Shannon MacVean-Brown, the newly elected bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, recently spoke to National Public Radio (NPR) about the challenges facing The Episcopal Church (TEC) particularly in a region where relatively few attend any church, and where TEC has a small footprint. Her comments on inclusion are noteworthy, particularly as they pertain to abuse.
“If the church is going to really, truly be inclusive, like we dream, people that have been excluded are actually the ones that are experts on how that can happen,” MacVean-Brown said. “Once I grabbed onto that, I realized, ‘Okay, I can’t remain a priest just for black people.’ And that’s where I was. I was the rector of the second oldest black Episcopal church. And telling them about how to be inclusive — it’s like preaching to the choir.”
While MacVean-Brown may not have been thinking expressly about abuse, one hallmark of church abuse is that victims are invariably excluded. Indeed, as in my case, exclusion is one of the weapons that abusive clergy and congregations use when they retaliate for any sort of criticism of their conduct.
Indeed, I vividly recall a discussion with a former vestry member at my previous church, in which she stated that while she disapproved of the decision to more than double rector Bob Malm’s pay, she feared that if she voted no she would be forced out of the church. For me, this illustrates the skill with which manipulative and abusive clergy abuse their power, for a truly loving clergy person would make clear that inclusion is not predicated on agreement.
MacVean-Brown recognizes that inclusion extends to those who hold differing opinions, adding that the church should not assume it has all the answers.
She added that she didn’t want the diocese to take the approach that it has answers for everyone, either.
“The answers come from being in community and connection with those that are around you,” MacVean-Brown said. “That’s how we’re going to do church.”
That of course illustrates one of the problems with exclusion, which is that critics inevitably bring value to the table. Thus, churches and dioceses that shun critics or those who complain of abuse not only lose community and connection, they lose the expertise of those who have been relegated to the margins.
In short, churches that exclude those who have been abused lose the ability to understand and address abuse. They become locked into the sin of exclusion, and in so doing guarantee their own decline.
To make matters worse, this sort of collective, organizational sin is one of the primary reasons young people avoid church. Thus, the more churches cling to the notion that they need to protect themselves from criticism by excluding and demonizing victims of abuse, the more they become irrelevant in the eyes of youth.
Additionally, when faith is weaponized, or used as a way to control someone, it becomes inherently contrary to the values of Jesus. Jesus welcomed the poor, the outcast, the needy. Yet abusive churches and clergy use their authority to create outcasts and marginalize those already hurt by the church.
My hope is that MacVean-Brown succeeds and that her message is heard by others in the increasingly irrelevant Episcopal Church.