Having spent almost my entire life in The Episcopal Church (TEC), and being an unabashed liberal, some might say I would seem an unlikely candidate to leave TEC. But that’s exactly what I recently did, and I’d like to share my reasons for doing so.
Married in The Episcopal Church, I’ve served the church in many roles over the years, including several times on various vestries, as both a junior and senior warden, and on the standing committee of one diocese. I’ve headed up several task forces, spearheaded a successful major capital campaign for one of the most prominent parishes in the country, and am a well-known blogger in progressive Episcopal circles.
My reason for sharing that information is to show that I’m not someone who asks what church can do for me. Instead, my view is that I am there to serve God, other people, and the church itself. So my decision to leave has nothing to do, as is all too often the case in such situations, with any feeling that the church hasn’t met my needs.
Instead, the problem is that the church is simply too far behind the times. In a day and age when corporate America must, by law, require reporting of harassment and protect those who do report it, I know firsthand that TEC takes a very different approach.
In 2015, I complained to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia about a possible case of gender-based harassment in my parish church, Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA. Approximately four weeks later, I got a curtly worded “Notice of Dismissal,” which stated in writing that my concerns did not amount to matters “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Days later, the rector of the church, Bob Malm, sent me an email, telling me and my family to find a new church. Subsequently, he instructed church staff to exclude us from the church building, to remove our names from the church directory, and even to misuse funds we had given to the church. In short, Bob engaged in retaliation, which would be illegal if it occurred in a for-profit.
I promptly notified the diocese, which simply ignored me.
More than two years later, the matter continues to ricochet around. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, things remain ugly. And the church is still saying that Bob’s retaliation is not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.”
For me, that’s the final straw. As a result, I have asked +Todd Ousley, the bishop who handles intake for disciplinary cases involving bishops, to help me have my name removed from all church records. Curiously, there’s no provision in Episcopal polity to do this, and while I could simply stop attending church, I cannot in good conscience give even tacit support to any organization that thinks retaliating against those who oppose sexual harassment is acceptable.
I am painfully aware of the suffering that women and men experience due to sexual harassment, and have experienced sexual harassment myself. It’s a heavy, dark, crushing thing, that causes lasting damage to the soul and to one’s sense of self. I’m told that I do better than most with these issues, and that I am strong and resilient. But in many ways that’s small comfort. If sexual harassment effects me the way it has, I am not sure I have any sort of meaningful handle on the suffering it causes others.
Officially, TEC opposes sexual harassment.
But does it really oppose harassment? My feeling is no. If you cannot provide a safe means to complain about it — or about other forms of harassment — how can you claim to oppose it? If you allow retaliation for a claim of sexual harassment, aren’t you supporting the abuser?
Note, too, that in writing this piece, I deliberately use both the phrases “gender-based harassment” and “sexual harassment.” Too often, The Episcopal Church treats sexual harassment as involving sex—salacious images, unwanted touching, offensive remarks. But gender-based harassment, which need not involve sex or sexually oriented conduct, also is illegal, and is remarkably common in an organization that claims to “respect the dignity of every human being.”
I also shared my experience as part of TEC’s pastoral response to #metoo, in which material is sent directly to the House of Bishops (one of the two chambers in the bicameral Episcopal General Convention). The response was underwhelming. Having my concerns acknowledged is great, as is being told that people will pray for me. But that does nothing to solve the issue, and I see no sign whatsoever of any meaningful changes any time soon.
Meanwhile, the church has had 2000 years to address issues of sexual harassment, and it’s just now holding “listening sessions?” Spare me.
The fact that neither the denomination, nor the Diocese of Virginia, understand why it’s wrong to retaliate against someone complaining of sexual harassment, even if they are not the direct victim, shows that TEC is utterly incapable of addressing serious issues of this sort.
It’s telling, too. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia spent millions in legal fees to retain ownership of several crappy old church buildings, but it spends nothing to fix its own issues. If it spent a tenth as much on social justice and healing its own problems, it would be a very different organization.
Similarly, the diocese talks out both sides of its mouth when it comes to my situation. It loudly proclaims the matter not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” but it wants me to quit telling my story on the grounds that it may damage its reputation. But it is not my telling my story that damages its reputation; it is the diocese’s support for sexual harassment that damages its reputation. Or, as a young family member of mine once put it, “Don’t be a jerk, and I won’t call you a jerk.”
Tellingly, at about the same time I said goodbye to TEC, the Diocese announced that it had canceled its search for a bishop suffragen due to problems at Mayo House. The diocese treats it like this is breaking news, but the fact that the diocese is screwed up has been clear for many years. That includes its inability to address clergy misconduct in an appropriate manner, as well as its utter lack of resources for its constituent parishes. Think conflict resolution, training, or templated stewardship materials.
Nor are these issues confined to the Diocese of Virginia. Indeed, at one point I wrote directly to the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, about my issue. The response? Utter silence. So while ++Curry is gassing on about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement and the power of love, I’m not seeing the latter in practice. Talk is cheap, but it’s actions that count.
So what next?
Certainly, I still believe in God. In fact, stripped of the frustration of dealing with stupidity in TEC, I now can see God and Jesus more clearly. I also know that, while right now I have a hard time finding Jesus, he will find me. He’s there, and he loves me regardless.
Will I settle in another denomination? I surely don’t know. Certainly, many, including the Disciples of Christ, have a much more mature understanding of clergy boundary issues and don’t focus exclusively on sexual misconduct. At the same time, I am not convinced other denominations do better when it comes to sexual harassment. We will see.
For those of you who read this post and trot out the whole, “don’t-be-hateful-and-I’m-praying-for-you” routine, spare me. If you’re serious, do something useful and prove me wrong. Make it clear that all allegations of sexual harassment, including gender-based harassment, ARE issues “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” that they will be addressed immediately and effectively, and that it’s safe to raise these issues. And a little hint, since you are pretty clueless in this matter: Retaliation by clergy is inconsistent with these goals.
One long-time friend asked if I am sad to leave TEC. The answer is not at all. This is long overdue, and I gave the church the benefit of the doubt for far too long.
Do I think God will punish those who support sexual harassment? The answer is that I tend to not believe in a God of judgment, tempting though that may be. But I do think the inability of TEC to address sexual harassment probably spells its end.
If it can’t manage even this most basic component of the baptismal covenant, that’s probably not a bad thing.