Why doesn’t the Episcopal church heal itself?

The Episcopal Church is Dying

As we watch the Episcopal Church plunging toward oblivion, we ask the question, “Why doesn’t the church do something?” ‘

The answer, we believe, can be found at the parish level. Specifically, very few Episcopal parishes are spiritually healthy. And those that are unhealthy rarely recognize they are unwell.

Indeed, it was not long ago that Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde noted that, in her entire diocese, there were only a handful of healthy parishes.

So why?

One of the problems is the unique nature of Episcopal polity. On the one hand, it retains the historical episcopacy, often with its autocratic elements. On the other hand, the democratic nature of vestries and standing committees means that authority for day-to-day decisions rarely aligns with accountability.

In addition, while the canons provide that rectors have tenure, they rarely use that tenure for good. Instead of protecting the right of clergy to speak out on unpopular issues, tenure usually serves as a sinecure. Be friendly, don’t set fire to the church, don’t get caught with your fingers in the till, and don’t get caught having sex with minors, and you’re good.

This situation calls not only for mutual ministry reviews and annual performance reviews but also for term limits. There are very few priests or bishops with sufficient gifts to still have new things to offer after about seven or eight years. And if you want to see toxic, check out parishes where a priest has stayed 30 or more years.

We also have an appalling level of organizational narcissism. Whether it’s the chutzpah of a tiny denomination building a so-called national cathedral or our endless fascination with our own meetings, paperwork, book groups, and other inconsequentia, we have trouble seeing beyond ourselves.

On this, +Budde says:

We got so fascinated with ourselves that the world just sped by us,” Budde said. “We’re like a boutique. We’re the most inclusive church in the world that’s the tiniest church in Christendom. . . . I’m not interested in being the leader of a boutique church.

As to inclusion, Anglican Watch has two observations:

  • First, the denomination is not nearly as inclusive as +Budde imagines. Read documents from the ELCA, and it quickly becomes clear that the Episcopal Church is falling victim to its own rhetoric.
  • Second, the Episcopal Church conflates inclusion with anything goes. How many times do we hear, “I don’t want to get involved,” or “that’s between the two of them”? But that “who me” attitude is inconsistent with the baptismal covenant and its promise to respect the dignity of every human being while resisting injustice and oppression.

That raises the question of Christian formation. Far too often, formation is empty, transactional, hoo-ha, like book studies or learning about the stained glass windows in the church. Yes, it’s fun to have some lightweight stuff in the mix, but for many churches, this is about as heavy as it gets.

There’s also a curious echo chamber paradigm in many parishes. Everyone else does it, so it must be okay for me to do it. 

In other words, there’s little introspection and even less internalization. Indeed, protest outside an Episcopal church, and you’ll see plenty of so-called Christians giving you the one-gun-salute-to-Jesus as they roll out of Mass. (And no, that’s not blasphemous on our part–something about as you have done to the least of these, so have you also done unto me.)

On top of that, we see relatively little leadership within the episcopacy. Even now, with a new intake officer for Title IV complaints against bishops, nothing happens to bad actors. That includes folks like misogynistic George Sumner, who fires priests for objecting to sexual harassment, lies about it, and then has his chancellor improperly handling Title IV complaints. And there are seven other complaints against bishops that we are tracking that are going nowhere–no communication, no pastoral response, nothing.

Nor is there any mechanism outside of Title IV to address these issues. Whether it is the appalling conduct of Chilton Knudsen, the corrupt behavior of Alan Gates, Susan Goff, and Shannon Johnston, or numerous others, there are plenty of bishops who shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches, let alone lead dioceses.

Then we get to the feckless bishops, like Carlye Hughes. Her diocese is a mess, it’s becoming a bigger mess, and she dawdles around, biding her time until retirement. 

As for Hughes’ complaint to insiders that she had no idea what a mess things were, she needs to get over her bad self. It’s painfully clear, even from afar.

Then there are the well-meaning but clueless bishops like Paula Clark. 

Yes, she means well, but the fact that Clark doesn’t even bother to answer emails or address the perjury of priest Will Bouvel

(For the record, we don’t believe for an instant that Bouvel wasn’t lying when he filed for his protective order against David Duggan. Nor is that dispositive; priests and other purportedly ethical human beings must be sure of their facts before they go filing in court against church members. So either way, Bouvel is corrupt.)

So how do we fix things?

First, we need to focus on real formation in our parishes. Enough of the transactional solutions, the silly book studies, and the navel-gazing. Christianity has certain core precepts, yet few Episcopalians could tell you what those precepts are.

Second, we need accountability. Whether it is standing committee members who act like idiots or intake officers who sandbag complaints, the antics need to stop. As for bishops, this business of filing a complaint and then not hearing anything back is profoundly damaging. So, an intake officer for bishops is a good first step, but the process is not working. And bishops should be held to even higher standards than priests. After all, integrity flows from the top in any organization.

Third, priestly formation stinks. Too often, we get politicians who say little, do even less, but offer great grip-and-grins after Mass. This content-free approach to Christianity is killing the denomination. Relatedly, priests need to be comfortable pulling parishioners into their offices and saying, “That’s not how we treat others in the church.” Even a little accountability would be a huge improvement in the highly conflictive Episcopal Church. 

We’d add that one of the great failures of the Episcopal church is inflection. Church members far too often act like asses, but see nothing wrong with doing so. Changing this will come from the top, and it needs to be explicit.

Fourth, bishops and dioceses need to take it seriously when there is a problem in a parish. To her credit, Bishop Budde staged an intervention when All Souls went into meltdown a while back. The fact the meltdown was coming was no surprise, given the snotty attitude of former rector John F. Beddingfield, who is one of the rudest priests we’ve ever encountered. 

But Budde’s willingness to plunge in stands in marked contrast to most dioceses, which take the approach of “it’s water over the dam.” That’s invariably a mistake and causes further problems down the road.

Indeed, Anglican Watch is closely watching several issues at churches in conflict, all rife with the potential for success or abject failure. These situations include:

  • St. Paul’s Montvale, now a mission, where Carlyle Hughes has made a charlie foxtrot of a situation involving a bunch of bad actors/dissidents — even as she has done zip, nada, nothing for the loyalists who have played by the books. So far, it looks like she just can’t be bothered.
  • St. Paul’s Englewood, which finally managed to get toxic rector Bill Allport out the door, and now desperately needs diocesan assistance if it is to survive.
  • Grace Episcopal Alexandria (former parish of AW editor Eric Bonetti), which has been in meltdown since 2015, when then-rector Bob Malm decided to file suit against Bonetti, claiming that the latter is a “domestic terrorist” for blogging about his negative experiences with the parish. Subsequently, rector Anne Turner imploded due to an alleged ten-year adulterous affair. (Never mind her husband and two daughters at home.) The bottom line is this mess has been going on for years while the diocese ignores the meltdown.
  • The Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, where corruption at St. James, Texarkana extends to, and includes, George Sumner. Sumner also likes to bully Hispanic parishes.

Will the Episcopal Church clean up its act? Let’s hope so, and let’s hope it does so quickly. Because the denomination as we know it is fast fading into the dustbin of history–all because it can’t get its act together.

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