According to many faiths, there’s power in a name. We see that in pantheistic religions, where knowing the name of a God confers power. We see that in Christianity, where the Ten Commandments tell us not to take the name of God in vain. And we see it elsewhere.
That begs the question: Why are Christians and the churches in which they worship so afraid to name the problems they are confronting? Wouldn’t being able to do so give parishioners the power to overcome these obstacles?
We’re thinking particularly of declining membership, attendance, and the big bugbear of them all: conflict.
Time and again, we look at the various churches we track, often over their sordid histories of unresolved conflict. And we have yet to see one — just one — actually admit that there’s an elephant in the living room.
And yes, there would be an advantage to calling a spade a spade. Far too many parishes either ignore these issues, hoping the problems will go away — right up until the church itself goes away.
Others try to paper over problems with a whitewash of all-churchy-nice.
“We’re all good people, doing God’s work,” or “this is the best group of people you’ll ever meet,” or similar empty rhetoric, despite the fact these claims typically aren’t valid.
In fact, if we really want to be honest, we have to ask whether the comments by the late Bishop Barbara Harris are accurate, “Nobody hates like Christians.”
The reality, though, is that in the best of times, the Episcopal Church is highly conflictive. That was true in 2010, and it’s even more true today, as the pace of decline accelerates and baby boomer Episcopalians die or move into costly nursing homes.
Even worse, in dioceses where bishops have abandoned their roles in clergy discipline, or themselves engage in misconduct, we see broad swathes of the church where it’s survival of the fittest. That, even as these segments of the church race ever faster towards collapse.
- That’s true in Virginia, where years of feckless leadership by Shannon Johnston and Susan Goff have left the Diocese in tatters, resulting in a 40 percent decline in membership since 2015.
- It’s true in Massachusetts, where Alan Gates ignored 29 emails from a child rape victim about the priestly perpetrator. As a result, almost half of all church members have left since 2015.
- It’s true in Dallas, where George Sumner is about as corrupt as they come. As a result, the Diocese has shed almost one-third of its members since 2015.
- It’s true in Chicago, where Paula Clark talks a good game, but we see a diocese trying to sell assets to stay afloat, even as she ignores the corruption that is pushing the Diocese into oblivion. Meanwhile, the Diocese has lost just short of half of all members since 2015.
- It’s true in the Diocese of Alabama, where corrupt bishop Glenda Curry can’t be bothered to address a priest who rapes boys. As a result, there are now about 6,500 people in the pews on an average Sunday in Alabama, and that number is fast eroding.
The same holds for parishes with unresolved conflict. For example, St. James in Texarkana, where Anglican Watch has covered sexual harassment and retaliation, both forbidden by church canon, is in meltdown. That is the case despite efforts by the rector to discredit his perceived enemies, even as Bishop George Sumner engages in coverup.
Similarly, Grace Episcopal Alexandria, the church that gave rise to this publication, has been in conflict since 2015. As a result, the parish has plunged from almost 400 pledging units to 127 units, and there is no sign things will get better any time soon. Indeed, rector Anne Turner’s departure following allegations of an extramarital affair appears to be the nail in the lid of the coffin for this parish that predates the civil war.
And St. Paul’s, Englewood, NJ, appears to be on the brink of implosion after efforts to remove alcoholic rector, alleged embezzler, and bully extraordinaire Bill Allport dragged on forever. And when we contacted St. Paul’s to hear Allport’s take on things, he mistakenly sent an email to us, versus the canon to the ordinary, asking for help formulating a response. (For the record, sitting in splendid silence was the worst possible response, serving only to worsen the situation.
So why can’t churches say its name? We think much of the issue is that Christians are notoriously conflict-adverse. The early Christians got eaten by lions. Today’s Christians won’t say boo to a goose.
Some of it is that folks are afraid that the name that comes out will be their own.
Too often, we see folks like Susan Elzey in every denomination. On paper (or Facebook), they’re busy instilling values, checking homework, and being deaconesses, but right behind the scenes, they are getting citations for sneaky stuff in the public parks. Great lesson to instill in the kids, huh?
And for the record, the Episcopal Church is rife with Susan Elzeys and Jeff Chiows. “But the kids need a foundation,” they whine, even as they forget that their conduct ensures their children will leave organized religion the first chance they get and never look back.
Of course, another reason no one wants to call these issues by name is the unofficial motto of the Episcopal Church: “Those things left undone.”
Why deal with conflict when you can pull a Shannon Johnston and decree that you don’t want to get involved? You may get paid a couple hundred thousand annually to be a bishop, but hey — clergy discipline is just a boring sideline.
Will things change? For much of the church, our views mirror that of fellow blogger Crusty Old Dean, who recognizes that large swathes of the denomination have chosen to die versus change. And while most Episcopalians will deny that claim to the very ends of the earth, if you really probe, on some level they do understand that the church must change or die. They just won’t admit it.
That means that, in most cases, the parts of the church that survive will be those with the courage to call out issues by name. They’ll be the parts of the church willing to work through conflict, promote accountability, and focus on real solutions versus transactional solutions.
Let’s hope that the Episcopal Church has the ability to do what it needs to do to survive, and to become beloved community in reality, versus in name only.
Join with us, Episcopalians, and say its name. And in case you didn’t know the names of the challenges you face, we’ll share those names.
The names are:
- Lack of urgency.
- Lack of accountability.
Say the names.