Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Dispatches from the Sunken Place: United Methodist Special Conference

Well, like Michael Corleone in Godfather, Part 3, it looks like everytime I think I am out, something drags me back in.  I have been taking a blogging hiatus, but, after spending the past 3 days watching the proceedings of the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church, and having spent 17 years of my life as a member of The Episcopal Church-United Methodist Church bilateral dialogue team working for a closer relationship between the two communions, I found I kept looking longingly at the keyboard, compelled to say something.

It was a tweet from a delegate attending the Conference that pushed me over the edge:


For those of you have not seen Jordan Peele's horror masterpiece which is a devastating and terrifying take on race and racism in contemporary American society, stop reading this and go watch it. 

OK, now that you're back, you can understand the depth of sadness that this tweet represents:  that a church convention is similar to that place where one is completely aware but helpless in the face of violence and terror being inflicted.  Yet after listening to hours of discussion and debate at the Special General Conference, I have to say this tweet nailed it exactly:  in many ways the United Methodist Special Conference WAS the sunken place.

In the course of just one day delegates did the following:  a)  voted for legislation even though they quite likely knew some aspects of it would be later struck down; b)  accused other delegates of bribing people for votes; and c) compared another's position to a virus infecting the church; and d)....I just can't go on.  There was lots more.  And that was what was said in the Convention hall in front of thousands of people!  Following social media, and some of the awful things said there, was even harder to bear.

(This is, BTW, one of the reasons why I took a hiatius from this blog.  I came up with the character of Crusty Old Dean in 2011 and the distinctive voice of this blog after watching Stephen Colbert's character on the Colbert Report.  Dismayed by some of the rhetoric I heard in the church, I created this blog and character as a kind of metacommentary, going over the top in mimicking what I heard around the church while trying to make my points.  I took a hiatus, in part, because I couldn't bring myself to do it anymore, given the level of discourse in the church and in our society had become so poisonous that the character I was playing was no longer out of the ordinary or event over the top.  I'm also writing a book, which is the other main reason.)

So, a quick explainer:

1)  How in God's name did we get here?  What was up with that Special General Conference?

The United Methodist Church has language in its governing document the Book of Discipline which specifically states that"The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."  (Although despite many assertions that this has always been the teaching of the church, FWIW this language was not adopted by General Conference until 1972.)  The Discipline also has language specifically forbidding clergy from performing same sex marriage ceremonies.

Proposals to change or amend this language have been made at the last several United Methodist General Conferences.  Despite this language, there have been numerous examples of openly gay persons being ordained, and celebrations of same sex marriages.  Most notably, one jurisdiction elected an openly gay, partnered person as bishop.  The church's highest body found this to be a violation of the language in the Discipline, yet did not have the authority to nullify or remove the bishop, so in turn referred those matters to the local authority which had jurisdiction.  The same body which elected her is the body that has authority to discipline her, and has declined to discipline her despite the ruling.  This is but one example of the ways various local authorities have found work-arounds, for lack of a better term, for the language in the Discipline.

After more debate at the 2016 General Conference, the delegates asked the bishops to try to find a way forward despite the deep divisions in the church.  The bishops eventually decided to call a Special General Conference to deal solely with trying to determine a way forward on the issue of human sexuality, prior to the regularly scheduled General Conference to be held in 2020.  (Various bodies have provisions to hold special meetings in between regularly scheduled ones.  The Episcopal Church held a Special General Convention in 1969, for instance, in between its regularly scheduled 1967 and 1970 General Conventions -- which was also a trainwreck, BTW -- and my parish held a Special Parish Meeting to vote on what to do with a large bequest.)

The bishops put forward three plans for consideration at the Special General Conference (all of these summaries are necessarily truncated, giving the overall gist of the plans, some of which were quite lengthy and complex):

i)   The One Church Plan (OCP).  This would have removed the prohibitions in the Book of Discipline against homosexuality, and allowed local annual conferences (roughly equivalent to dioceses) and congregations to decide on whether to permit same sex marriages and ordination of openly LGBT persons.

ii)    The Connectional Plan.  This would essentially have done away with a single United Methodist Church and created three non-geographical grouping that congregations could choose to affiliate with.  Though never explicitly spelled out, these were envisioned to be a Traditionalist (no same sex marriages or openly LGBT clergy), Affirming (not only permitting but affirming and endorsing full inclusion of LGBT persons), and a Moderate/Centrist.  An annual conference would choose one of the three bodies, and congregations within those annual conferences could in turn choose a different one.  So if your Annual Conference (roughly = diocese) chose the Traditional, your congregation could still vote to join the Affirming.  And you could have three United Methodist Churches in the same town, each belonging to a different jurisdiction.  Unfortunately this one borrowed heavily from the church's segregated past.  In the 1939 merger of the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church which split in 1844 over slavery, the price for reunion was legislated segregation, with African American churches placed in a non-geographic jurisdiction.

iii)   The Traditional Plan (TP).  This would have strengthened current provisions.  For instance, it would have implemented mandatory sentences for persons found in violation of the Book of Discipline and required local board of ordination to certify all persons for ordination were complying with the language in the Book of Discipline.  (Since the language was around "self-avowed and practicing", in some areas a kind of "don't ask-don't tell" emerged.)  It was, in essence, a doubling down on current prohibitions and actually strengthening them.

The Council of Bishops forwarded these three proposals to the Special General Conference, and indicated they were endorsing the One Church Plan.

iv)  In addition, The Simple Plan (SP) was drafted and put forth by the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.  This would have removed the language concerning prohibition of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching from the Discipline and made no other structural changes of any kind.

There were other proposals, and modified versions of some of the above proposals, in the mix as the Special General Conference opened.

2)    So what happened in St. Louis at the Special General Conference?

Several things to keep in mind before proceeding:

i)  The United Methodist Church truly is a global church, and is becoming more so.  It has jurisdictions in Europe, Asia, and Africa and an enormous overseas presence.  In 2004, 19% of delegates to Annual Conference were from overseas conferences, called Central Conferences.  In 2016, that was over 40%.  I tell Episcopalians, "Imagine if nearly half of the Episcopal Church lived in Province IX or non-US dioceses." While far from being monolithic, the Central Conferences overall tend to be conservative theologically.  Many are also located in areas which have bans against homosexuality.  Russia, for instance, has laws banning "homosexual propaganda" and in my time there doing research on Christian churches, many are concerned that being connected with an American, LGBT-friendly church could open them to financial liability (fines may be levied against organizations into the thousands of dollars for "homosexual propaganda"), or having their licenses to function as churches revoked.

ii)  These overseas jurisdictions, the Central Conferences, have substantial autonomous self-governance.  The can legislate for themselves.   However, the US-based United Methodist Church does not have this provision for self-governance. The Central Conferences thus can vote on measures in General Conference which are binding on the US-based church, but not on themselves, while the US-based church does not have this ability.

iii)   The United Methodist Church has a Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) which can issue binding decisions on whether what is passed by General Conference is in violation of the Book of Discipline.  The Episcopal Church simply has nothing even remotely close to this.

So:  what happened?

Functioning as a committee of the whole, the Conference decided to move forward only with consideration of the TP.  However, certainly parliamentary efforts resulted in the SP and the OCP also being considered.  Some delegates seemed openly to adopt an effort to try to offer as many amendments to the TP and parliamentary procedure steps to try to run out the clock and have the Conference adjourn without approving any plan. In a church that had for years not been able to muster a majority to change the language in the Discipline, it seemed to be a very high bar to find the votes to pass the SP or OCP, and it seemed most likely some version of the TP would pass.

In the end, with about an hour left before mandatory adjournment, the Traditional Plan was adopted by a margin of 54 votes, 438 in favor, 384 opposed.

However, the situation remains in flux.  The SJC ruled parts of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional when it was initially considered on Monday, Feb. 25.  On Tuesday, Feb. 26, a number of amendments were presented trying to fix those issues.  The SJC in turn ruled some of those unconstitutional.  Additional amendments were proposed.  The Traditional Plan was passed without final rulings on constitutionality of some matters.  The SJC is meeting in April, and could rule some aspects of what was passed unconstitutional.

3)   So what's next?

--It is likely a good number of United Methodists will be considering leaving, both conservatives who do not think the Special General Conference went far enough, and those affirming of LGBT persons who feel they cannot comply.  The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an organization which "connects orthodox churches" and which endorsed the TP, is meeting February 27 and 28 to determine their response to the Conference.  Had the Conference not passed the TP, it was predicted by some that the WCA would announce the formation of a new, traditional church organization.

--The SJC will likely weigh on provisions of what was passed, including a key provision which would have allowed congregations to leave the denomination and under certain conditions keep their property.  If this aspect gets ruled unconstitutional, all hell breaks loose and lawsuits over property will abound.

--The regularly scheduled General Conference of the United Methodist Church is scheduled for May 2020, and everything passed at this Special General Conference can be up for a vote again.

4)  So what are non-United Methodists to do?

First of all, prayer for our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church.  I served as ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church and have been to a number of General Conferences.  I've told Episcopal Church colleagues that what was coming in the United Methodist Church would make the conflict the Episcopal Church had over Gene Robinson look like the Council of Nicaea by comparison.  I knew it would be bad.  But the Special General Conference was even worse than I imagined, with a level of hurt, anger, vitriol, and despair that was truly hard to witness.  Many people are shocked, angry, hurt, and feel abandoned by their church.

Second of all, resist the urge to say "Hey, come to our church!"   Many United Methodists are grieving.  They love being United Methodists.  It's a bit of an extreme example, but the first thing you say to someone who lost a child is NOT "You can always have other children!"  Listen.  Pray for and with.  Express support.

Third, let's not forget the mote in our own eyes as Episcopalians.  We have dioceses which do not fully incorporate LGBT persons in the life of the church and same sex marriages rites are still not openly available to all.  We still have significant gender disparity in leadership.  We are part of a global communion which is mostly opposed to full inclusion of LGBT persons.  We lagged far behind other denominations in incorporation of LGBT and women in the church.  The ELCA endorsed same sex marriages, for instance, in 2009, six years before The Episcopal Church.

Fourth, let's also remember the way in which unity is often built on the marginalization of others.  Anglicans love to talk about our "Elizabethan Settlement" and diversity and tolerance of Anglicanism.  Elizabeth executed over 300 people for religious reasons and people would be fined for not coming to church.  Marriages of non-Church of England members were not recognized as legal until the 19th century, and England abolished the slave trade before it let Jews and Catholics vote.  Episcopalians like to talk about our seamless reintegration of the church after the Civil War, we do not talk as much about the fact that the price for this was segregation and consigning African American Episcopalians to second-class status, including being refused for admission to Northern seminaries.  While noting that the UMC is now essentially demanding marginalization of LGBT persons for the sake of unity, may we also be willing to see where that has happened and continues to happen.

5)   What does this mean for the proposal for full communion between the United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church?

There is an official proposal for full communion, including interchangeability of ministries, between The United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church.  This is scheduled to be considered by the 2020 General Conference and the 2021 General Convention of The Episcopal Church.

Frankly, it remains to be seen whether this full communion proposal can proceed.

From the Episcopal Church side, it would be difficult to accept full communion with a church that would not recognize our openly LGBT clergy and marriages.

From the United Methodist side, can a church which voted down proposals to allow for difference of interpretation on homosexuality (the SP and OCP) get a majority vote to enter into full communion with a church that has widespread acceptance of LGBT persons?

I have been a member of this dialogue since 2002, and after attending my first General Conference in 2004 it was clear to me that the United Methodist Church, as constructed, would not survive intact.  It seemed sad but likely that there would be either a de facto schism -- which was what the Connectional Plan above offered, in effect -- or the formation of one or more new denominations. 

If have read this blog, you should know I think denominationalism is dead, a relic of nationalism, racism, classism, and colonialism, and that God is calling Christianity to new ways of being in the 21st century.

My hope is that if there is a significant break within the United Methodist Church,and there is the formation of new church bodies  -- and I believe there will be -- that the Episcopal Church and progressive, affirming elements of the United Methodist Church can consider creating a new body.  Not "Methodists are welcome to become Episcopalians!"  But healing the schism of the 1700s that should not have happened had there been greater patience and charity on all sides, and bringing a potential abundance of resources and opportunities to mission, evangelism, and ministry. That God could be calling us to something transformative, and not flogging the dead horse of denominationalism.

However, I realize that is likely a pipe dream.  It's hard enough to get two local congregations to hold a joint Ash Wednesday service, let alone create a new denomination.  Nearly 20 years after Called to Common Mission brought about full communion between the ELCA and Episcopal Church, we have hardly any substantive joint seminary collaboration, and next to nothing on shared positions on the diocesan staff or denominational staff level.  Many in our denominations are far, far more interested in preserving the husk of our denominational relics as long as possible, and there are still so many wedded to the power and privilege they enjoy in their denomination, and many fearful of loss of identity.

Failing that, the Episcopal Church should be willing to enter into dialogue with Methodist bodies that would be willing to do so on the basis of the full communion proposal which is the product of nearly twenty years of discussion.

At the very least, the Episcopal Church can affirm the recognition of the ministerial orders of persons ordained in the United Methodist Church and be ready to offer space in our churches, or in our seminaries, or to join in our national, diocesan, and regional social service and justice agencies and organizations.

To fail t do any of these would show us to be hypocrites, more interested in our own survival, and that as allies were are little more than an ecclesial version of "thoughts and prayers" with no actual, substantive support.

That said, we also need to note some limitations.  While we popularly may talk about "valid" or "invalid", that is not how the Constitution and Canons or our ecumenical agreement speak of ordained ministries of other Christians.  We can recognize another church's ministry as being an occasion of God's grace without yet having a reconciled ministry which allows interchangeability of ministers.  We recognize the ministerial orders of the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, but a Catholic priest can't stroll in off the street and preside on a Sunday morning because we do not have a reconciled ministry.  Similarly, we don't, for instance, think United Methodist baptisms are invalid or persons whose weddings were blessed by a United Methodist elder have had only a civil marriage.  Yet we do not have a reconciled ministry, which is what the full communion proposal is for.  So while we can invite our United Methodist colleagues to preach, and assist with baptisms and weddings, they cannot yet preside at the Eucharist or at other sacraments in the Episcopal Church.

It is my conviction that we are in the midst of a massive reshaping of Christianity, the most wide ranging since the upheavals of the 1500s we call the Reformation period.  Differences on human sexuality and of the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church is part of what is also an ecclesiological issue, dealing with questions of authority, interpretation of Scripture, and globalization, among other factors.

It is my prayer that we will not be trapped in this Sunken Place, but can see where God is calling people to new and different ways of being church: that we who sow now in tears may reap with songs of joy.  These next few years are going to be crucial ones as to whether we are more interested in resuscitation or truly are willing to believe in transformational resurrection.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Note from Crusty: Taking a Hiatus

Since this is the first day of the General Ordination Exams, I am re-posting my blog from last year.  This blog will not be hosting any GOE commentary this year, for reasons outlined below.  And, since Crusty always buries the lede beneath a sea of words, I have added to last year's post a note at the end I will be stepping away from the blog overall for the foreseeable future.



I was talking with someone a few weeks ago who was not particularly a fan of these General Ordination Exam blog postings, and even thought I was undermining collegiality with my fellow members of the General Board of Examining Chaplains by continuing to post them. It was a good, open, honest conversation: despite the character I play on this website, I like to
My favorite Beatle.
 think I’m open to discussion and engaging with people who may hold different opinions than I do. I reminded my colleague that I abide by all the confidentiality and social media guidelines established by the Board: I do not share the questions 
with anyone. For the past two years, I did not write a word of these postings, I do post them, but only after all persons have finished the examination. I have violated none of the established standards of confidentiality or social media guidelines. My colleague reiterated that these blog postings were not to their liking. Finally I asked,

Do you know why I started doing this?” There was a pause. “Actually, no,” the person replied.

It’s not to be mean, or difficult, or to undermine collegiality,” I said, “though I realize I have to take responsibility for the reality that I may have offended people, and I need to hear that. I started doing this back in 2012, the first year I served as an administrator. I came up with the idea to post and dissect the questions for two main reasons. (And, BTW, I have stated these reasons over the years on the blog.)

The first is that taking the GOE was one of the most miserable experiences I’ve had in the church. I had no idea how to prepare, I thought some of the questions were confusing and others unfair, and, then when I got my evaluations, my evaluators said some things I thought were unacceptable, making assumptions about me I thought grossly unfounded. And I had no way to respond to any of this: I had no agency in the matter at all. Some people I didn’t know wrote an exam, other people I didn’t know evaluated it, and I was stuck with the results. I thought, at that time, if I can make this experience a little less isolating and lonely in the future for other people taking the exam, then I’d do it. Lo and behold, 18 years after I took the GOEs, I found myself in that position as academic dean at an Episcopal seminary. So I kept my promise and tried to make the exam a little less isolating, tried to create a shared sense of community among those taking the exam. That’s one reason.

The second is that the General Board is not accountable in any way, shape, or form to the broader church in any real way. Sure, we submit a report to General Convention, and sure, dioceses can vote with their feet and decide they don’t want to use the GOE. But for something that’s been around for so long and the vast majority of clergy have taken, it’s a bit shocking there’s no systems for discussion, evaluation, or feedback of the examination. If a question comes out that is confusing, or poorly written, or unfair – there’s no recourse. If an evaluator says something that is inappropriate -- there’s no recourse. If there’s a discrepancy in data – for instance, if there’s a question where there is a huge gap in pass rates between men and women, for instance – there’s no feedback loop. There’s more mutual accountability with my parish budget at monthly Vestry meetings as a simple country parson than an exam that impacts people’s lives and considered part of fitness for ordination. We had more mutual accountability when I was academic dean at the seminary. As a seminary professor, every course by every professor gets a course evaluation. Almost every event, public or private, that the seminary did, from alumni day to new student orientation, we sent out an evaluation. We don’t solicit feedback for the GOE in any way, shape, or form. I started this blog for this second reason – to try to raise issues and concerns around mutual accountability, because it’s not happening in anywhere else in any kind of tangible or transparent or recognizable way.”

That’s what I said to my colleague. These are the two reasons I started doing this, although I have not been involved the past two years in these blog postings after I was elected to the General Board. And I clearly hit a nerve, these are some of the more popular blog posts of the year.

I have concluded that it’s time to bring these postings to a close, and I will not be posting or hosting any GOE discussions. I’ve concluded that because the two reasons I started doing this six years ago, as outlined above, are no longer possible.

With regards to making the exam takers feel a little less anxious and isolated by providing a communal, shared experience: given the changing nature of the GOE, this just isn’t possible anymore. More and more people take the exam asynchronously apart from the four-day period in early January, given the changing nature of theological education, with more bivocational persons and persons trained locally and not in seminary programs. To maintain the integrity of the examination, in good conscience I cannot post anything until everyone has completed the exam, which is now often weeks after the majority of individuals have taken the exam. This is why in 2017, the postings came out up to two weeks after the exam began, and almost ten days after the bulk of people completed it. Given the asynchronous way the exam is now taken, the postings can no longer function as that kind of communal experience, because of the need to safeguard the integrity of the exam process.

The second is that substantive accountability cannot be brought about by online commentary alone. Online commentary can raise awareness, but often does not bring about substantive change on its own – it has to be combined with structural engagement. This is why I agreed to be nominated for the General Board of Examining Chaplains, the group that prepares, administers, and evaluates the GOE. I agreed to be nominated because another colleague asked me, point blank, “Are you just going to complain about the GOE, or do you want to have the opportunity actually to do something?” I admitted the colleague had a point, agreed to be nominated, and was elected by the 2015 General Convention to the General Board of Examining Chaplains, and am halfway through my six-year term.

As I have said repeatedly in these postings, the exam is improving. We could list many improvements: the move to a simple proficient/non-proficient evaluation, central to a competency-based testing process; the inclusion of an evaluation rubric that both the exam taker and the evaluator receive; the move towards open resources on all questions, including electronic resources; and more. To be sure, the examination still has room to 
Byzantine mosaic of Nyssa's epektasis.
improve. 
We all do. I’ve been preaching regularly for over 20 years and believe me I can improve. St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that we continued to grow and develop spiritually after our deaths as our souls move into the eternal peace of God. It has improved dramatically and substantively thanks to the faithful work of the members of the Board, who, like me, take this ministry to which we have been entrusted seriously. But it, like all of us, always has room for continued improvement.

I cannot speak for others, only myself, but here are some of the ways I think accountability to the church can be strengthened: by asking exam takers, Commissions on Ministry, seminary faculties, and other constituencies to evaluate the exam yearly just like we evaluate every single course at seminary; if a question has a pass/proficiency rate differs dramatically from other questions (for instance, if every other question has a pass/proficiency rate above 80% and one has a rate of 50% – that’s something to flag), to do a post-mortem on possible reasons why; to collect additional data, such as proficiency rates by gender and ethnicity (to see if, despite best intentions, there may be a gender or racial gap in the exam).When looking at mutual accountability gathering feedback is essential, as well as having systems in place to address what we might find. We do it for almost everything else in the church. For God’s sake, I’m a parish priest, and I didn’t move the placement of the announcements in the service without gathering feedback from parishioners.

Higher education has changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and one of the most important aspects has been the emphasis on measuring outcomes and gathering feedback from constituencies, largely pushed by accreditation agencies. If you ran a seminary in 1990, you had to explain what degrees you offered, how you offered them, and demonstrate you had the resources (faculty; library; financial stability) to offer them. A massive change in the late 1990s and early 2000s was to demand that you show that you were actually doing what you said you were doing, and to be able to back that up. You say you have adequate financial resources? Show me your student loan default rate. You say you are preparing your students for parish ministry? Do a survey of recent graduates and ask them how well prepared they feel. And what happens if you find out you have a high student default rate? What steps will you take to address it? And so on. Collecting data and doing surveys is 
Add a question from the Bobs on Annual Reports?
pointless unless you have systems in place to process the feedback and inform how you do what you do. Has this gotten burdensome at times? To be sure. But overall it has been tremendously important in requiring seminaries to create a feedback loop to inform best practice and establish procedures and policies to address issues that might arise. 
Imagine if we asked parishes to do something similar, to take any kind of step to see if what they believe they are doing they actually are doing, and what systems they have in place for changing course if need be.

The GOE has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 5-7 years, in part because the General Board has begun bringing best practices of current educational and testing methodology to the exam. An important next phase will be to bring in evaluative and feedback best practices to continue to improve the exam – and, as such, Crusty is committing himself to this process. To put it real simple: if we can improve accountability to the church in structured, institutional ways, we won’t need rambling, pop-culture referencing blog posts to shriek into the wind to hold the exam accountable.

Let me be clear: I have not been formally asked in any way to stop blogging the GOEs. If this had been demanded of me, I would not have complied. I am doing this solely on my own volition.

Let me be clear: I stand by every word I’ve written on this blog or posted by others. I engage the readers in the comments and have answered personal emails sent to me because I believe in being held accountable for what I say and do as I try to hold others accountable.

I am sorry if my words here over the years may have hurt people or been cause of offense. Really, I am. I have a thick skin and let most criticism slide off me, while at the same time having a circle of close colleagues and a peer group I check in with. At times that may make me seem insensitive to others, and not realize how much words can have an impact. I am sorry for any offense. However, while offering that apology, I also would ask anyone who may take offense to think long and hard about how much of their offense is reaction to hearing negative feedback. Developing standards of mutual accountability, and being willing to process critical feedback, is sadly one of those areas where the church lags behind the secular society we often presume to think we are above.

To all of you disappointed there will be no blogging of the GOEs, I am putting my hope in the possibility of living in a world where blogging the GOEs may some day no longer necessary.

I also be stepping away from this blog for the foreseeable future.  My thanks to all of you who have read over the years, I am continually amazed anyone has any interest in what a verbose, rambling, expletive-laced, pop culture name-dropping blog that looks like a GeoCities website from 1996 has to say.

So let me close out one more time:

Well, friends, it's time for Crusty to ride off into the sunset for good on GOE blogging.  Thanks for joining me for the ride, and special thanks to Dread Pirate Crusty for filling in for the past two years.

And despite what you may think, and what Crusty has been accused of by some people, COD is not opposed to the GOEs.  Crusty loves the fact the Episcopal Church has always had a competency-based system, ever since the Course of Ecclesiastical Studies introduced by William White.  There's never been a single standard, unlike, say, the PCUSA or ELCA or Roman Catholic Church where degrees are normative, even written into polity in some cases.  With a competency based system, we have an inherit flexibility -- should we ever choose fully to embrace it -- in how we train persons for the ordained ministry. 

So be good, people.    Remember to stay grounded in prayer, Christian discipleship is hard and the only way to make it is to develop and cultivate a life of prayer.  Exercise regularly, it's the only free and 100% effective way to avoid numerous health problems. And have at least one minor vice to show the world you're human.

Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do more than we can ask or imagine; Glory to God from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

I Will Not be Gaslighted

The Living Church recently published an article "All women Episcopal slates emerge."  Crusty was not pleased with this article, and agreed with a critique by a colleague of his on the Twitmachine:



Yes, these are strong words.  Twitter by its nature requires packing things into few characters; if you have read these gassy, overwrought blog posts full of 1990s hip-hop references, you must know how hard Twitter is for Crusty.  So in this posting COD is glad to unspool exactly what he meant in these words.  I've had a funeral, a Sunday sermon to finish, and an ICU pastoral visit to make, so my apologies for the delay in posting the fuller response I began drafting yesterday.

These comments resulted in Crusty being accused of "grandstanding for likes" and being informed that this interpretation of the article was incorrect.  Or, in the exact words:  



Apart from being a personal attack by an employee of The Living Church on Twitter -- which Crusty doesn't mind, Twitter is all about offering opinions, and frankly I don't care what the individual in question thinks of me  -- this tweet needs a response. 

For one, Crusty does not grandstand for likes, the original tweet only had a handful of them. In terms of all-time likes, this tweet probably wasn't in the top 100 of my thousands of tweets. If I were trolling for likes, I would
This is how you troll for likes.
have included a clever GIF of some sort.  That's how you boost likes, people.


For another: more importantly, I profoundly disagree with the characterization of the article asserted here.  

I stand by my original critique that this article is lazy journalism and is misogynistic.  

And I have no desire to write a letter to the editor or offer a response in the pages of The Living Church, because I do not respect The Living Church as a journalistic entity, and have not done so for several years.

There is a history here.  Crusty used to write for The Living Church.  I had the occasional opinion piece/short article and some book reviews published there over the years.  I canceled my subscription and declined all further invitations to write for The Living Church after they published a feature article which compared Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.  This comparison was offensive, insulting to those who suffered under the horrors of Amin, and meant solely to denigrate the Presiding Bishop.  I did exactly what I was accused of not doing in this case -- I did approach TLC staff directly.  Editorial persons at The Living Church told me my interpretation was incorrect, that was not what the article meant, and further said I was attempting to force political correctness onto the Living Church.  

That was the end of my connection to TLC, and also why I am not engaging their staff.  I tried that years ago and was just ignored and told I was PC.  So why bother?

OK, so let's break this down.

1)  I called the article "lazy." I stand by that.  Here's why:  

The first sentence of the article:

"Before this year, the Episcopal Church never had an episcopal election in which every candidate on the slate was a woman. But the emergence of four women-only slates in 2018 has shattered that norm, leaving observers to wonder: why now?" 


First off, only 4 of the 11 slates were all female; 7 of the 11 were not all female, so not having all-female slates is still the norm.  It has not been shattered.

But more importantly:  Who are these observers?  Who is asking this question?  I could have written a very different lede.  As a matter of fact, as these slates were emerging, many colleagues of mine were wondering, "Why did it take so long?” Not "Why now?" I could have given actual names of actual people asking "Why not earlier?"

From the very outset, the article uses unnamed observers, which remained unnamed throughout the article, framing all-female slates as an aberration ("shattering norm") that must somehow have a reason behind it.

This opening sentence is thus a two-fer: sloppy journalism (unnamed sources) and then using that sloppy journalism to shape the entire article itself around a question the article
Woodward and Bernstein needed two sources.
itself is asking: "Why now?"

The article hides behind these unnamed sources and observers when it is in fact the one doing the observing and posing the questions. This is the journalistic equivalent of eisegesis in biblical study.

This trend continues in the second paragraph, noting the "trailblazing" began “when a two-woman slate was introduced to a diocese that has never elected a woman as bishop.”

Since an overwhelming majority of dioceses have never elected a woman as bishop, this detail might seem a bit irrelevant Yet this is actually foreshadowing to an argument that will be made later in the article but which is not stated here in the Kansas discussion.

Several paragraphs later we will be told that "West Tennessee has never had a woman serve as bishop, and nearly all of the 31 congregations around the diocese have a man in the top clergy role. And even though the bishop search process did not consider sex, Meade [President of the Standing Committee] said, raising up more women to serve across the diocese is a goal."  The reference to Kansas is not a stray detail, it echoes the language around West Tennessee that introducing all-female slates in dioceses that have not had women bishops must be intentional everywhere as it was, apparently, in West Tennessee.  Even though there is a difference between "raising women up" and "all female episcopal nominating slates."

And in the West Tennessee example, "nearly all" is not defined by article -- is that 95%? 90%? 80%?  What is "nearly all"? Also, what is the threshold of female leadership that makes it not an imposition to have an all-female episcopal slate on a diocese that has never
"Nearly all" members of the Stonecutters are earthlings.
had a female bishop?  Does electing a woman previously as bishop mean that diocese is completely open to women in leadership?  Does having a certain percentage of women in leadership tip the scales and make it OK to impose this "shattering norm" on a diocese? 


That's what Crusty meant when he said lazy journalism. "Unnamed observers" asking questions that really only The Living Church is asking in this article. It could barely even get a single quote opposing an all-female slate, all it got what someone quoting a retired priest who asked why there weren't more male candidates.

2) Here's why I called the article misogynistic:

Because it frames the emergence of all-female episcopal slates by peddling a conspiracy theory that female activists are manipulating the episcopal election process. This is simply repulsive, appalling, and unfounded.

Let's number the ways this article does this!

a) “Some observers believe the quest for more diversity among churchwide leaders is resulting in less diversity (i.e., women only) in episcopal slates.”

No "observer" says this, it is the same circular argument used repeatedly in this article. Unnamed observers ask questions and believe certain things that are never named, when it is the article which is stating these things. Who is this observer who said that the quest for more diversity is resulting in less diversity? Nowhere named. Not a one.

The only "observer" cited here is Bob Prichard, professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. Let's look at what he says: " 'Interest groups have for centuries shaped elections in order to elect bishops from their own camps, whether they share a common race, ethnicity, or theology,' Prichard said."  

As quoted here, Prichard offers not a single historical example of slate stacking by interest groups.  Crusty says "as quoted here" because it's quite possible Bob offered historical examples; COD is an historian himself and could also offer some examples. But here is the important sentence:

"For activists to stack slates in order to expand the ranks of women in the House of Bishops would be consistent with this election-shaping tradition, in his view."  Where does this come from? Did Dr Prichard himself say this, or is he agreeing with some conspiracy theory for which not a single shred of evidence is produced or proposed?

Later, Dr Prichard says:

“I would guess that what we’re seeing is a demonstration of increased leverage of females on those nominating committees,” Prichard said. “As part of the ladder up, the percentage of women and level of activism of women on those search committees is increasing. And we’re seeing the results of that."  
There is not a shred of evidence of any kind that females on nominating committees are stacking slates.  It is simple shocking that a "guess" by a single person is put forward as evidence of women activists shaping episcopal slates.   Where is the evidence that these nominating committees have more women on them than, say, three years ago?  Has a demographic study of the composition of search committees been consulted?  What is the definition of an activism, and how is this purported difference in "levels" of activism measured?

2) "Search committees, however, are sometimes joining the all-women trend unwittingly." 

Couple problems here.

First of all, it's incorrect. In the two examples cited, it was not the search committee at all.

The article states that the diocese of Colorado “withdrew the only male nominee, the Rev. Canon Michael Pipkin, upon learning of issues in his background.”  These “issues” were, in fact, “serious personal and professional issues” brought to light, so serious the Standing Committee voted unanimously to remove the candidate.  There’s as much emphasis here on Canon Pipkin’s "maleness' as on the “issues.” This was not done unwittingly. It was done purposefully and unanimously, and by the Standing Committee, not the Search Committee.

Another all female slate was the result of two male candidates withdrawing. This was not the Search Committee, which actually presented two male candidates. It was the candidates withdrawing themselves.

So again, this is a two-fer: sloppy journalism and conspiracy peddling.

Sloppy journalism in that this sentence is factually incorrect. These two slates were not the result of actions by Search Committees. Editing and fact checking also apparently did not pick up such a straightforward and clear error of fact. They were also not "unwitting", these two slates were the result of deliberate actions, one by a Standing Committee, the other by two candidates.

And the conspiracy peddling corollary? The other examples of all-female slates are, presumably "wittingly", that is, deliberate.  

This is why I called this article misogynistic:  The charge that specifically female activists are manipulating episcopal nominating processes, without a single shred of evidence or comment by anyone.  

If not misogynistic in peddling a conspiracy theory that cabals of women are bent on taking over the House of Bishops, then it is perhaps at best reckless, careless journalism, presenting something without any substantive corroboration.

In the end, Crusty rejects the entire premise of this article.

1) Crusty rejects it as journalism. As an opinion piece, fine: people are welcome to have opinions, ask questions, and offer their views. I am under no illusion that people agree with what I say on this blog, and, frankly, I don't care if people agree. What I write here is all opinion. You don't even need to read it. Seriously, why are you here?

But this article does not do so: it is pretending to be a legitimate journalistic article when it can't even pass a lower journalistic bar of being factually correct and having actual sources for what it suggests.

2) Crusty rejects the central concept that all-female slates are norm shattering aberrations that need explaining, which the article repeatedly does: "Trailblazing"; “Those pressing ahead with all-women slates…”

Put another way: would there be any mention of a diocese somehow “pressing ahead with an all-male slate” in an article by The Living Church? Would TLC publish a feature article on it? Would "unnamed sources" talk about males manipulating nominating processes?

Of course not.

COD would have no problem with articles comparing Presiding Bishops to Idi Amin and female activists taking over episcopal elections if they were presented as opinion columns. It's a free church and TLC is not accountable to anyone, and people have a right to their opinion, and I'm free to disagree with it.

It's when this is portrayed as "journalism" and to disagree is to be imposing your beliefs which I reject.



If "they say" and "some people" are the only sources, then this is careening The Living Church into Breitbart News territory.  

TLC, you can have your opinion on unsourced charges of activist women manipulating episcopal nominating slates. Just don't do so under the guise of journalism. And don't gaslight people when they disagree.




Thursday, September 27, 2018

#WhyIDidn'tReport: Will the Church Respond?

As I sit down to write this, it seems as though much of American society as a whole is going through a collective, public conversation over the issue of sexual assault and misconduct against the backdrop of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford detailing her experience of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh.  This reflects deeper issues within our culture as a whole.  It has sparked a powerful reaction from those who experienced sexual assault, sharing their own stories of why they did not report under the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport: revealing systems which often blames accusers, normalizes abhorrent conduct, and protects the perpetrators.  While the issue of the nomination of Justice Kavanagh is what is galvanizing this current discussion, this is something that has been brewing and building for years.  There is the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, which is about abuse of power both by those who committed acts of predation and in the coverup by the church to protect the institution at the expense of victims.  The crimes of Bill Cosby, for which he has been convicted and sentenced to prison.  The #MeToo movement.  And, of course, the pushback from those who have benefited from power and privilege.

Yet along with these powerful testimonies, there also is the need for men, especially those with authority, power, and privilege by virtue of gender -- and those in the church by virtue of ordination -- also to speak up.  To refuse to accept "boys will be boys" as an excuse.  To refuse to allow the normalization of abusive behavior.  It is shocking, but sadly all to predictable, to hear religious and political leaders offer some version of "What 17 year old boy hasn't done something like this?"

What 17 year old boy?  I went to an all male high school.  I turned seventeen a four years after Judge Kavanagh.  This one.  Not me.  Never did anything like that.  Nor the people I associated with.  Not because I'm a hero:  this is the insanity of the whole "What 17 year old boy hasn't done something like this?".  It normalizes abusive behavior and somehow makes non-abusive behavior that which is considered extraordinary.

Crusty has not commented much publicly on the #WhyIDidntReport, apart from a tweet here or there.  This is for a couple of reasons.

For one, I have tried to use what voice I have to amplify those voices of women that are speaking out: for instance endorsing, supporting, and lifting up my female colleagues who have rightly called out former Senator and Episcopal priest Rev. John Danforth for his comments devoted solely to Brett Kavanagh and not for Dr. Ford.

Another is that my understanding of sexual misconduct and abuse has been profoundly shaped by experiences of two people very close to me, who, while have shared their stories with me, but they are not not mine to share.  These stories are their stories, and for them to share.  One experience was shared with me at the time I myself was entering into my teens, by someone very close to me.  The person said they were telling me this so that I would try to make sure what happened to her didn't happen to other people.  When I saw something, to do the right thing; when I had a chance to try to change things, to try to change them; to in turn raise my own children some day to reflect these beliefs.  I keep a picture of her on my desk, and every time I am faced with a difficult choice or decision, I look to that picture to remind me of the cost can be of not doing the right thing.

Another is that I was taught growing up that doing the right thing in this world isn't something that one should be rewarded or brag about.  My father used to tell me, "You do the right thing because it's what you're supposed to do.  Rewarding people for doing the right thing just accepts a world where not doing the right thing is somehow considered normal."  

It may seem crazy to stand up and say, "Don't be a predator and treat people with dignity and respect!  Treat people who bring accusations of abuse or misconduct justly and fairly!"  But in this world we live in we must do so, otherwise other voices will drown out, shape, and dominate the discussion.  And I also realize that those with privilege have a responsibility to use what that privilege affords to try to shape a world that accords with values of equality, inclusion, and justice.  We can't pretend privilege doesn't exist; to do so is itself dependent on privilege.

Crusty also prefers to let his actions speak, since he has often found in the church, let alone in the world, words and speeches are empty unless they are translated into real, actual, tangible actions.  And, well, I have tried to act when called to do so.  COD has reported a male colleague for sexual misconduct. Crusty has advised students who have shared experiences of sexual misconduct or harassment with him what their options are under the disciplinary system of the church.  As academic dean, Crusty updated the Title IX policies at the institution where I served to provide processes for reporting sexual assault and misconduct that did not place undue burdens on persons bringing forth complaints, and which tried to reflect both mandates from the US Dept of Education and who we are as Episcopalians and the promises we make in our baptismal covenant.  As a Rector of a parish, I have incorporated a sexual misconduct and sexual harassment policy into the Employee Handbook where there had previously been nothing.  This has included definitions of harassment and misconduct and processes for reporting, and also extended and applied these standards of accountability to volunteers who are not employees.  In my 2 1/2 years in my current position I have preached four times on issues of sexism, sexual misconduct, and harassment in the church as part of broader reflections on the #MeToo movement.   

And as a parish priest -- despite the title of this blog I'm now just a humble country parson -- my main response has been responding pastorally.  I have listened to parishioners who are revisiting their own trauma of sexual abuse as this conversation unfolds in our broader culture.  I will be preaching on these issues this Sunday, with the Book of Esther as my text.

For all those reasons I have perhaps not spoken out publicly all that much, but I also realize that as someone with the privilege of being white, male, and clergy, I have to.  If not, then other voices will pretend to speak for me, and normalize behavior that is wrong, sinful, and abhorrent. 

But all the blog posts, tweets, and hot takes are all meaningless unless we are actually to make something of this moment in our culture, to try to bring about change.  All too often when faced with complex issues, we can wonder "But what can we do?"  Yet the reality is there are often real, tangible things we can do.  

What's hard is often not figuring out what to do, but having the will and courage to do what is right in front us.


In a church position where I was serving, the parish administrator came into my office one day.  I had been on the job about three months. We talked through a couple of things, then I said I was going to step out to grab some lunch.  She asked me to stay another 15 minutes or so, and as she did there was a kind of edge to her voice. I said I would be glad to stay, and asked why.  She explained to me the technician who serviced the furnace was coming in, and every time he did, he always asked her out to lunch or a drink, even though she had said no every time and also made it quite clear she was married.  She even asked him to please stop asking, but he kept it up every time he came in. He would compliment her on how she looked, doing so in a way that she found uncomfortable. She told me she did not like being alone with him in the building.  He was in his mid-60s, some 30 years older than her.


I asked her how long this had been going on. She said for a few years.  Years? I blurted. Years? I asked if she had reported this behavior, and she said she had, to a previous person in my position.  The reply to this complaint -- from my female clergy predecessor, by the way -- had been, "This guy gives us a good rate on servicing the HVAC, he did it for years when he worked for the company and now does it in his retirement for us at a reduced rate.  Why don't you just put up with it, it's not much to ask and we're saving the church money than if we had to find someone else."


After she told me this, I apologized to her for my predecessor dismissing her claims, for refusing to listen to her, and said that my predecessor had been selfish and wrong to treat her that way.  I then told her to treat herself to a long lunch, I would handle the technician. When he came in he asked where the administrator was. I said she was out. I could tell he was disappointed. I let him into the furnace room.  When he came up to my office after finishing the job I told him we were going to switch providers, and his services were no longer needed.

When the administrator came back from lunch, I told her I had already called up a different company and set up the appointment for the next service.  She said, "But that'll cost more!" I said, "You getting sexually harassed and feeling unsafe is not part of your job description. What both he and my predecessor did is not only a sin, it's against the law."


I could literally see the tension flow out of her body, as her shoulders which had been hunched up kind of relaxed.  She stammered, “I never thought it’d change so quickly.”

This story doesn't make me a damn hero.  I don't recount it to puff myself up or buff my woke credentials.  Only to show that all too often the problem is not figuring out what to do, but having the courage to do what is right in front of us. The solution to the situation was straightforward.  Yet a predecessor of mine had refused to do anything.

Several weeks ago I preached on the gospel reading where Jesus healed the blind and mute man.  As part of that, I talked about how when Jesus healed those who were marginalized by disability -- leprosy, blindness, deafness -- he was not just curing them of their infirmity.  He was restoring them to fullness and wholeness of life:  in a society which saw disability as punishment from God (as in John's Gospel:  Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?), where those persons in addition could not work or be part of society, healing meant giving them back their lives and their humanity.  They can not only now hear or see or walk:  they can take their place in society and not live lives on the margins, begging on the outskirts of the village.

This is also something  personal to me. I'm hearing impaired, I was diagnosed at age 24 with a condition that is very gradually robbing me of my hearing, and I wear hearing aids.  I don't talk about it much because sometimes I find people treat me differently, or don't know how to treat me.  Some people have even joked about it, mimicking that they were speaking but not saying any words.  While not making a big deal about it -- plenty of people have it worse, I am able to be a husband and father and have a calling I enjoy, and am thankful for all the blessings of this life -- nonetheless my life changed when I was diagnosed and I don't have the same life as I had.

What does it means to try to restore someone's life? As we will hear this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary from the Book of Esther:  "As they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, 'What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you.' Then Queen Esther answered, 'If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me.'"

Esther has not been able to be her true self:  she has hid the fact that she is a Jew from the king, her husband.  Esther has lived in terror: the king's advisor Haman has plotted to destroy the Jews in the Persian kingdom.  She asks for her life:  not just her physical safety, but for her humanity restored, to be who she truly is, along with all the other marginalized Jews in Persia.

As Christians who claim to who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, this is where we stand at this particular moment in our society.  Will we -- can we -- be instruments which can help restore people to their authentic selves?  Or will we simply reinforce the sinful structures of power and privilege, which the church does so well?

Consider this: the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church responded favorably to many of the recommendations of the House of Deputies Special Commission on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation.   The Convention voted to life statutes of limitations for three years on issues related to sexual misconduct, to require awareness training in dioceses, to remove gender identifying aspects from Office of Transition Ministry profiles to address implicit bias, among other actions taken.  The House of Bishops held a powerful listening session at General Convention, which, while not perfect, nonetheless marked an important step. 

Consider this:  Of all the main, daily, official General Convention eucharists, only one presider was a woman, and that was the day when most bishops and deputies went to the Hutto Detention Center, so hardly anyone attended that eucharist.  This despite a Convention that proudly trumpeted the fact that for the first time ever a majority of Deputies in the House of Deputies were women, and who several years ago proudly celebrated the fact that the General Convention had elected a woman as Presiding Bishop and elected a woman to succeed another woman as President of the House of Deputies.  The General Convention that had done all those things also had only one woman as presider in the year 2018.  

That's bad enough.  What's also terrifying is nobody seemed to notice or care.  I brought this up in a clergy meeting in my diocese, and someone who had been at Convention couldn't believe me:  "Really? That can't be right," the person said. I replied, as calmly as I could, "I know perfectly well it's correct, because that one presider was my wife."

General Convention can pass all the legislation in the world, but it's meaningless unless we take actual, real, tangible steps to live into the principles that we claim.  Words and talk are cheap.  It takes the courage and will to do what we know is right, and for those with power and privilege to lay those things aside.

Someone asked me, "So what can we do to make sure that what happened at General Convention doesn't happen again?"  I said, "Good God, it's not rocket science. The way you make sure you don't have more than one woman presider is this:  Step 1.  Recruit a broad range of people.  Do you think if they had a planning team that was 50% women there would have been only one presider?  Step 2.  Listen to people.  People can make all the recommendations they want, but if those with power don't listen, nothing will happen.  Step 3:  Some people need to lay aside their privilege.  I'm sure there were all perfectly good reasons why all those other presiders were men, they are likely all very fine people.  But to make room for diversity, those who have dominated must be willing to let go of power, privilege, and control.  This had nothing to do with figuring out how to have diversity in presiders, and everything to do with the will to do it."

We must have the will to live into what we have laid out at General Convention in response to the issues of sexual misconduct, harassment, and exploitation.  We must also take up matters Convention was not able to resolve or address, such as churchwide accountability for lay persons with regards to sexual misconduct.

As I sit here, with the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on as I write, I am thinking:

Some day soon, I will have a conversation with my own son, not exactly like the one I had when I was not much older than he is now, but one which makes clear how we respect the dignity of every human being, and be clear about respecting women's autonomy and not normalizing abusive behavior, and to always strive to try to do the right thing, even if it's difficult.

That's a conversation I can make happen.  I find myself then asking:  Will my church be able to have the conversations it needs to have, that I can't make happen in the same way as the one with my own son?

And that I honestly do not know.

Then as I always do, I look at the picture on my desk as I try to determine what to do.  

As she looks back at me across the years, I click publish for this post.  I'm still trying.