Anglican Watch

Unwilling to condemn torture, St. Paul’s Alexandria goes for tortured logic and feel-good theology

St. Paul’s Alexandria

Anglican Watch first reported, nearly four months ago, prominent members and leaders of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va., Anne and David Ayers, appear to be owners in the company behind the post-9/11 torture program. Under that initiative, mostly Muslim men, many of whom were never charged with a crime, were waterboarded, given forced anal feedings, and subjected to mock executions among   other horrific tactics. TheEpiscopal Church, at the national level, has already condemned these practices with the Episcopal Peace Foundation calling for prosecution of those involved.

But in this privileged and well-heeled congregation minutes from the nation’s capital, where it is believed the Ayers gave major financial contributions while serving in top leadership positions, it is becoming increasingly apparent that money covers a multitude of sins, including alleged torture. So much so that Rector Oran Warder, and other leaders are responding with a deafening silence to calls for the church to either give back the money or donate to a charity aiding torture victims. Indeed, it seems St. Paul’s leadership is having difficulty simply coughing up the words “torture is wrong.” 

But never mind all that fussy moralistic stuff, because though they can’t denounce torture, they can still avail themselves of tortured logic and fluffy, feel-good theology.

Rector Oran Warder
Rector Oran Warder

Hence, recent sermons at St. Paul’s are extolling the virtues of grace and forgiveness, and lamenting vices such as “self-righteousness, “hypocrisy” and “virtue signaling”.

This, even though:

  • Just three years ago, Oran Warder, along with Sr. Warden and alleged torture profiteer, Anne Ayers, presided over the busting up of a 72-year-old preschool after an employee with 37 years of service, and already on the brink of retirement, made an off-handed, salty comment for which she quickly apologized.
  • Warder, who recently announced a “peace and reconciliation”- themed pilgrimage to Ireland and England scheduled in 2023, made no attempt to extend an olive branch to female church members serving on the Preschool’s Board who did not agree termination was warranted. Or to others who’ve found themselves on the opposite side of Oran on issues of importance.
  • Warder stonewalled a former assistant treasurer who repeatedly offered to meet with Warder and work out their differences. The former treasurer had reluctantly resigned after he cut her off and told her to “move forward” as she raised concerns surrounding an employee and lax governance and financial management practices.

But now, against the backdrop of torture, Warder is preaching against the Pharisees and those who “point out the moral failings of others only to highlight their own goodness” and concluding it is best we just focus on our own sins and short-comings, and refrain from judging others.


If so, it’s not surprising, because Warder’s remarks raise more questions than they answer.

For one, who exactly does Warder see himself as? A Pharisee, for unforgivingly demanding termination for an off-handed remark even after he received an apology? Or as one who models grace and mercy because he refuses to condemn the alleged torture of others by his wealthy donors? Is he speaking against the Episcopal Church for condemning torture? Should the Episcopal Peace Foundation walk back their call for prosecution? Trying to figure out what Warder stands for when it comes to ethics is mind-boggling.

And while it’s true we should all focus on our own sins and shortcomings, does that mean we can’t call torture wrong? What about hatred against our LGBTQ friends? Or stealing? Or racism? Because to do so would mean we were acting like Pharisees and pointing out the faults of others only to highlight our own goodness?

What if we just don’t like seeing people abused, exploited or hurt?  Or what if we really care about our church and believe we should all be held accountable, including those in leadership?

The implications of Warder’s messaging would even seemto bar the ethics trainings, “codes ofconduct,” and accountability systems at high-quality, secular organizations. Is a secular workplace encouraging “self-righteousness” because they encourage employees to hold themselves and others to high standards? Or when they require employees to report ethical lapses, or discrimination based upon race or sexual orientation, harassment and bullying, or retaliation for filing a complaint?

And what does it mean when behavioral standards practiced in a secular workplace seem to make us moral scolds at church?

But while refusing to denounce torture, Warder does denounce the pairing of “virtue signaling” and “social media” which he describes as a “perfect storm” that “encourages some of the worst of our human instincts” (even worse than torture?). Perhaps Warder is just longing for 1989 when only priests, such as himself, had a platform for virtue signaling. And no mention of the good social media has produced, such as when abuse victims find each other online and organize a grass roots effort to  force the US’s largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, into allowing an independent sexual abuse study. Or when social media gives a voice to those who have suffered harassment and bullying by religious leaders, or in some cases, when clergy have suffered the same from parishioners or other clergy? Or for that matter, when former GITMO detainees and torture victims describe their unfathomable suffering and humiliation on YouTube?

So, while Warder is quick to cast dispersions on social media, where is his call for an independent study of abuse and misconduct in his own diocese? Such as the alleged cover-up by Bishop Shannon Johnston of Stephen McWhorter’s purported harassment of a female church employee? Or the alleged drug use, child abuse, and adultery of  the Rev. Tom Simmons and the diocese’s failure to act? Or even the alleged perjury, abuse and bullying by his old buddy, Bob Malm?

Wouldn’t Warder want an independent study of these allegations so he can know the truth? Or is it just easier for him to assume those calling for accountability are only “virtue signaling?”

So far, it appears Warder would rather judge the social media versus dealing with poor behavior in his own church and diocese, believing the “worst of human instincts” are “out there” somewhere, lurking around on the internet, rather than under his own roof. So much for the log in his own eye.

What is the result of all of this mush? And what fruits are produced when a church lacks moral clarity? Since the “tone at the top” of an organization largely determines its culture, clues might be found by looking at those under Warder’s leadership, such as Senior Associate, Jenni Ovenstone Smith.

During a time when one would expect deep thought and reflection from spiritual leaders pertaining to an issue as serious as torture and its impact upon detainees, Ovenstone Smith, who has also failed to publicly condemn torture, recently preached a sermon that can be described as “thoughtless” at best, or at worst, flagrantly dismissing grave moral issues involving cruel acts of violence, while obediently hewing to the church’s “party line” with such chirpy and unreflective relish, one can almost imagine hearing her sentiments expressed as propaganda in their original German.

The passage she preached upon was the “Parable of the Dishonest Manager” from Luke 16. Or as Jenni snazzily re-styles him, the “Savvy Manager”.

And while taken at face value, the passage is a rather odd story, in which a manager appears to be lauded for his clever but dishonest business practices, no more than a minimal level of biblical literacy is needed to find a spiritual lesson consistent with all other biblical teachings regarding dishonest and unjust gains. In the parable, the manager is fired for squandering his master’s property. But before his final two weeks are up, realizing he’ll need a soft place to land after he’s out of a job, he decides to curry favor with his bosses’ debtors by cutting deals with them; to the debtor who owes 100 bottles of olive oil, the manger allows him to settle the debt for 50 bottles; a hundred containers of wheat is settled for a mere 50 containers. Subsequently, the master ends up praising the managers’ “shrewdness” and Jesus states “for the children of this age are more shrewd

in dealing with their own generation than the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

For some context, it would have been common for a manager in this culture to write-up the cost to cover a commission for himself; perhaps even excessively. So many interpret this manager’s “price cutting” as cutting into his own commission, rather than his bosses’ profits. Others interpret this passage as demonstrating the limitations of money and the “dishonest managers” reliance upon the help of others once he is unemployed, or an illustration of how shrewdly people of this world look out for themselves in a way God’s people often neglect to look after the interest of God’s Kingdom. Additionally, the managers’ impending termination is sometimes interpreted as an allegory for death, therefore, illustrating the importance of using money to do good here on earth, as it will be of no use after death.

But while there are various interpretations of this parable, one can attend church every Sunday for their entire lives and never hear a sermon like Jenni’s in which the “dishonest manager” is recast in such glowing terms that his “fast and loose” business practices are presented as admirable and worthy of emulation.

Though the parable is followed by the pointed warning “You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jenni still, in a span of a ten-minute sermon, heaps on praise after praise, describing the “dishonest manager” as one who is “really good” at what he does, and “good at the whole life thing,” and one who “knows the system and the complex webs and workings of which he is a part,” and knows how to “make his way through it by making use of whatever social and financial capital he has.”

Oh wow! What a clever guy. And there’s more.

The dishonest manager also “understands the stakes,” “knows what the options are and are not, and how to get by and how to get ahead”; “he’s someone who can read the room and can predict what most people will do in this set up, and so he can use his remaining time, his devious practices and his desperation and the desperation of indebted others to make things happen”. Also, “he knows to hedge his bets” and he “faces the future brazenly and boldly.”

And in case all of this hagiography, turning a middle-eastern manager described in a few verses of a first century parable into a tycoon worthy of a Fortune magazine cover, isn’t enough, Ovenstone Smith further exclaims “whatever other disparaging names he’s been given in the retelling of this story over generations, this is one savvy steward….the parable of the savvy steward” she gushes with a slight chuckle.

“We all know people like this,” she reminds us “people who are savvy, deft, bold, agile; who land on their feet; who have a knack for making the ways of the world work and especially for them. (Well gosh! If only GITMO detainees had read the “Art of the Deal” and possessed a streak of hucksterism, maybe they too would have known how to make the system work for them and avoided their tragic fate).

“And honestly,” Jenni says, “I imagine we’ve all had to be this at one time or another…not devious necessarily” (well, thanks for clearing THAT up, that you aren’t necessarily justifying devious behavior from the pulpit with the “everyone does it excuse.”)

On the Sunday this sermon was preached, Jenni Ovenstone Smith could have also chosen passages from the lectionary such as 1 Timothy 2:1-7 which encourages living “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity”; or from Psalms 79 where the “heathen” is cursed for giving “the bodies” of God’s servants “as food for the birds of the air” and their flesh “ to the beasts of the fields”.  Or from Amos 8:4-7 that begins “Hear this, you that trample on the needy” and who “practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Or a passage from Jeremiah, where the prophet bemoans the waywardness of his people and cries out “is there no balm in Gilead” to heal their sin-sick souls.

But no, those passages might have hit too close to home. They might have even challenged or convicted us or created discomfort over unjust wealth. And what a shame if a sermon were to do that! 

To be fair, Ovenstone Smith does eventually get around to the making a point about using “shrewdness” to advance the kingdom of God and even makes a plug for the “oppressed living under the dishonest systems.” And how are we to exemplify this according to Jenni? Perhaps by exercising “shrewdness” as we fight for the oppressed and exploited? Or by speaking out for victims of torture even when it may cost us something? Or maybe by allowing God’s grace to transform us, as did John Newton, the repentant slave trader and writer of the “Amazing Grace” lyrics, who later denounced his participation in the slave trade and worked to abolish it. 

No, Jenni’s boss can relax. She doesn’t suggest any of that. But Jenni does throw in an example of a friend who cultivated a flower farm. Yes. A flower farm. There you have it, folks. And she speaks to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…none of whom approved this message.

In conclusion, it might interest the clergy of St. Paul’s to know, that many of these same topics currently bedeviling St. Paul’s have already been thoroughly examined and discussed, including by those who are victims of church abuse, whether it be spiritual, physical, or sexual, and by those who counsel and treat those victims. And if they were to spend more time out on that “filthy” internet where these topics are discussed, they would begin to better understand several basic tenets of Christianity:

1. Forgiveness does NOT negate accountability

If this was case, Christians would need to avoid serving in law enforcement or as judges and we would need to just “forgive” instead of reporting crimes, thereby increasing the possibility of more victims; and parents, teachers, coaches, and managers would have to refrain from maintaining discipline and a healthy culture.

When we as leaders overlook poor behavior, we are demonstrating “negligence” not “grace” by taking the path of least resistance. We are also becoming complicit in allowing others to get hurt and allowing the deterioration of our organization’s culture because we failed to act.

2. No-fault forgiveness is not Christian theology

This is when someone calling out poor treatment is told “why can’t you just forgive?” though there’s never been an acknowledgment of wrong and the call for forgiveness is really just a way to end discussion on the matter. There can’t be forgiveness without fault, so “forgive what?”

3. “Grace” is not always the same as leniency

“Grace” means God is always ready to restore us at our worst and no one is ever outside God’s reach. But in practical terms, Grace doesn’t necessarily mean leniency. While it is sometimes appropriate, particularly when one has admitted wrong-doing and expressed regret and a desire to improve. Other times, we may experience “grace” when we’ve been caught, or hit rock-bottom, or when our secrets become public, because it is only then that we are forced to get honest with ourselves and others, examine our priorities, and get our lives on a path that leads to wholeness.  

4. “Good works” does NOT negate accountability

Another common suggestion is that because a church serves at the soup kitchen, we should ignore all its other shortcomings. Or in starker terms, because the SBC spends billions on foreign missions, there should be no accountability for sex abuse. And this holds especially true in the Episcopal Church, where you can pretty much behave however you want. Just make a large pledge and you’re good.

5. Gaslighting and dismissing whistleblowers is wrong

This is when a church member, whether lay or clergy, reports poor behavior, abuse, or illegal acts and then are stonewalled, shutdown, dismissed, or defamed (by claims he is mentally ill, a “domestic terrorist, etc.) or told some variation of “look at all the damage you are inflicting upon this ministry” or “by speaking poorly about this church or our pastor, you are keeping people from God”.

No, it’s the wrong behavior that is inflicting the damage, and even if kept secret, it will eat away at the fabric of the church’s culture.

6. Blaming the victim or whistleblower is wrong 

This is the “he’s just wanting to take down our fine church” defense. But assuming the report is accurate, his motive is tertiary. An organization’s failures are often reported by those who’ve been hurt or marginalized in some way instead of by “insiders” who have a personal interest in protecting the institution. But this doesn’t make factual reporting any less valuable. And spare us the whole “she’s disgruntled,” argument. Not only is the reasoning circular, but whistleblowers have a right to be disgruntled. We should be too.

7. “It doesn’t happen here” is a lie

This is the “we’re all good people, doing good work, and therefore abuse, bullying and poor financial management is only a problem at those other churches.

Or as the Rev. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban states, “If it’s inconceivable it’s imperceivable.”

But the reality is it can and does happen here. So we need to ask the question, “What can we do to mitigate the risk and make church safe for everyone?” 

8. Sin-leveling is wrong

This is a popular Evangelical buzz word used when churches fail to hold popular but abusive leaders accountable because “everyone sins and we all fall short; therefore we can’t be too hard on our wayward pastor or youth leader.” Yes, we all sin. And we should honestly seek to address those sins. But that does not mean all sins have the same impact. Those in leadership often have the power to cause more damage, so they should be held to a higher standard. And some acts, such as sexual or spiritual abuse, violence, or torture can leave scars for a lifetime.

9. Religious leaders need to be accountable 

Whether it is because they’re believed to be an expert on theology or scripture, or because they have been ordained, have a title, dress in religious regalia, or have a 30,000-member megachurch, all leaders, ordained and lay, need to be held accountable. Each Christian is responsible for attaining biblical literacy and applying good judgment in their spiritual lives. It’s great to have a pastor or priest as a valuable spiritual leader. But trust is earned and given only after discernment; and no matter how eloquent one’s word are, actions still speak louder.

The most faithful and authentic leaders have the humility to admit their mistakes even as they teach and lead others. We should beware of the minister who is secretive or keeps others at arms-length no matter how “nice” and “charming” he may be.

10. Healthy religious leaders welcome accountability

The wisest clergy and lay leaders will welcome accountability, realizing we all have blind spots and need guardrails in place to protect ourselves and others.

Of course, these issues aren’t confined to St. Paul’s. In fact, they are endemic in the Diocese, the larger Episcopal Church, and organized religion in general.

Wondering why the Episcopal Church, among others, is dying? I submit it’s because the church has lapsed into “Hour of Power” feel-good theology, replete with vacuous sermons and a lack of moral accountability, versus practicing Christianity.

And in case the good Rev. Oran Warder hasn’t figured it out, let me lay it out in simple terms for him: Jesus would condemn torture. Unequivocally and without hesitation.

Oran, it’s time to act like Jesus.


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