working towards justice and equality at all levels of society.
  • Understanding that words matter.

The notion that words matter is particularly important. As Trump has illustrated time and time again, inflammatory, ugly language is not just spiritually damaging. They can lead to violence, death, and the destruction of society,

In this regard, the Episcopal Church is particularly bad. While we often hear about “the way of love,” the reality is that ugly, hateful, inflammatory rhetoric is, in this author’s experience, all too common in the denomination.

Nor is there much recourse. Just as Bishop Bruno surrounded himself with sycophants who backed his conduct, right up until his hubris brought about his ouster due to his bullying of the St. James the Great congregation in Newport, so too will few vestries or standing committees do anything to address bad behavior.

Much the same paradigm applies to the church’s disciplinary canons. While they expressly forbid clergy from engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” the reality is that most claims under these provisions get brushed off as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Indeed, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has gone so far as to say that it will not get involved in such conduct absent criminal charges; that reflects this author’s personal experiences with the diocese.

Thus, the Episcopal Church needs to look closely at the power inherent in our words, and how it and its members speak to each other. And it needs to take these matters seriously, and much like the Elizabethans, it must put in place guardrails to ensure that travelers along the via media don’t skid off one side of the road or the other.


Disaster Looms as Churches Continue In-Person Services

Disaster Looms as Churches Continue In-Person Services

The data are frightening.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing worldwide. Some states in the US, notably California, are already forced to ration health care as our health care systems teeter on the brink of collapse. We have passed the point that one American dies every minute due to COVID-19. Massive travel over the winter holidays and soaring positivity rates suggest we face a tsunami of new infections. Meanwhile, two new strains of the coronavirus, notably the South African variant, appear to be as much as 70 percent more infectious than the previous dominant strain. And vaccinations are woefully behind schedule.

Yet many Episcopal churches continue their socially distanced services, or to stream services from the nave that include small choirs and altar parties, or operate schools that provide in-person classes, either via a hybrid distance learning model or full-time. This contrasts with the early days of the pandemic, in which most churches held services exclusively from the homes of members and clergy.

This situation implicates troubling ethical, spiritual, and practical issues that warrant urgent examination.

To be sure, small services are better than large services. Streaming services can and will reduce infections. And schools can reduce risk by implementing social distancing, cleaning, and other preventive measures.

But the reality is that, even with the old, less transmissible strain, only five minutes’ exposure at a distance of 20 feet can result in infection.

Nor are face coverings a panacea. Indeed, experts are quick to point out that masks are at best a distant Plan C — with Plan A being to stay at home, and Plan B to social distance. And there are first-hand cases of people masking, increasing ventilation, and testing, only to end up with a fatal infection.

In short, as the situation at Christ Church Georgetown illustrates, which was ground zero for the pandemic in Washington DC despite social distancing and other measures, social distancing is an imperfect form of risk reduction at best.

The New Strain: A Ticking Time Bomb

Into this mix we have the new strain, over which many are breathing a sigh of relief due to the fact, that while it is more readily transmissible, does not appear to cause more serious illness than the prior strain.

But that in itself is misguided.

As Zeynep Tufecki notes in The Atlantic, a more lethal strain would only result in linear progression of the disease. In other words, it would hit harder those that it infected, but it would not increase the numbers of those infected.

But a more contagious strain, as we now face, results in exponential progression of the disease, at a time when numbers are already surging and health care systems faltering. In other words, it drastically increases the strain on a health care system already struggling to keep up.

Thus, to use Tufecki’s phrase, we face a “ticking time bomb.”

Why are Churches and Schools Reopening?

Few Episcopal churches, schools, or other organizations articulate their reasons for their reopenings, or partial reopenings.

But there are hints.

Here in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the guidance from the Bishop Goff, as she announced the suspension of in-church services prior to Christmas, included a caveat:

Even as the best advice is clear that outdoor worship presents a high risk of spreading the virus, I offer you some breathing room for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, particularly if you are experiencing untenable pressure from your congregation to gather in person on those days.

Other bishops seem fearful of overreaching their canonical authority. For example, the bishops of Massachusetts say:

As communicated by the bishops in their Nov. 19 guidance to our churches, the bishops continue to urge, in the strongest possible terms, that in-person, indoor worship be suspended in favor of virtual worship. (emphasis supplied)

This, despite ++Curry’s statement in March that he will support those bishops who choose to close churches.

And some sidestep the underlying question of the propriety of reopening altogether, with one Episcopal school saying:

With hope and optimism, we embrace the 2020-2021 school year in the midst of a global pandemic.  This year may put numerous challenges in our path, yet our mission to serve children remains steadfast.  Although we all must agree that we cannot mitigate all risk for our students and families, the school will take comprehensive steps to offer the most safe and successful reopening that we can.

Begging the Question

All that begs the question: Are you indeed serving others by reopening?

Answering that question requires understanding the challenges facing churches and schools that reopen.

It is well established that churches are a major source of transmission. For example, in a July article with numbers that now sound quaintly low, the New York Times reported that churches were responsible for more than 650 infections.

This aligns with experiences from the 1918 influenza pandemic, where churches that operated on a business as usual basis experienced devastating results. CNN reports, for instance, that churches in Zamora Spain, which took just such an approach, caused a death rate more than double that of cities elsewhere in the country.

The situation in Zamora underscores that decisions to reopen don’t implicate only the church involved. In the recent case of the United House of Prayer for All People in Charlotte NC, an outbreak at the church lead to 12 deaths and more than 200 infections, with the majority involving persons not connected to the church.

Complicating things is the fact that the new COVID-19 strain may be more likely to infect younger people than the old strain. And while some note that the new strain does not appear to pose an increased threat to children, the aging demographics of the denomination, combined with what some experts believe is the inevitable transmission of the coronavirus to adults, poses a potentially devastating risk to churches and the communities they serve. That is all the more the case when, as now, the pandemic already is spiraling rapidly out of control.

Ethical and Practical Implications

These issues in turn implicate ethical and practical considerations.

  • Of course, Jesus commands us to care for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the downtrodden.
  • By extension that includes those who may not fully recognize the risk.
  • Or those whose job, paid or volunteer, may lead them to feel that they cannot say no.
  • Or whose financial or personal circumstances may not allow them the option to stay home from work.

Some church leaders no doubt fear that further closures will lead to reduced engagement of parishioners, leading in turn to reductions in giving. That’s a legitimate fear and there is ample evidence that lack of in-person engagement indeed may engender this result.

But consider the devastating results if a parish or school makes headlines as a superspreader.

  • Will older members want to return any time soon?
  • What message does this send to younger people about caring for others?
  • Or to those who are themselves at risk?
  • Does the ability to attend school in-person for children outweigh the risk of losing parents, grandparents, and others vital to a child’s happiness and success?
  • How will members of the community feel about the church or school if they lose family members due to organizational negligence?

Then there is the risk of litigation. While churches like to imagine themselves above the fray on these issues, the reality is that private employers already face a wave of negligence suits from employees or their survivors pertaining to COVID-19 workplace infections.

And frankly, the small size of many Episcopal parishes and sharply declining attendance/membership suggest that the church can ill afford to lose even a single member, let alone life-long, older members, who in this author’s experience often are among the most generous. Is it worth the risk of losing these stalwarts of the church?

Now Is the Time

No one can answer these questions for a particular church, school, diocese or vestry but those directly involved.

But there is no doubt that the darkest weeks of the pandemic lie in front of us.

The overarching question, though, for the church, its schools, and other related organizations is simple:

Will the church be proactive in locking down? Will it learn from the experience of the UK, which now teeters just 21 days away from overwhelming the total capacity of its medical system? Will it recognize that the new COVID-19 strain now is present in 4 states and 33 countries will inevitably increase its footprint in the United States?

Or will  churches, both here in the US and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, wait until they have no choice but to lock down?

Sadly, if history is any indicator, the Episcopal Church will dither about until its hand is forced.

Top Ten Tips for Managing Conflict

Top Ten Tips for Managing Conflict

Editor: I previously published the following in Episcopal Cafe in 2013.

Conflict. Even the word itself makes us cringe a little. It has a hard, biting edge. In the back of our minds, the word conjures up unsettling images — of dentists’ drills, of that last really bad cold, of falling out of a tree as a child.

Fortunately, when we understand conflict, we learn to take a deep breath, to relax a little, to move past the immediate issues, and to view conflict as perhaps even a stepping stone to positive change. We may never come to enjoy conflict, but with perspective we learn to put it in its proper place.

So, next time you feel like you’re about to be run over by a truck named conflict, here are ten tips to help you understand and work through conflict:

1. Conflict is inevitable — Much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, conflict is as old as humanity. It happens among the closest friends, even among Jesus and the disciples. And like death and taxes, it comes to us all. So don’t panic when you see conflict coming–it’s just part of life.

2. Churches may be particularly susceptible to conflict — Avoiding conflict is easy when we get to pick and choose those around us. But in an environment that embraces diversity, there will, by definition, be a wider array of perspectives and viewpoints. As a result, there will be a greater likelihood of conflict.

3. Conflict doesn’t make you bad — Conflict, in and of itself, has no moral implications. Just because there’s conflict afoot doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Similarly, the presence of conflict doesn’t reflect badly on your parish, your vestry, your priest, or your bishop.

4. Conflict can be healthy — Growth requires change, and change engenders conflict. Handled appropriately, conflict can be a sign of positive change and growth. So next time you feel tension in the air, consider the possibility that something good is in the works.

5. Suppressing conflict is unhealthy — Suppressing or ignoring conflict inevitably spells trouble. The underlying issue doesn’t go away. Instead, like a locust, it goes underground, only to emerge later in spectacularly noisy fashion.

6. It’s all about how we handle conflict — Moral meaning attaches not to conflict itself, but to how we handle conflict. Remembering that we all are made in the image of God, assuming good intent, and avoiding “scorched earth” responses can go a long way towards de-escalating even the most difficult situation.

7. Choose engagement over fight or flight — The old axiom about fight or flight as a response to threats misses the third option: Engagement. When conflict rears its ugly head, take a deep breath, relax, and “lean into” the issue. Promote engagement through use of “I” statements versus “you” statements, and by avoiding sweeping generalities. For example, “I feel like you are often late to meetings,” is better then “You are late to every single meeting!” Test for understanding by reflecting back the other person’s comments, “So you are saying it would be easier for you if the meeting were a half hour later?”

8. Get outside help when needed — Sometimes, a neutral third party can be invaluable in breaking through layers of anger and misperception. If you’re just not connecting with the other person, consider asking your priest, a professional mediator, or other trusted person for help.

9. Know that some situations require an immediate response — Situations involving bullying or workplace violence, whether verbal or physical, require an immediate response to avoid potential damage to people or liability. Similarly, potential violations of fair employment laws, the canons, or issues involving sexual misconduct warrant a special response. When in doubt, act immediately to protect the vulnerable.

10. Persistent, high-level conflict is a warning sign — Church, like work and home, should be something to which you look forward. If you find yourself dreading that next vestry or altar guild meeting, or you routinely dash out after services to avoid coffee hour, consider the possibility that a larger, more serious issue is afoot, and take steps to address it before it becomes even more toxic.

In short, while no one enjoys conflict, there’s much that you can do to manage conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to move towards successful outcomes

Top Ten Predictions For the Episcopal Church in 2021

Happy New Year!

As many look eagerly to put the difficult year of 2020 behind them, so too are many looking forward to 2021.

With that in mind, here are Anglican Watch’s top-ten predictions for the coming year for the Episcopal Church:

  1. Church budgets are over-optimistic due to the surging pandemic.

Many churches and dioceses used budget forecasts in which income and expenses were consistent with 2020. But in many areas, declines in church budgets have accelerated in recent years. This factor, combined with pandemic weariness, and darker days ahead for the pandemic spell bad news for already thin church budgets.

     2. Church leadership faces a wave of retirements.

In many larger parishes, lucrative six-figure compensation arrangements are held by older, male, baby boomer clergy. Similarly, relatively few bishops are under age 60.

The inherent higher risk profiles for these cohorts, combined with increasing financial pressure and a shift away from “church as we’ve always done it,” will push a great many of these older clergy out the door.

     3.  Increasing pressure for change.

The pandemic increasingly looks to be a do-or-die inflection point for the Episcopal Church. While the hierarchy continues its efforts to avoid change at all costs. including clinging to the increasingly irrelevant, Madmen-era church headquarters in New York, the financial constraints imposed by the pandemic are making this denial of reality increasingly difficult. Moreover, Millenials, Gen Y’s, and Gen Z’s are unwilling to support creaky paradigms of this sort.

      4. More assets sold.

In a day and age where social media reigns, the big limestone heaps and neo-gothic piles occupied by many churches and cathedrals increasingly look like expensive stage sets for streaming live services. (Does anyone under 20 even use Facebook anymore?)

Nor do upcoming generations have much interest in maintaining drafty, energy-inefficient old buildings when the funds used to keep them running could be used for social justice.

And while AW’s evidence is largely anectodal, we get more and more emails from people talking about signs that their church building is quietly up for same. That’s to be expected, given the increasing number of parishes with less than 20 active members.

      5. Flatter organizational structure.

While Planet Episcopal is a quaint place, with its references to 18th-century churchmanship replete with  canons to the ordinary, wardens, suffragens, vergers and other quaint creatures inhabiting myriad committees, task forces, consultative groups and other contrivances, neither busy professionals nor younger generations have the time and resources to fall prey to Planet Episcopal’s gravitational pull.

Instead, many will prefer service work and caring for those in need, versus this sort of busy work.

     6. Greater transparency.

Younger generations are unwilling to blindly send money or donate time when the only financial reports they see are the typical pie charts contained in parish reports, which obfuscate the details of salaries and specific line-item expenditures. Nor are they willing to be brushed aside with assurances from clergy along the lines of, “Well, I see the financials.”

The days of blind denominational deference are over.

     7.  Increasing accountability.

Just as younger people demand transparency, so too will they demand accountability. The days are over when church hierarchies, increasingly irrelevant to churchgoers, can turn a blind eye to clergy misconduct, or engage in coverup. And with high percentages of young people viewing church as hypocritical and judgmental, the days of petty bickering and mean girl antics in vestries, altar guild, and other church groups is fast coming to an end for those churches that want to survive.

     8. Parts of the church choose to die.

Just as Tom Ferguson aka Crusty Old Dean has noted, large swaths  of the Episcopal Church will choose to die rather than change. And why not? With generous defined benefit plan retirements awaiting, many current clergy have neither the energy or the appetite for change. They just want to make it to retirement and get the hell out of Dodge, before the stuff hits the fan.

    9.  Less clericalism.

Young people, with ready access to myriad data points via social media, are increasingly unwilling to simply hand over decisionmaking to outsiders. And the debacles in the Roman Catholic Church and the SBC suggest that clericalism faces stiff head winds down the road. Churches and dioceses that wish to survive are going to need to rely less on the Pointy Hats Club sweeping through in full regalia, and more on authentic relationships, based on going out and finding young people, versus waiting for them to find the church.

   10. Some resurrection.

The office for burial of the dead reminds us that “in the midst of life, we are in death,” and so it is for the Episcopal Church. Those portions of the church that choose to embrace change, to be truly inclusive, to put aside the petty bickering and childish infighting that so often mark the Episcopal Church, will find growth and renewal in 2021.

Conversely, those portions of the church that dream of a return the 1970’s, when church attendance was normative and the baby boom resulted in torrents of cash for the mainline denominations, will experience 2021 as an accelerated decline into irrelevance, obscurity, and death.

Happy New Year!


No More Parking Lot Conversations

Just say no to parking lot conversations

Working with congregations as a bishop’s staff member involved in congregational development, one of the persistent behaviors Mary MacGregor, (the canon for evangelism and congregational development in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.), has witnessed among vestry members is their reluctance to speak up about lingering concerns in the course of their meetings.

While there are many reasons for this reluctance, including not wanting to rock the boat or appear disrespectful, this silence forces issues to go underground only to surface in parking lot conversations.

Clandestine meetings, parking lot conversations, closely guarded incendiary emails are always destructive.

Earlier this year ECF Vital Practices invited Mary to share strategies congregational leaders can use to encourage a culture of respect and transparency. During her VP Talk she held up the ‘Fruit of the Spirit’ as a model of behavior to replace side or ‘parking lot’ conversations that can foster mistrust and mean-spiritedness in our interactions with one another.

Drawing on her experience working with over 80 vestries and bishop’s committees, Mary notes a direct correlation between highly functioning and fruitful vestries and a group culture of respect, caring, and transparency with sensitivity, all grounded in a foundation of understanding that vestries are faith groups that are unique.

Mary believes, “Vestries are groups of people who feel called to support and lead Christian communities. Central to the purpose of Christian communities is the gathering of people to worship and serve God and to live as Jesus taught us to live. These teachings call for behavior that is sometimes very challenging for us. I think they are best expressed in what Paul referred to in Galatians as ‘Fruit of the Spirit’.”

Understanding Fruit of the Spirit as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit expressed in how we live and interact with others, Mary believes people in faith communities have unspoken expectations that their leaders will model the this behavior, which Paul defines as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

“There is an old saying, ‘as the leader goes so goes the group,’” shares Mary. “Another is, ‘the behavior of the group will never rise to a higher standard than the behavior of its leaders’. Churches have a responsibility to model Christ like behaviors and when we don’t, we pay a heavy price. The Fruit of the Spirit is often counter to our human nature. It is much easier to be impatient, unloving, demanding, insensitive, and fearful. Church leaders are called to a very high standard of interaction with each other. This must be intentional work with a high degree of mutual accountability.”

Many times, people participating in these ‘parking lot’ behaviors are unaware of how harmful they can be. Mary explains, “Our church leaders need to be sensitive to how they communicate and the power of their words in our faith community contexts. Like families, we are relational systems. Relationships can be fragile. People can be built up or torn down with words.

“We are called to be sensitive and thoughtful. That doesn’t mean we can’t speak the truth. It is in how we go about doing it. I think one of the reasons why conversations go out to parking lots or become clandestine is because we haven’t learned how to be sensitive and thoughtful in sharing our opinions.”

Creating a safe environment for members to openly share ideas and concerns is critical in building a culture of mutual respect. Often this means leaders need to learn to cede control and embrace a culture of shared decision making.

For many leaders control is a human need. Being afraid of what shared decision making might lead to, they create a system where decisions are made by a few. This can lead to behind the scenes meetings, teaming up on others, and strategic collusion.

These behaviors represent not only poor leadership but, as Mary observes, they also “cut the legs off, pull the rug out from under others who thought they were empowered to have voices in the decision making process. This is incredibly demoralizing and this kind of behavior discourages really good leaders from being a part of vestries and other decision making groups.” It can also create a level of anxiety in a group so high that people don’t want to speak up because they feel they won’t be heard or will be disrespected. This can create a vicious circle of behavior, driving the good leaders away and into parking lot conversations.

What can congregational leaders do to encourage healthy patterns of communication?

  • First, recognize that as leaders in Christian community, we are called to teach and model a higher standard of communication.
  • Call out unhealthy behaviors when you see it or experience it as a leader in a congregation, taking the time to do so in a caring way.
  • Establish a culture of listening and caring through the use of covenants, norms, clear ministry descriptions, and holding people accountable.
  • Take the time to learn together how to be a faithful leader, which might include Bible study, prayer, and sharing appreciations and regrets.
  • Evaluate your congregation’s health using 12 Marks of Healthy Church Behavior and its related assessment tool.
  • Recognize and empower healthy spiritual leaders by placing them in positions of authority and influence.
  • Practice patience and persistence, allowing time for new behaviors to become the norm.

Our responsibility as congregational leaders includes modeling an expectation of healthy behavior and respect for both the individual and the community, no matter what the circumstance. God has called us into leadership and has empowered us to act in a manner befitting that call.

Reprinted from ECF Vital Practices, copyright May 2011, author Nancy Davidge. Original here.

Epiphany: Forgotten Holy Day

Epiphany, the Forgotten Holy Day

Over the years, liturgical practices in the Episcopal Church have shifted. Indeed, some would say that the 1979 revisions to the Book of Common Prayer mark the ascendency of the Anglo-Catholic side of the church. But in all of this, the church has picked and chosen from its Catholic heritage, while largely ignoring practices from Orthodoxy. And falling through these cracks is the Feast of Epiphany, which even in the Roman Church gets less attention than it previously did.

Among western traditions, Epiphany is one of the three oldest and greatest feasts, along with Christmas and Easter. It marks the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles in the form of the Three Magi. It also marks the manifestation of this divinity at his baptism in the River Jordan; and his first miracle at Cana. As such, it is celebrated on January 6, but often transferred to the closest Sunday.

Among eastern traditions, Epiphany is often referred to as the Theophany and celebrated January 19, with the emphasis on the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity, versus the visit of the Three Magi. In these churches, the feast ranks third, after Easter and Pentecost. On this day, many consider all water to be holy, and will immerse themselves three times in recognition of the Trinity.

In recent years, the ancient tradition of the priest traveling to parishioners’ homes and marking the initials of the Magi, traditionally Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, in chalk above the doors of homes and churches, has been revived in some churches within the Anglican Communion, including in Canada and the United States. Other ancient traditions have been rendered obsolete by technology, including the custom of announcing the date of Easter at the Feast of Epiphany.

Hallmark Holidays Kill the Holy Day

Today, however, the highly commercialized Hallmark holidays of Easter and Christmas have done a number on Epiphany. Indeed, after the run-up to Christmas and the extravanganza that many churches put on for the Nativity, replete with banks of flowers, brass bands and more, the Sunday on which Epiphany is celebrated is often marked by light church attendance.

Nor is that surprising, for other than ensuring that the vestments and flowers are white, many Episcopal churches pay scant attention to this third great holy day.

That’s not to suggest that Hallmark up the ante and launch a line of Epiphany cards and related trappings.

But as the church dithers about revisions to the Book of Common Prayer — revisions that may never come to pass, given the downward trajectory of the Episcopal Church — this may be an appropriate time for the church to consider restoring Epiphany to its ancient role as the third great feast of the church.

A Personal Note

While I have left the Episcopal Church, for many years my favorite holiday was Epiphany.


Because it is the first time in the gospels that we see humanity proactively respond to Jesus.

Yes, Mary and Joseph responded to a divine calling.

But Epiphany is marked by something different, and in some ways far greater.

It is marked by the realization that something amazing had happened in Bethlehem.

The gospels are mysteriously silent as to how the Magi recognized the miracle that had happened, or how they connected the star in the east with the ancient prophesies. And yet, they traveled great distances, at a time when travel itself was risky, carrying rare and costly gifts. Thus we see a response based on trust, or a leap of faith, if you will.

Because of this special significance to me, and the connection I had with Epiphany, even as a child, I chose the 12th day of Christmas, or Epiphany Eve, to have my relationship with my husband Mike blessed in 2013. In those days, it was not legal for us to marry in Virginia, and we did so later that year at St. John’s Lafayette Square. The day was glorious, with glorious weather and friends from around the country in attendance. And with the church still decorated for Christmas, the day was doubly special.

Looking to the Future

Perhaps if the church were to spend more time focusing on the message of the great feast of Epiphany, versus treating it as an afterthought to Christmas, it would become more aligned with the message of the gospels. That in turn might well lead to a more faith-oriented approach to church, in which real Christianity replaces clericalism and celebrations of holidays that are nothing but  bundles of cultural reference points, like having turkey at Thankgiving and ham at Christmas.

Of course, reexamining the role of Epiphany as one of the great feasts of the church will not even come close to solving the myriad problems facing the Episcopal church.

But its a start.

That would be in positive contrast to the current situation, where attendance at Episcopal worship increasingly correlates exclusively with having turkey at Thanksgiving, ham at Christmas, and other cultural reference points that have little connection with Christianity. But when the denomination abandon


Surviving Church on Corruption in the Church

Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from The Rev. Stephen Parsons’ blog, “Surviving Church

There was an interesting story in the paper today (Sunday) discussing the impact of the programme, The Crown. Apparently there has been a survey of public opinion about attitudes of the British general public towards the Royal Family among those who have seen this series. Although, for the purposes of a good fictional story line, the Crown showed the Royal family sometimes in a poor light, public attitudes towards them have not been changed in a negative direction.  It was thought that the portrayal of an adulterous Prince of Wales might cause damage to his reputation.  In fact, the opposite seems to be true.  Overall, 35% of those watching the series had begun to see the Royal Family in a better light.  Only 5% had allowed the programme to make them think of the family less favourably.  It seems that institutions like the Royals can survive criticism, if those looking on feel that they have been allowed a better view of what is going on behind the curtain.  Many human frailties can be forgiven and tolerated, when the observers feels that he/she is being given something like a frank disclosure.  The Crown may be to a large extent a fictional reconstruction, but it has given the viewer a sense of understanding the human foibles of this privileged group of people.  Most behaviour, short of actual criminality, will be forgiven by most people.  The more we feel we understand, the greater seems our capacity to forgive.

As I thought about public attitudes towards a major institution in our society, like the Royal Family, I compared it in my mind to another story that appeared in the Church Times on Friday.  This published the results of the MORI Veracity Index for 2020.   This poll asked the man or woman in the street which professional person was most likely to tell the truth.  The rate for those expecting truthfulness from the clergy has apparently fallen to a mere 54%.  This score has fallen by 9 points in the last year alone and by 29 percentage points since 1983.   We can only speculate about the reasons for this spectacular collapse of trust.  It is likely to have had something to do with the endless cycle of scandals over the abuse of children in the past ten years.   But, whatever the reason, the current situation appears to be reaching a point where many clergy will no longer feel comfortable wearing clerical attire in a public place.   That indeed, may already have happened in some places.  If true, it a sad reflection for the Church that attitudes have now become so negative.  Whatever the reason, it is tragic reality that clergy are being placed in a zone of being thought unreliable and possibly untrustworthy.

These two surveys need to be held alongside one another because there are some further lessons to be extracted.  Two solid British institutions are revealed to be beset by human frailty and failure.  In one case public opinion towards them is in the process of recovery with an increase of affection and esteem.  In the other case, public respect appears to be on the decline.  Why is there this difference?  There is, I believe, a simple explanation.  The attitude of people towards institutions is not especially affected by moral failing unless they belong to the most toxic categories.  What matters is the way those institutions deal with the failings.  Any attempt to hide, to cover-up and to pretend will be seen for what it is – hypocrisy.   Here hypocrisy is pretending to uphold one standard of behaviour while all the time behaving in another.  If the scandal of abuse against children and the vulnerable had really been about a few bad apples, the general public would by now have forgiven the church institution and possibly moved on.  The things that have upset countless people have been the cover-ups, the handwringing and the apparent indifference of people in authority in the Church.   There has been little readiness to show love and compassion for the victims/survivors.  Few people have taken note of the details of the abuses, as do the readers of this blog.  But the public have been left with a sense that there are many tales of unfinished business.  There is always a feeling that many church people have been far too concerned to keep the show on the road than taking radical steps to help and heal the many who have been wounded or broken by this apparent epidemic of abuse.  It is this sense of the Church in disarray, not knowing what to do to protect children that has been so damaging.  Of course, the Church has made enormous progress in this area of safeguarding.  But as the public relations experts fully recognise, it is not what the facts are in a particular situation that count; it is what impression is left after a period of negative publicity.  The overall impression is negative and that is what urgently needs repair.   We want a situation where the clergy can walk the streets everywhere without fear of insult.

As I was thinking about this apparent decline in the reputation of the Church of England in society, I was drawn to remember the passage in Matthew 23 about religious people and institutions being likened to whited sepulchres. This is a passage describing how, on the outside, everything may seem beautiful, but on the inside, there is filth and decomposing human remains.  It is as though the general public, who used to see only fine beautiful buildings and honourable people, have been afforded a glimpse of something dark and not very wholesome through a crack in the white façade. Something rotten and corrupt is showing through the crack.

In the comments on Thinking Anglicans about the resignation of Melissa Caslake, there was a quote given.  ‘Half of the leadership of the Church of England knows that it needs to change to survive, but the other half feels that survival depends on preventing change at all costs.’    The evidence suggests that if public perception of the Church is changing as fast as it is, then change becomes a life-death matter for the institution. To use the vivid picture language of Jesus, if the whited sepulchre is cracked open at one end, then all the whitewash will be ignored.  The only thing visible will be the bones. The Royal Family has, metaphorically speaking, been cracked open but survived.  They all seem to be (apart from Prince Andrew) on their way to recovery in people’s estimation. People it seems, can cope with frailty and failure.  But they cannot accept dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Most of us have experienced the devastating effect of secrets within a family. In the past there were sometimes extra children born to a family after it seemed complete.  Then, years later, it was discovered that the youngest child was in fact the daughter or son of a teenage daughter. No one was prepared to talk about the situation but the damage to the identity of the child born out of wedlock could be enormous. I am sure that most of my readers will recall some secret in their own family which caused damage because of silence. Scandal is thought to be dangerous and damaging. What is far worse is a scandal never admitted. They are like festering wounds.  From a human point of view, people are far readier to cope with lapses in human behaviour than we think.  Obviously, there are, even now, activities which are hard to forgive or let go. I am thinking of such crimes as gross cruelty to a child or abuse of some kind. But most of the scandals that we heard about, which thought to bring disgrace on a family, did not come into this category. Secrets when brought into the light of day normally do not seem so terrifying and will, for most people, incur understanding and forgiveness.

There is a way forward for the Church.  It needs to decide on a path of openness and genuine remorse for its past failings.  If it takes the other path of commissioning a new coat of whitewash every time there is a scandal, public trust and respect for the Church will continue to decline.  Human beings generally respond well to a narrative which begins: ‘We got it wrong. We made terrible mistakes and we ask for your understanding and forgiveness.’ If the Church over a period of years could become the institution which is prepared, never to cover up but to own up, then perhaps people in our society would learn to trust it more. That terrible loss of trust that has been sustained over the past thirty years might be reversed. I do not see this process beginning easily, unless we have someone of real leadership quality prepared to take such change forward.  We arrive back at a place which we have frequently visited.  We come back to imploring the Church and its leaders to embrace integrity, truth and honesty and put away the falsity of thinking that they can continue to manipulate, through public relations techniques, the reputation of the Church as they have done over the past years.

DioVA Negotiating to Sell Truro Church Property

In a move that has garnered scant attention, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, faced with plummeting revenue from its constituent parishes due to COVID-19 and the loss of more than 15 percent of its Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) over the past 10 years, has announced that it is in discussions with Truro Church to sell the property to the dissident group.

The property was the one of several that were the subject of multi-million dollar litigation, after dissidents attempted to wrest the property from the Episcopal Church.

Since the 1970’s, the property was one of several in the area that served as the epicenter of ultra-conservative factions within the denomination. The property recovery litigation ultimately held the Episcopal church to be the lawful owner of the property.

The congregation is known to be fiercely homophobic and to promote conversion therapy. In addition, as reported in previous Anglican Watch posts, the church is alleged to told youth not perceived as sufficiently conforming to gender stereotypes that they are unwelcome in the church’s youth group.

More recently, allegations have surfaced that the late Marshall Harrison Brown, assistant rector of Truro, may have solicited homeless men receiving services from the church for paid sex. The church has not responded to requests for comment regarding the allegations.

Presently, the property is leased to Truro Anglican rent-free, with Truro to pay for the church’s upkeep and maintenance. The lease runs through 2037.

Now, despite the church’s dismal history on LGBTQ+ rights, Bishop Susan Goff says:

“I believe this effort embodies our diocesan goals of supporting and growing our priority ministries, healing across differences, resourcing God’s mission, sharing the faith of Jesus with youth and others, and honoring and caring for God’s creation,” said Bishop Goff.  “And I am hopeful the discussions will lead to an outcome that allows The Diocese to deepen and expand our commitment to more than 68,000 members and 425 clergy.”

Of course, one wonders how a church that tells youth perceived as LGBTQ+ to leave, or at which clergy allegedly hire homeless men for sex on church grounds, results in “sharing the faith of Jesus with youth and others.”

Moreover, the standing committee has long wanted an Episcopal parish in Fairfax City proper, which is reflected in the provisions of the current lease. The latter provides the diocese with access to the property for services and events.

Thus, the news appears to represent an abandonment of diocesan goals to eventually plant a church in Fairfax City.

Of course, the decision to spend millions on litigation, only to turn around and sell the property to the dissidents, may seem curious to many, especially in light of ++Katherine’s directives not to reward dissidents for bad behavior via the sale of property to them.

The announcement also appears to undercut the diocese’s claim that it wishes to maintain ownership of its historic properties. While the colonial-appearing chapel only dates to 1934, the parish itself dates back to 1845.

Welby Earns First Annual Pandemic Pinhead Award

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recipient of numerous honors and awards, has now received an additional award: The coveted Anglican Watch Pandemic Pinhead award. The announcement comes shortly after Welby announced that he is going on sabbatical to reflect on reconciliation in the church.

Anglican Watch’s award is bestowed on Welby in recognition of his announcement that Church of England parishes will remain open for Christmas, even in Tier 4 regions, which are those areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

In a BBC interview, reported by the Daily Mail Welby urges the elderly to be sensible and not feel compelled to attend church. He adds that, if they do so, they should avoid mingling and stay away from the choir.

Welby’s off-the-cuff remarks, replete with the usual Christmas bit about the darkness not overcoming the light, come at a time when a mutant version of the COVID-19 virus is raging across London, and the EU is imposing travel bans to the UK.

In addition, the casual nature of Welby’s remarks ignore the fact that he is first among equals of the primates in the Anglican Communion, and second only to the monarch as the leader of the Church of England. As such, Welby can and should draw on the medical expertise readily available to him, close parishes, and issue written guidelines to help avoid further infections. Such an approach is particularly important in this time of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and Welby could use his position for tremendous good by taking the matter seriously.

Indeed, if Welby is to live out the Christmas message, there is no higher calling than to actively work to protect the least among us from the pandemic. Welby’s cavalier approach to the matter mirrors his muddled approach to sexual abuse in the church and is a profound disservice to the church and the UK.

In short, Welby has once again demonstrated an abject failure of leadership.

For these reasons, Anglican Watch is proud to bestow the esteemed Pandemic Pinhead award on Welby.


“Nobody Can Hate Like Christians”

The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, who died this past March, was a trailblazer in the Episcopal Church. An ardent advocate for LGBTQ+ rights as early as 1989, she excoriated the Episcopal Church for racism and sexism. And while her ordination as a bishop was the first for a woman in the Anglican Communion, and welcomed by liberals in the Episcopal Church, her message already is being diluted and misused.

In short, we are fast losing sight of Barbara Harris’ true legacy.

Harris, for many years a member of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, also served as a chaplain to local prisons. Prior to ordination, Harris served as head of public relations for Sun Oil. She also advised numerous corporations on social policy and governance issues, invariably arguing for inclusion, equality and social justice.

During her time at Church of the Advocate, Harris had served as deacon at the ordination of the so-called Philadelphia Eleven, a group of women ordained as priests in a controversial move that provoked outrage among some, as well as ecclesiastical charges, later dropped, against the bishop diocesan.

Harris, who had a degree in pastoral care but had not been to seminary, was a controversial choice when she was consecrated bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in 1989. Indeed, she had earlier predicted that the first female bishop in the church would be white, for they had the access, the influence, and the time in ministry to qualify, she said.

Thus, Barbara by her own admission wound up having to eat her words.

Indeed, Harris, known for her quick wit, received numerous threats prior to consecration, refused to wear a bullet-resistant vest during the event, saying, “If I’m going to get shot, what better place than the altar?” She also famously said, “Nobody can hate like Christians.” And the predictable schism occurred as a result of her consecration, with some traditionalists breaking away to form a dissident group in which female clergy were unwelcome.

Over the years, Harris struggled to balance her role as bishop suffragan with her participation in various civil rights causes. It was through the latter that this author knew Harris, who was invariably funny, loving, passionate, kind, and appropriately irreverent — in many ways, the perfect bishop.

Behind the scenes, her experiences with injustice and oppression also made her at times caustic, and she angered more than a few over the years. As a result, her consecration carried with it a sense of marvel, for the church often has difficulty embracing its critics. And no one was quicker to lambaste the church for its shortcomings than Harris, nor more erudite in doing so.

In death, many remember Harris warmly, and she has received numerous awards and recognitions. Indeed, her name is often invoked by liberals in the church as they seek racial reconciliation and social justice, and an increased role for women in the church.

And therein lies the problem.

For example, in the diocese of Massachusetts, the bishops continue to refuse to address this author’s conflict with the Rev. Bob Malm, who inter alia has committed perjury in legal proceedings against the author. And yet Harris would have been the first to demand a full and fair inquiry, followed by real results.

Similarly, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde has often invoked Harris’ legacy, and rightly so, for after her retirement as bishop suffragan Harris served for a number of years in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW).

And yet Budde far too often takes a pass on clergy misconduct, and while claiming to be an unabashed liberal, typically takes the careful road in situations like Donald Trump’s use of St. John’s Lafayette Square for a photo op.

As for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, it has gone so far as to say in writing that clergy misconduct is actionable only if there are criminal charges—a notion that would have left Harris apoplectic.

Those examples stand in marked contrast to Harris’ approach, in which, to use her words, she sought out, “the least, the lost and the left out.”

Indeed, many remember the fiery sermon she preached at the 2009 General Convention on the topic of blessing same-sex unions:

She declared as boldly as Peter that God has no favorites; called the church’s prior restraint on consecrating gay bishops a “false peace”; made clear distinctions between the sacred and the profane, what is sacrament and what is not; and, with the General Convention at that time still debating whether to allow marriage blessings for same-sex couples, she declared that the church should get out of the marrying business altogether and stick to administering holy blessing.

“If we can develop rites and blessings for fishing fleets and fisherfolk, and for hunts, hounds, horses and houses, including the room where the indoor plumbing is located, we should be able to allow clergy in the exercise of their pastoral ministry to adapt and to appropriate the pastoral office of the blessing of a civil marriage for use with all couples who seek the church’s support and God’s blessing in their marriages.  Friends, yes we can do that,” she proclaimed.

“Indeed, God has no favorites,” she concluded to cheers and applause.  “So to you, gay man, lesbian woman; you, bisexual person; you, transgender man or woman; you, straight person; all of us, the baptized:  Let us honor the sacrament of our baptism and our baptismal covenant, the only covenant we need to remain faithful.”

So, as the Episcopal church continues its rapid decline into obscurity and irrelevance, perhaps it is time to look on Barbara Harris’ real legacy.

Hers was not the middle road.

Hers was not the safe road.

Hers was not the easy road.

Barbara Harris’ road was the right road, a prophetic ministry in which all were called to live out the gospels, not by words, but by deeds.

And to Mariann Budde, to the bishops of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and to all who invoke Harris’ name and legacy, while turning their backs on the church’s shortcomings, its failures, its continuing role in racism, sexism, injustice and oppression, I say don’t invoke Barbara’s legacy if you’re not willing to live into it. Barbara would have been the first to call you out for doing so, and she would not have minced words.

You cannot maintain a “false peace” by ignoring the “least, the lost, the left out,” and expect the church to survive.

Or, as Harris wrote in 1984 in The Witness, an Episcopal journal of which she was the editor:

“How typical of this church and the society it reflects to get its adrenaline flowing over nonissues like irregularity versus validity,” she wrote, “while real issues go unaddressed — justice, power, authority, shared mission and ministry and wholeness in the body of Christ.’’