The holey hierarchy of TEC

By | January 15, 2023
The Holey Episcopal Hierarchy

Imagine the United States with a different form of government. There is an elected monarch, parliament, and supporting bureaucracy at the federal level. But no one is quite sure how much power the monarch has, so it’s never entirely clear what her role is.

Constitutionally, there is a bill of rights. But enforcement at the national level is nearly nonexistent. 

At the state level, there are more than 100 states, although some merge with others or split in two. Each has its monarch and elected parliament. Some function as representative democracies. Others are oligarchies. And others are cults of personalities accountable primarily to their monarchs.

At the local level, a similar pattern applies. Some local governments are fully functioning democracies. Others are Nazi-like cults of personality led by a sociopath or a narcissist. Some follow a laissez-faire system of government, while others are tightly controlled regimes ruled by their local parliament. But no matter what the provincial government looks like, there is almost no accountability or recourse. Nepotism runs rampant; there are few checks and balances.

Sound workable? Few would say yes. 

Yet that is what the hierarchy looks like in the Episcopal Church (TEC)–an odd amalgamation of dysfunction, broken lines of accountability, overlapping authority, NIMBY, petty fiefdoms, Victorian era titles, and sometimes corruption. And the church hierarchy is full of holes or gaps in governance that compound the church’s problems. Thus our title: The Holey Hierarchy.

The consequences

The consequences of this shambolic structure are hardly surprising. 

At every level, lack of urgency and accountability are ongoing issues. Some entities function beautifully but have little opportunity to produce results. Other entities, like the National Cathfederal, maintain the trappings of splendor while desperately dysfunctional behind the scenes.

Drawn to this system are sociopaths and narcissists, along with their ever-present friends — enablers and empaths. Thus, many are either just along for the ride or hoping to hang on to their lucrative sinecures just long enough to retire and enjoy the benefits of one of the last defined benefit plans in the country.

Signs that the whole house of cards is about to collapse abound. There is lip service to the Baptismal Covenant, but prophetic voices are unwelcome. Meanwhile, bad behavior abounds, ranging from theft and embezzlement to bullying and gun-running.

Even worse, the church appears to be clueless when it comes to fixing its problems. Consider the case of the church’s director of operations in Haiti, Vundla Sikhumbuzo. Sent in to clean up the swamp of corruption in the Diocese of Haiti, church officials quietly concede he made things worse. 

Yet the notion of one person operating in a system devoid of checks and balances is an invitation to trouble. Few in the private sector would adopt this flawed strategy for cleaning up the organization.

Far better to either run the diocese directly from the church headquarters or do nothing versus adding one more layer of corruption. That is particularly the case when political unrest and geography make external oversight impossible in Haiti.

Proposed solutions

In looking at solutions, it is possible to maintain TEC’s unique polity while strengthening governance. 

First, however, the church must start by articulating its polity. Specifically, Anglicanism is neither purely hierarchical nor congregational. Instead, it combines elements of both while establishing guardrails to prevent local entities from veering off the path. 

Yet confusion over these issues extends to the very top of the church. Consider:

  • The utter debacle of Todd Ousley’s handling of the Whayne Hougland affair. Ousley did nothing to care for the dioceses hurt by the situation, even as he lauded his role in the matter.
  • Todd Ousley’s statements that bishops cannot direct the clergy under their supervision — comments that contradict the provisions of the Title IV disciplinary canons. Ousley’s failure to understand these issues is troubling for a bishop tasked with training other bishops.
  • The endless back-and-forth with the ACNA crowd during property recovery litigation. And while some of ACNA’s posturing was purely self-serving, its ability to raise this issue in the courts indicates widespread confusion over these matters.

Similarly, all vestries, standing committees, executive boards, and bishops must understand that they are fiduciaries. As fiduciaries, they have specific legal and ethical obligations, including acting in the organization’s best interest, avoiding conflicts of interest, reviewing and understanding financial reports, and more.

Relatedly, throughout the church, there must be transparency about related entities. For instance, it is appalling how many vestries do not know what sort of legal entity their parish is. Or the relationship between the parish and various ministries, including parish schools. Or between the diocese and corp soles. (For that matter, the average Episcopalian doesn’t know what a corp sole is. And nothing steams staff at Anglican Watch more than apparatchiks who don’t even realize that these are not inconsequential questions.)

Similarly, the church does itself no favors with its famously murky budgets, replete with pie charts, narratives, and blended categories that tell us nothing while hiding salary information and other necessary details. If pew people aren’t good enough to know the details of the bishop’s compensation package, why should we send money to support it? Nor can the church rely on the “just trust us” argument. We have seen that abused far too often.

The church also needs to play ethics catch-up. We still have no mechanism to address bishops who permit illegal conduct by clergy in their dioceses. Or refuse to follow church canons. 

Nor do we have a national database of abusive clergy. However, we must track all complaints, as multiple low-level complaints may indicate a more significant problem. 

Neither do we have a national ethics hotline. These are normative for publicly traded companies and large non-profits, but thus far, the denomination has shown zero interest. 

There’s also no meaningful mechanism to address problematic dioceses and parishes without going the Title IV route. The latter may result in removing one or more key persons, but what do you do if the entire diocese heads in the wrong direction? Additionally, many bishops still view Title IV as punitive and thus are reluctant to get involved. Therefore, the church would do well to establish alternative mechanisms for episcopal intervention.

There’s also a role for written policies and procedures. Much like the “Manual of Business Methods in Church Affairs” or the regulations that implement federal statutes, we need to lay out specifics. That includes the famous 5 W’s and 1 H of journalism: what, why, when, where, who, and how.  

The need for written policies and procedures is particularly acute in a heavily volunteer-driven organization like TEC. Moreover, given the church’s present fortunes, it is likely that more and more positions, including clergy, will be filled by volunteers. Thus, now is the time to prepare. And volunteers in particular need written job descriptions, performance feedback, and supervision. In other words, don’t complain within your vestry, altar guild, or other church organization if you aren’t providing these vital tools to your volunteers. 

There’s also a need to fix the church’s theology. Specifically, the church often mistakes Christian forgiveness for a de facto policy of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” That is fundamentally flawed and gives rise to the anyone-but-me tactics that led to the Heather Cook debacle.

Clergy discipline also must be taken seriously. Yes, the church typically responds to allegations of sexual misconduct, but other misconduct often is ignored. That’s problematic, as experts estimate one-third of the clergy are clinical narcissists. It also makes a mockery of the church’s claim to hold clergy to a higher standard.

Lastly, TEC must drop the notion that its critics are evil, disruptive, threatening, worthy of shunning, and all the other stupid responses we see from the church. Given the church’s current trajectory, which is pointed directly at the dustbin of history, the church needs more disruption and less status quo.

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Colin Ross

The people who left aren’t the evil ones. The church itself is evil. Let it die. Who will miss the blood magic and cannibalism rituals for upper class white peoples. It’s a joke and every church that closes is worth celebrating!