Update, 4 April 2023: Members of the St. Andrews tell Anglican Watch that Bishop Chip stokes was aware of issues with Somers for years before taking action. We deeply regret the delay and the damage to the church that resulted. Hopefully other bishops will learn from this experience and act promptly when allegations of this sort arise.
Daniel E. Somers is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of NJ facing Title IV disciplinary charges. While Anglican Watch suspects there is more to the case than meets the eye, the case is noteworthy for other reasons. Specifically, the Diocese shows a commendable willingness to follow the canons — a willingness almost unheard of elsewhere in the church.
The allegations involve a situation in which Somers negotiated various legal agreements on behalf of his parish, St. Andrews, located in Lambertville N.J., even after the vestry allegedly asked him to cease. Moreover Somers allegedly:
- Failed to maintain legal malpractice insurance, thus potentially placing church assets at risk.
- Refused to provide vestry members with access to relevant legal documents.
- Retaliated against vestry members.
- Engaged in conduct unbecoming.
- Plagiarized various sermons.
The Title IV reference panel sent the allegations out for investigation, which concluded that there was evidence of potential misconduct. The matter was referred for conciliation.
Subsequent to the initial complaint, a second Title IV complaint was filed, alleging dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. A reference panel concluded that the allegations were credible, resulting in the bishop suspending Somers from ministry.
The matter then was referred to the bishop for conciliation, which was rejected by Somers.
While the matter was awaiting scheduling, Somers turned 72, but failed to resign as required by church canon. He subsequently sued the diocese and bishop, alleging they did not have the right to require his retirement in violation of his letter of agreement with the parish. Thus, he was charged with violating church canons by seeking to have internal church matters adjudicated in the secular courts.
As of December 2022, Somers has filed responsive pleadings, and it is safe to assume there are negotiations under way behind the scenes.
We would add that his pleadings, brief though they are, are offensive in their own right — we see no interest in healing or reconciliation, both of which should be normative for priest. Or a Christian, for that matter.
In other words, the only problem we see with the diocese’s position is that Somers ever became a priest in the first place.
How that happened, we don’t know. Nor do we want to know.
The real News
But the real news in all of this is not Somers’ alleged misconduct, which is all too common in the church. What is remarkable is that the diocese is taking the matter seriously, versus brushing it off as interpersonal conflict, a vendetta, or not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” the catch-all that unethical bishops use to avoid dealing with the unpleasantness of the Title IV disciplinary canons.
In one heated vestry meeting, the junior warden of the parish made heated and intemperate remarks. Somers responded by telling the junior warden that she was toxic, and he would be happy to write her a letter of transfer.
Here’s what the diocesan pleadings say:
In the presence of the other Vestry members at the March 22, 2021 Vestry meeting, Fr. Somers berated Junior Warden Julia Barringer by saying she was a toxic presence, and that he would be willing to provide transfer papers to another parish if she requested. He admitted this conduct. The meeting in question was a heated one and Ms. Barringer also became angry and directed negative and derogatory comments at Fr. Somers and the Vestry. While Fr. Somers had reason to become angry at Ms Barringer, he nevertheless had an obligation, under his vows, to hold himself to a higher standard. His outburst at his Jr. Warden amounted to conduct unbecoming a clergy person, a violation of Canon IV.1(h)(9).
To that we say, “Holy Toledo.”
Anglican Watch is aware of dozens of similar cases. In every instance, the diocese has taken a pass. In other words, clergy are de facto not held to a higher standard, or even a common standard. They are held to no standard.
But in the Diocese of NJ, we see a diocese that actually holds clergy to a higher standard, which is what is specified in the canons.
It spent money on an investigator, versus bemoaning the cost, or having an untrained intake officer improperly “investigate.”
In other words, the Diocese of NJ appears to take church discipline seriously. It seems to actually follow church canons.
Anglican Watch is aware that current bishop Chip Stokes plans to retire soon. We wish him well and hope that the diocese will continue to act with integrity under a new bishop. And we are grateful for his personal and professional integrity in this matter.
We hope, too, that other dioceses will look at this case and see what Title IV can and should be. And we call on dioceses that use Title IV as a means to further mistreat and abuse persons already hurt by the church to repent, to live into the baptismal covenant, and avoid the all-too-familiar cheap grace of “that happened before I got here,” or “I already made my decision,” or “I’ve already heard all about that.” Just as the overwhelmingly white Episcopal Church is finally dealing with racism, it is time for it to own up to its other ethical and moral failings and make them right.
The Episcopal Church should be a safe place for all persons, not just clergy.