In the wake of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church and the SBC, ever wonder how other denominations are responding?
In the case of the Episcopal Church, the reaction typically is to continue sipping Chardonnay, nibbling Brie, and to say, “Thank goodness. WE dealt with that long ago,” with a slight smirk.
But the reality is that while SBC is still trying to deal with its own apocalypse, there’s another disaster coming, one I call the “Episcolypse.” And like the minutes before a tsunami, where the ocean pulls away from the shoreline and the unknowing may be tempted to stare in fascination, the church has no clue that disaster looms.
Why is this? Simply put, it’s because the Episcopal church, once at the vanguard of preventing sexual abuse, has fallen behind the times. And while the church is playing a hit-or-miss game of catch-up, it’s not clear that it has the will or introspection to succeed.
History of clergy discipline
Figuring out how to deal with clergy misconduct dates to the very earliest days of the Episcopal Church.
Soon after the American Revolution, the church’s General Convention passed a measure prohibiting clergy from, “except for their honest necessities” — to “resort[ing] to taverns, or other places most liable to be abused to licentiousness.” Also prohibited were clergy who “[gave] themselves to base or servile labor, or to drinking or riot, or to spending their time idly,” which could result in a range of disciplinary consequences.
But for many years, it was difficult to face clergy discipline in the Episcopal Church. The only church-wide stricture was against heresy, a difficult thing to prove in a church born of the Elizabethan Settlement. Or, as Queen Elizabeth I put it, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” a tolerant perspective at a time when religious intolerance was rife.
As a result, the Episcopal Church held only two trials for heresy in the 20th century. The first such trial was held in 1924, and involved a bishop who was tried for preaching that Communism had supplanted Christianity. He was convicted and removed from office. The second, in 1996, involved a retired bishop who had ordained an openly gay individual; he was acquitted on the basis that church doctrine did not speak to the issue.
Over the years, a similarly hit-or-miss approach to discipline applied. In most cases, issues were handled by bishops diocesan, and often under diocesan canons. Other cases were handled by ecclesiastical courts, too often comprised of persons with close ties to the local bishop.
The sexual revolution brings changes
Beginning in the 1970’s, the evolving role of women in the church and in larger society resulted in pressure for change, as did shifting mores about sex, gender, birth control, and related issues.
Many woman, newly able to be ordained following the ordination of the so-called Philadelphia Eleven, came into leadership positions where they were neither welcome, nor treated with respect. Thus, issues involving harassment, sexism, and discrimination quickly surfaced. And female clergy, themselves struggling for acceptance, often sympathized with the plight of others who had faced clergy abuse, discrimination and marginalization. As a result, there was a burgeoning awareness of the need to address clergy misconduct, typically in the form of sexual abuse.
Many, including the Daughters of the King organization, female clergy, and officials in the Church Pension Group (the church’s captive insurance carrier) lobbied for change. They did so not only out of a desire to do the right thing, but also out of a growing recognition of the depth and breadth of sexual misconduct. Thus, many feared that an avalanche of lawsuits could capsize the church.
Modern Title IV takes shape
The denomination continued to stumble along in its efforts to address clergy misconduct, until its 2009 General Convention, which enacted enacted wholesale changes to Title IV, the disciplinary canon. These changes sought to standardize procedures across the dioceses, establish common understandings of misconduct, and to balance the needs of clergy, congregations and victims. It also eliminated the statute of limitations for sexual abuse and expanded the list of those who could file complaints.
And while Title IV addressed a range of misconduct, from sexual misconduct to the catch-all of “conduct unbecoming,” Title IV only addressed misconduct by clergy — leaving a huge void when it came to misconduct by lay persons. And the resulting Title IV training materials focused almost exclusively on sexual abuse.
Subsequent tweaks attempted to ground Title IV in the church’s theology of forgiveness and reconciliation, and positioned Title IV as less about discipline, and more about resolution of conflict, healing and reconciliation. But at its heart, Title IV remained all about sexual abuse.
The church rests on its laurels
For many years, these policies were among the most aggressive out there. As a result, Episcopalians came to look down their blue-blooded noses at issues in the Catholic Church and elsewhere. “Not our problem,” was and is the prevailing attitude.
But by declaring victory early in the game, the Episcopal Church lost touch with the continuing need to respond effectively to abuse.
Things came to a head at the 2018 General Convention, when #metoo proponents pushed a series of measures calling for the church to repent of its role in sexual abuse. Numerous canonical changes were proposed, ranging from whistleblower protection to temporarily lifting the statute of limitations for certain offenses.
Even during the 2018 General Convention there were hints of trouble. Several bishops wandered out during a Litany of Repentance, intended to address the church’s failures. Nothing serious—they just didn’t feel the need to be there.
And while many #metoo measures were approved by the House of Delegates, which represents laity and non-bishops, the House of Bishops tweaked most of the abuse-related resolutions that came before it.
At first blush, many of these tweaks don’t seem like much. For example, the vigorous protections for whistleblowers initially proposed were changed to cover “opposition to practices prohibited by Title IV.” Seems innocuous—right up until you consider that, if an intake officer dismisses a complaint, by definition it’s been decided that the conduct in question isn’t prohibited by Title IV. Thus, if you are the complainant, you are fair game.
This was a pattern that occurred throughout the legislative process, and while few would come right our and say it, it became clear that far too many bishops were focused on protecting their personal authority, versus dealing with abuse.
Several important measures also just quietly vanished during the legislative process, sucked into the black hole of the Episcopal governance colossus, never to be seen again. Indeed, in several cases those who introduced the measure still don’t know where the train jumped the tracks. One such provision was the requirement that dioceses audit their annual compliance — a great proposal in a denomination known for lack of urgency and accountability, and one adopted by the Catholic church.
Others met a more obvious end. One was the proposal for a national database of abusive clergy. Some suggested that such a database include only findings of guilt. Others suggested the Catholic approach of listing those credibly accused. Still others noted that spiritual abuse often is initially overlooked by judicatories, and thus felt that tracking complaints, even if dismissed, could help officials track persistent low-level abusers and potentially help avert larger issues. But in the end, the usual arguments about logistics and potential liability carried the day.
Time to clutch those pearls
Now, as the Episcopal Church gears up for the 2022 General Convention, originally set for 2021 but delayed by COVID, signs abound that it’s time to put down the Chardonnay, and do what Episcopalians do best when faced with calamity — clutch those pearls and shop for a nice new pair of Manolo Blahniks.
In true Episcopal fashion, the upcoming General Convention, to be held in Baltimore, is shorter, but will be more expensive. And even as many churches continue both in-person and live-streamed services, this General Convention is entirely in-person—an odd decision in a denomination much older than the population at large, and where the presiding bishop has praised the quick adoption of livestreaming during the pandemic. As a result, delegates are resigning in droves, even though the meeting now is just a few weeks away. Clearly, there is a disconnect between church officials and the
boots stilettos on the ground.
Yet even as the denomination gears up for a tumultuous meeting, it faces the same reality as other denominations, which is that it has taken a big hit in attendance during the pandemic, with no signs that things will improve any time soon.
Meanwhile, all evidence suggests that the denomination as we know it is dying. Weddings, baptisms and other indicia of the future are collapsing. And while the church remains affluent, it continues its transactional approach to the future — study groups, book clubs, and throwing money at problems.
But the cherry on the ice cream is that, caught up in all that busy stuff, time has passed the Episcopal Church by. The SBC is naming names, releasing its previously secret database, and more.
The Catholic church has, in many dioceses, expanded its safe church programs to cover bullying and spiritual abuse. And it publishes names, even as many Episcopal bishops try to handle abuse behind closed doors. In short, the Episcopal Church has become focused first on the organization, and secondarily on other issues. It has become in 2022 what the Catholic Church was 20 and 30 years ago.
Yet, even though we are now just weeks away from General Convention, we see no signs that the church is taking abuse or #metoo seriously. Specifically, there is a conspicuous absence of Title IV legislation. So while #metoo was the next big thing at the last General Convention, that tiger has been defanged. As of this writing, there are no significant changes to the disciplinary canons being proposed. None.
SBC crashes the party
Speaking of, while far too many Episcopalians may look down their noses at the SBC, when it comes to abuse, when it comes to abuse the Episcopal Church has far more in common with the SBC than either denomination is likely to admit.
For instance, bishops and their inner circle — often centering on the diocesan chancellor, or attorney — frequently sandbag complaints of abuse. They demonize and marginalize those who complain. And while they fairly foamed at the mouth about the applicability of church canons to the recent property disputes, they ignore the canons with equal alacrity when it comes to abuse. Thus, many of the bad behaviors flagged in the SBC report — even as limited as it was — are alive and well in the Episcopal Church.
For example, in the case of this author, the Episcopal Dioceses of Massachusetts and Virginia have both chosen to ignore the express provisions of the disciplinary canons, which forbid clergy from conduct involving “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
Ostensibly because the priest in question, Robert Malm, despite being accused of perjury, hasn’t faced criminal charges.
Similarly, the diocese of Virginia has said it won’t get involved if civil litigation is under way. Yet that is exactly what it did during the property recovery litigation, when it defrocked the clergy in question, even as it dashed to the courthouse to file suit.
Nor is this author’s situation an isolated one. One of the few discipline-related resolutions offered up this year is one from the Rev. Jennifer Adams, rector of a church in Michigan. There, the diocese lost its bishop due to misconduct.
Yet the national church made a hash of things. Even as it terminated its relationship with the bishop in question, there was next to no care for the constituent parishes or their members, even as the national church negotiated a deal under which the departing bishop walked away with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Who paid this princely sum so that an abusive prelate of the church could retire in high style? Not the national church, but rather the local diocese, already poorly funded. And while Todd Ousley, the bishop who handles complaints about bishops, lauded the situation as an example of how the church disciplinary process should work, a lack of communication or care for those hurt by the underlying misconduct led those injured to reach a very different conclusion. (It should come as no surprise that Ousley, who served one of the two diocese affected by the misconduct, was scooped up by the national church after his diocese collapsed during his tenure.)
Adam’s proposed resolution would create a task force to study how Title IV is handled, particularly in the case of bishops. And her concerns touch on a big problem with the Episcopal Church, which is that if your bishop doesn’t want to get involved, you are left without recourse. As in don’t bug the national church about it.
“That’s a matter for the diocese,” Todd Ousley, will tell you, conveniently ignoring the fact that you’ve contacted him for that very reason, which is that the diocese won’t handle the matter. Something about circular reasoning.
Not to be outdone, Episcopal dioceses play the same games. The bishop may have the legal ability to issue binding guidance to your rector at any time, but complain to the bishop about misconduct, and you’ll likely be told, “You need to have that discussion with your vestry,” conveniently ignoring the fact that most vestries are rubber stamps, comprising empaths, sycophants, and enablers.
In other words, while the Episcopal Church behaves every bit as badly as the SBC, it does have a leg up on the baptists in one sense: It’s hierarchical when it wants to be, congregational in polity when that better suits, and church officials will duck behind whichever tree meets their needs. How convenient.
A dismal track record
Nor is the Episcopal Church’s track record reassuring. In addition to routinely sandbagging complaints of abuse that don’t involve sex or children, it consistently mishandles reports of even the most egregious sexual abuse.
In one situation, Episcopal priest Stephen McWhorter allegedly engaged in egregious sexual harassment of a female church employee. When the latter complained about it, she was ignored and brushed off, and finally told the whole matter is confidential and can’t be discussed. She now struggles with severe trauma and has gotten no care from the relevant dioceses. McWhorter is now retired and serves a parish in Alabama. And when recent allegations came to light that McWhorter made unwanted sexual advances against a young man in Pittsburgh, the Diocese of Alabama ignored the new complaint altogether.
It’s also fair to say that this approach to misconduct is the norm, not the exception. This author has interviewed hundreds of survivors of abuse in the Episcopal Church, and one — exactly one — has said that the matter was handled well.
Thus, we see all the signs that led to the debacle in the SBC and Catholic churches:
• Lip service to preventing abuse.
• Protecting the organization first, while marginalizing and ignoring victims.
• A blatant disregard for church policy by the organization.
• Victims who are re-traumatized by the church’s dismal response to allegations of abuse.
• Lawyers and other inner-circle church officials sandbagging complaints.
• Malicious allegations that complainants are evil, misguided, mentally ill, or in the case of this author, a “domestic terrorist.” Seriously.
The AW weather forecast for TEC and surrounding areas
Despite its minuscule size, it doesn’t take much digging to quickly realize that the cases of abuse referenced above are not isolated instances and the Episcopal Church has more than its fair share of abuse. And while its small size has allowed the denomination to fly under the radar, the lack of media coverage also plays into the church’s unwarranted belief that it somehow is a golden little slice of paradise, in which misconduct/abuse rarely, if ever, happens and church officials pounce at the first sign of abuse.
Of course, even with the many reported incidents of abuse, it’s a fair bet that these are a small fraction of the total cases. And in the midst of uproars in other denominations, in the Episcopal Church we see bishops, chancellors, and even the Presiding Bishop’s office doing their best to protect the organization first, its members second, if at all.
And while we don’t hear the refrain of “touch not my anointed,” the Episcopal church has its own, stretch-limo version of this phenomena in the form of thick layers of clericalism in which parishioners all but worship a charismatic priest or bishop. The latter has the advantage of routine episcopal visits, in which the bishop shows up in full regalia and wanders about the parish, impressing the little people and making the sign of the cross and, you guessed it, sipping Chardonnay.
Thus, the Anglican Watch weather forecast for the Episcopal Church predicts dangerous storms on the horizon, possible earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides, followed by gale force winds and hale. In other words, the Episcolypse is coming, otherwise known as hell in a handbasket.
Those in the storm’s path need to take the danger seriously. The tiny Episcopal Church, already facing rapidly dwindling membership and collapsing attendance, may not be able to ride out the storm otherwise. Nor should other denominations be sanguine about their prospects; ELCA, for example, is already predicting its own demise sometime before 2050.
Yet, even as an unprecedented storm builds over the sunny, warm waters of the Episcopal Church, members and church officials alike appear unaware of the looming danger, even as they babble on about becoming beloved community and ending structural racism.
May I have another glass of wine? Oh, some more cheese too, if you have a moment.