The SBC Apocalypse Should be an Air Raid Siren for Episcopalians

By | May 22, 2022
SBC Report is a Stunning Indictment of the Episcopal Church

Earlier today, the long-awaited report on sexual misconduct within the SBC was released, and it’s a bombshell. Persons of every ilk use words like “rage,” “fury,” “incandescent,” and “apocalypse” to describe their reaction to the report’s damning findings. Even so, one has a sense that people lack proper adjectives to fully describe their reaction to the revelations.

Yet even as Episcopalians clutch their pearls, pour another glass of wine, and smugly murmur, “We took care of those issues years ago,” they should be worried about the report and its implications for the Episcopal church (TEC).

Very worried. As in fire in the foxhole, run for the bunkers, grab your flack jacket, four riders of the Apocalypse worried.

Specifically, the organizational evil depicted in the report is the modus operandi for much of the Episcopal church. In other words, the Episcopal Church is every bit as corrupt as the SBC, and arguably worse.

Consider: the report details how lawyers tried to protect the SBC by refusing to deal with sexual abuse. Yet that exact same approach has played out repeatedly within the Episcopal church. For example, Bishop Shannon Johnston has dealt with clergy who have had affairs by forcing them out. Yet when it comes to egregious sexual abuse of female church employees by priests canonically resident in Virginia, he has covered up the matter with absolutely no care or concern for the wellbeing of the victims. Meanwhile the priest in that case remains licensed and continues to serve a church, albeit now in Alabama. The Alabama diocese continues to ignore complaints about the priest. Meanwhile, the diocese has done nothing for the victim, and continues to do nothing for the victim. Yet it created the underlying power imbalance exploited by the abuser in the first place, and thus is morally responsible for caring for the victim. To ignore her needs is utterly unethical.

Similarly, in the context of Title IV cases, two dioceses — Massachusetts and Virginia — are known to repeatedly refuse to care for victims of clergy misconduct, despite the fact that this is expressly required by church canon. Anecdotal evidence suggests many more dioceses and bishops take the same approach.

Why? The bishops of Virginia say it’s because they were told by attorneys “not to get too involved.” That is the case with the situation at St. Thomas’ in McLean, where the former rector was defrocked, and in at least three other Title IV cases known to the staff of Anglican Watch. That is precisely the same paradigm as SBC:

“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse,” investigators from Guidepost Solutions wrote in an executive summary of their report. “They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.” Source: ReligionNews.com

In other words, forget those hurt by the church. It’s all about protecting an already dying denomination. And it is that very behavior — protecting the organization and the status quo over caring for those made in the image of God — that Jesus railed against.

Speaking of the role of attorneys, SBC’s top-level approach to the role of attorneys is almost identical to that of TEC. In the Episcopal Church, diocesan chancellors, who are often volunteers, control what gets on the agenda, how it’s worded, and what the bishops do. Standing committees may think they are in charge, but the reality often is that a small group of advisors close to the bishop make the real decisions.

Indeed, in many cases, the chancellor advises on everything from the diocesan canons and constitution committee, to the disciplinary committee, to the actions of the bishops, to resolutions coming out of diocesan convention. Thus, his or her views are controlling, and it is rare indeed for a bishop to question these recommendations, no matter how bad or inconsistent with the Christian faith they may be. In essence, the entire organization becomes nothing more than a badly run non-profit, driven by the views of an attorney whose overarching goal is to protect the organization.

Nor should anyone be surprised that SBC officials refused to develop a database of offenders, all while keeping a secret one for their own use.  As the dozens of entries on this website illustrate, there’s plenty of misconduct to go around in the Episcopal Church. And it’s a rare bishop who doesn’t know who the bad actors are in their diocese. Yet far too many bishops would tell you there’s no issue at all in the church.

Similarly, the report’s finding that victims of abuse are often minimized, demonized, and blamed for their own abuse holds true in TEC.

Indeed, one Episcopal bishop, now serving at Virginia Theological Seminary, brushed the victim of sexual abuse off by saying, “I’m praying for you,” while suggesting that she played an equal role in her sexual relationship with her rector. That ignores one of the most basic safe church tenets, which is that the clergyperson is always responsible for maintaining boundaries. Always. No excuses, no explanations, no exceptions. Yet this scumbag not only got elected bishop, but to this day has suffered no repercussions for his victim-shaming. Nor does he appear to have any understanding of the courage this victim required in order to come forward. Neither does he know or care that the victim now has left the Christian church entirely. (Note that we didn’t say faith.)

So what are the common threads between abuse in the Episcopal Church and the SBC?

In many cases, it’s the reluctance to get involved when allegations of abuse arise. “I’ll set off a tidal wave of issues if I bring up the topic,” is a far too common response from clergy. Also common is, “I don’t want to do anything that might result in liability.” Or, “That happened before I got here.” Cheap, easy, conflict-free. Just ignore the issue and keep on trucking.

Similarly, many denominational leaders worship at the altar of the status quo. “That’s not how the Episcopal Church handles things,” they say, as they sweep conflict under the rug. Yet conflict denied is conflict multiplied, and it is well established that the Episcopal Church already is highly conflictive. (Indeed, the survey referenced in the hyperlink is now 12 years old. With double-digit declines in membership and attendance in much of TEC, it’s a safe bet things have gotten even more conflictive since then.)

Of course, worshipping at the golden altar of the status quo comes with an inherent problem: The days when families were born into a parish, worshipped at the same parish, celebrated life’s milestones, and were ultimately buried from the church are long gone. Instead, we see a church in which membership is highly fluid, in which it’s no longer normative to be a church member, and in which society is marked by increasing racial and ethnic diversity. In short, the status quo died long ago but has yet to get a proper burial in TEC.

Yet another vantage point on systemic corruption within the church can be found in the recent “Jesus in America” study conducted for the Episcopal Church. One of the key findings of the resulting report is a stark difference between how Christians see themselves and how non-Christians see them. In a nutshell, Christians see themselves as “kind, tolerant, thoughtful,” and other positive attributes, while non-Christians often see them as harsh and judgmental.

And while Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is careful to couch his discussions of the report in terms of “perceptions,” the indisputable reality is that churches consistently adhere to lower standards than publicly traded for-profits. For example, whistleblowers enjoy protections under Sarbanes-Oxley and other federal laws. These protections often are not adequate, but they are far better than what happens within TEC to whistleblowers. Within the denomination, whistleblowers invariably face a grim future, with some evidence suggesting an almost 100% departure rate from the Episcopal Church. In other words, there is a staggering gap between what TEC professes and what it lives.

Nor does Curry have a lot of room to talk. He is personally aware of at least one incident of illegal conduct by an Episcopal priest, but he defers to the bishop diocesan and refuses to step in. As a result, nothing gets done about it, as the bishop in question chooses to turn a blind eye. So Curry may babble on about all the work the church has to do, but the scales need to fall from his own eyes before anyone is going to pay much attention.

It’s also fair to conclude that the dozens of cases of misconduct reported on this website are just the tip of the iceberg. Powerful disincentives to disclosure exist, and of those that do come forward, a high percentage are handled behind the scenes, with no disclosure. Christians are called to bring light to the darkness, but far too often they prefer to stagger around in the darkness. Thus, we guesstimate that, for every incident of abuse we report here, there are a thousand others.

Much like the dudebros of the SBC, members of the Pointy Hats Club invariably look out for each other. Once one bishop makes up their mind about a situation, the rest often will side with them, versus thinking for themselves.

After all, there are few more exclusive clubs than the House of Bishops, and it is rare for a bishop to speak truth to power. Nor is there any recourse if an Episcopal bishop refuses to address abuse within their diocese; neither Todd Ousely (bishop for pastoral development) nor the presiding bishop will lift a finger.

Indeed, Todd Ousely once told a member of our staff that bishops actually don’t have the power to direct clergy within their diocese. That’s an alarming conclusion, coming as it does from the bishop in charge of training new bishops, especially since it expressly contradicts the language of the canons. (Is Ousely a MAGA/states’ rights type? Stupid? Sneaky? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from those in the know.)

In other words, just as SBC touts its congregational polity as a reason to avoid dealing with abuse, so too does TEC pull the same trick. Yes, the hierarchy fairly foams at the mouth over the canons and its hierarchical nature when it comes to property litigation, yet bishops ignore the canons with equal alacrity when someone confronts them with clergy misconduct that they don’t want to deal with.

Indeed, many dioceses refer complaints about clergy conduct to local wardens and vestries — ignoring the reality that many rectors surround themselves with sycophants and enablers who are unlikely to do anything about such complaints. One need only look at the layers of flying monkeys, enablers, and insiders around the late bishop Bruno, and the horrific way in which the diocese responded for many months to the concerns of the St. James the Great community, to realize that this is true at every level. (Full disclosure: Bruno was a friend of Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti.)

Indeed, in one recent case of abuse known to this publication involving an assistant rector (a woman, poorly paid, and reporting to a rector of longstanding tenure) both the relevant church vestry, the wardens, and the diocese refused to deal with it.  They didn’t investigate and find that nothing happened. They just ignored it, effectively siding with the rector while ignoring the victim, but with no basis on which to form any sort of opinion.

This illustrates seven profound problems within TEC:

  1. Title IV (the disciplinary canon/process) does not function as intended, and there is no mechanism for enforcement when a corrupt bishop refuses to act.
  2. The church neither understands nor responds to non-sexual abuse. If it doesn’t involve sex, children, blood or drugs, or cruddy old church buildings, chances are slim indeed that the church will address a complaint. Moreover, given the church’s dismal track record when it comes to handling sexual abuse, one should not be sanguine, even in the most egregious cases of abuse. Indeed, of the hundreds and hundreds of TEC clergy disciplinary complaints Anglican Watch has learned of, we have yet to hear of a single case that was handled well. Not one.
  3. The church lacks accountability at every level. This is a recurring theme that has been coming up for decades, most recently in the Heather Cooke debacle. Yet nothing ever gets done about it. Nor is anything being done about it.
  4. There is no urgency. There’s lots of pearl-clutching in TEC about its present downward spiral. But zero urgency about the problems causing its decline. Consider: Shortly after the Heather Cook report on impaired clergy, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which likes to portray itself as a leader within the Anglican Communion, said it would update its alcohol policy shortly. It took four years for this to happen, and the result were a few banal tweaks intended to get the issue off the to-do list. You can’t make this stuff up.
  5. The church has a flawed theology of forgiveness that prioritizes being nice and turning a blind eye in the name of “live and let live,” versus Christian notions of accountability, repentance, reparation, amendment of life, and possible reconciliation. And the church wrongly treats reconciliation as the only good outcome, when reconciliation may be neither good, nor desirable.
  6. The church does not understand the dynamics of abuse. As stated previously, if the allegations don’t involve sex, the church generally takes a pass. Yet the abuse isn’t in the sex; it’s in the exploitation of differences in real or perceived power. As one wag puts it, “If it doesn’t involve sex, it’s just not sexy.”
  7. Church members just don’t care. Sorry, but there’s no better way to put it. It’s like one famous case where an Episcopal priest was caught embezzling large sums of money from his parish. Asked about it, a prominent church member said, “I know what he did, but I still like him. After all, he’s my priest.”

Clericalism, anyone?

In short, every level of the Episcopal Church should read the SBC report carefully and ask what lessons are to be learned.

Then, instead of study groups, committees, and other transactional “solutions,” the church needs to act. Not with weasel-worded lofty pronouncements or empty rhetoric. Nor will litanies of repentance do the trick. And for the love of the almighty, we don’t need a study or a report. There are more than enough of those to go around.

We need real solutions, and real actions. We need them now.

The Episcopal Church needs to recognize that, though it may be loathe to admit it, in terms of organizational dynamics it’s far closer to the SBC than either denomination is likely to admit.

Bottom line, most Episcopalians will pour another glass of wine and brush this article off as misinformed, clueless, antagonistic, or whatever other dismissive label they feel like using. But if they are really honest, read the SBC report, and look at themselves in the mirror, they will see the report as a stunning and damning indictment of other denominations, including TEC. And they will recognize that, while SBC has the size and resources to ride out the storm, TEC does not.

Given the Episcopal church’s downward spiral, this is not an issue that can be ignored if the church is to survive.

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