Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Church's Billy Bush Moment?

As Crusty flails through the dystopian nightmare of this election season, he's at least thankful to be back in pastoral ministry, preaching every Sunday.  This is something that COD missed about serving in academia: the way that preaching every Sunday, week in, week out, is one of the most fundamental aspects of pastoral ministry.  It's part of engaging in an extended conversation with God as revealed in Scripture, and how we are to make sense of the world around us.

The past few weeks have been interesting, to say the least.  But in the midst of the many varied ways in which this election season is bringing to light many profound rifts and changes in American society, Crusty has also been watching how religion and the church (small c) has had its own dark places laid bare.  Just a few examples:

--We have the fact that the U.S. Catholic bishops, by and large, seem to have abrogated any kind of teaching function the episcopate supposedly has.  By reducing the role of the church solely to
Hey Catholic bishops, remember this guy? He spoke truth to power in June 2004.
opposing abortion and supporting "religious liberty" (as they define it), they seem to have been unable to stand for the Catholic Church's historic teachings on anything else, incapable of addressing a candidate spouting racist, anti-refugee rhetoric and openly advocating torture, when, in fact, there are lots of Catholic teachings supporting refugees and immigration, and opposing torture and racism.  COD is not talking about endorsing or electioneering, but simply speaking truth to power and advocating for issues, something that the Catholic Church, including its current Pope, oftentimes seems to find the time to do.  Crusty finds it interesting that more elected Republicans seem to have disavowed their presidential candidate than Catholic bishops have made clear where the church's teaching differ from policies proposed by that candidate.

--There is the revelation of divisions within evangelical Protestantism.  This is the story here, friends, and COD has been annoyed by the predominant narrative that "Evangelical Protestants paradoxically support Trump."  While it is certainly the case that the majority of persons self-identifying as evangelicals will be voting for Trump, and that many religious leaders have served as little more than spiritual money launderers for Trump, willing to explain away and excuse anything if it gets their hands closer to the levers of power, evangelical support, particularly from evangelical leaders, has been far from monolithic.  There have been consistent voices in opposition.  The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest conservative evangelical church in the United States, has approved  supporting refugee resettlement.  Some of its top leaders, sich as Richard Land and Albert Mohler, have openly, consistently, and regularly disavowed Trump's policies.   Others include Max Lucado, Tony Campolo, Beth Moore, and Jim Wallis, among others.  Saying "Why do evangelicals continue to support Trump?" is like saying "Why don't Muslims condemn violence?"  Moderate Muslims have been condemning violence for over 15 years, it's just that most media doesn't report or pay attention.  Prominent evangelicals have been disavowing Trump, it's just that most media doesn't report, pay attention, or have any modicum of understanding of the dynamics involved.

Crusty was also pondering some of the responses by religious leaders to the audio recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women.  Reading a few articles, Crusty also saw that producer Mark Burnett has hundreds of hours of videotape from Trump's TV show, footage never meant to be aired of background conversations.  As he did, COD suddenly found himself thinking:

What if we had hundreds of hours of videotape of church meetings and church leaders?  What if we had hot microphones that recorded some of our own conversations?  What would it lay bare about our own sins and self-serving lies?

There is the reality that in some cases, in some places, more often than we might like to admit, we would learn that the Episcopal Church has an ordination process that borders on spiritual and emotional abuse, if not, at times, downright misconduct.  The following are all actual stories from the ordination process.

--I asked someone once how their interview with the Commission on Ministry went, and the person replied, "Well, I'm not sure how well I responded to one question."  I asked what the question was. The person said that they were interviewed not by the Commission as a whole, but had two interviews with smaller groups of 3-4 Commission members.  In one of the small groups, a male clergyperson asked her, "How will you deal with the fact that you are so attractive you will be a distracting presence leading worship?"  She then told me what her answer had been, and said she couldn't tell by the members' responses whether it was the right one or not.

I said, "I just want to say that I'm sorry that you were sexually harassed as part of the ordination process.  And I'm even sorrier that the apology had to come from me, and not from anyone actually involved in the process."  She looked startled that I had named it as such, but then she paused and said, "That's what I thought, too, but since none of the other people said anything about it, I thought that I was overreacting."  Since the person who had asked the question was a clergyperson, I informed her what her rights were under the Constitution and Canons should she wish to pursue a complaint.  She quickly said, "No, I couldn't do that, the person would torpedo my ordination process."

--Another person shared with me that his Commission on Ministry interview was prefaced by the following words: "We're going to ask you some questions, and don't say you can't answer some of them, because the church is exempt from what may be considered discrimination under the law.  And if you don't answer them, you will be considered as not complying with this process."  Apart from being untrue, or possibly an outright lie by someone who knows better, this is simply normalizing abuse as a way to begin an interview process.

--A young woman in her mid-20s was told, "You will have the most intimate details of people's lives in your hands.  You need to get more life experience and come back in a few years."  This despite the
Welcome to your Commission on Ministry interview.
fact the person had been active and engaged in the Episcopal Church in all sorts of ways since birth.  This person wasn't having it, and said to one Commission member, "You son is my age and is in law school, he'll have people's lives in his hands.  Did you tell him to go get life experience first?"  This also despite the fact the Commission had just approved a 45-year-old with a successful first career who had been a churchgoer of any kind for barely eighteen months.

--A friend of mine shared in his Commission on Ministry interview that he had entered Alcoholics Anonymous several months previously.  A member said, "If you're just saying that so we'll be sympathetic to you and not ask any difficult questions, that's not the case, we're going to treat you like we do everyone else."

There's been a lot of talk of "gaslighting" in this election season.  Named from the classic movie where Charles Boyer convinces Ingrid Bergman she's losing her mind by imagining flickering gaslights that he himself is causing, "gaslighting," loosely defined, is a process by which one person manipulates another through abuse, lies, and deception to get that other person to doubt their own perception of reality and impose a power dynamic of the abuser's choosing.  Many have noted how politics, presenting starkly
Coming soon: Gaslighteucharist?
different perceptions of reality, has ventured into this territory.

Friends, our ordination process is just one way in which the church has its own gaslighting, justifying sometimes offensive, insensitive, and abusive behavior as perfectly normal. Yet because the people being gaslighted have no agency and are powerless in the ordination process, we'll never know how many more stories like this are out there.

Trump's bragging about sexual assault has been rightly condemned by some church leaders.  In doing so, however, Crusty wonders what the church's Billy Bush moments could have been, had we been caught on tape with our own sins of sexual abuse laid bare.

--Perhaps if we had a Nixon-like taping system at 815 we would have known about former Presiding Bishop Ed Browning covering up sexual abuse of minors by the former bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania.  This has been public knowledge since 2010 and there has never been any kind of acknowledgment of the failure of the Presiding Bishop to be held accountable for his actions.  And please, no sanctimonious protestations that we shouldn't bring this up because of Bishop Browning's recent passing.  He was a public figure, and, like public figures, he is the sum of his actions and his legacy is part of the public record.  We do not treat other public figures, even religious figures, this way.  Several news outlets noted some of the controversies surrounding Nobel Peace Prize winner Elise Wiesel in their obituaries.  Crusty bets many people who would protest we shouldn't bring up PB Browning's actions will pile on when war criminal Henry Kissinger is finally called to account for his genocide when he meets his maker.  Bishop Browning was a great leader and gift to the church, but never was held to any kind of accounting for, let us repeat, covering up sexual abuse of minors.  There was no reporting to police, there were no ecclesial charges.  The already-retired bishop was asked to resign from the House of Bishops, refrain from performing any clerical duties, and seek counseling, all of this in private.  This is does not undo all the good that PB Browning did for the church, but it is a stain on his legacy, and it is to the church's continued shame if it consistently refuses to address this in the rush to hagiography.

--Perhaps the coverups at Episcopal schools like St. Stephen's in Texas, St. George's in Rhode Island, would have been more difficult if we had audiotape of the conversations of those in power.

--Perhaps we could call to account all those still held unaccountable of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.  Crusty has heard stories than he cannot share about sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, and sexual abuse, especially by female colleagues, because they have been told in confidence.  We have to denounce the continued coverup of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in our own church, and set in place some real efforts to hold not only the perpetrators accountable, but those who ignore, excuse, rationalize and flat-out cover up this misconduct before we congratulate ourselves for rightly condemning it in our political sphere.  Would that there was a Spotlight movie for the Episcopal Church.

Trump's numerous attempts to blame others for his behavior, including that he was "egged on" by Billy Bush, has led to the twitter hastag "#BillyBushMadeMeDoIt."

What if, in addition to mockery, we asked ourselves:  what if Billy Bush was there to expose the church's sins?


  1. Fifty-five years ago the then Bishop of Maryland approved my going to seminary. I was a college senior with life experience appropriate to my age. I have not found the Commission on Ministry process useful to the church. Individual actions by individual bishops have sometimes been wrong and discriminatory, racist, sexist, etc. But Commission on Ministry actions have also been wrong, discriminatory, racist, sexist, etc. Commissions are frequently made of up of active Episcopalians - middle to upper middle class, mostly white, middle aged, mostly politically Progressive, well educated, and from larger wealthier parishes. We all tend to think well of ourselves and people like ourselves - and Commissions on Ministry approve people like themselves. I'm very glad I did not have to subject myself to their tender mercies.

  2. In times of anxiety, the tendency to engage in splitting (someone is either all good or all bad) is strong. I've known a few wonderful postulants who were evicerated by the process. They made the mistake of making a statement which was out of vogue with the COM, and were placed on the evil list. Others, who were questionable candidates were excused some red flags because they seemed to be on board with the flavor of the day.

    After the Little Sisters of the Poor were sued, I think the Catholic bishops have fallen prey to splitting. Trump's life may stand in opposition to anything the church stands for, but at least he'll leave them alone. So, he must be good, right?

    I've seen the same splitting on the Christian left. Clinton supports marriage equality. Comey said no prosecutor would bring charges, so that means she did nothing wrong, right?

    Until we are able to see that people we like are also touched by sin, we will have to engage in splitting. We will continue to engage in the mental gymnastics of justifying their sins. When we recognize that "All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God," we will be able to confront the sins of our own "side" freely. That is the place where we can be most productive.

  3. Some of the stories I have heard about those abusive interviews take the triple-layer chocolate fudge cake! Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  4. I'm sure it's just my own ignorance, or lack of experience and exposure, but I've never met anyone serving on a COM who had any qualifications or credentials to serve. Mostly, they are a member of a congregation whose rector needed a favor from the bishop for one of his parishioners to feel honored. Or, they are someone the bishop knows and likes. Or, they are a clergy person the bishop has an eye on and is helping to 'pad the resume' and groom him/her for a run at the episcopacy. Worse, there's usually no orientation much less training for members of the COM in the basic elements of discernment, the qualifications, qualities and characteristics of an ordained person, the requirements of parochial and non-parochial ministry or even the basics of psychology. And then, there's the curriculum in seminary, but don't get me started. So, what do we expect, really? And, why are we surprised that the church is failing so badly?

  5. Glad to see your name on the TEC UMC dialogue. Where can I read the proposed communion document, "A Gift . . . "

  6. When I was turned down for postulancy after 10 years of successful professional lay ministry on two continents, I questioned a long-term member of COM what I should do if I felt an error had been made. He put his beer down, crossed his arms, and said, "In the 20 years I have been on COM, we have never made a mistake." He then suggested that if I continued to question COM, it would look like I was "unable to listen" and would shut down any discernment process in the future.

    There are two, possibly three things to note: 1. This person had been on COM for 20 years, and no one batted an eye. 2. That this person believed COM had never made a mistake. 3. To question was to disobey. 4. This was all chalked up to the work of the Holy Spirit.

    The COM system is rife with abuse; spiritual, sexual, mental. It nearly killed my faith, and it nearly killed me. But it will never change, since the agents of possible change are selected by people who have an interest in not-change. Once you realize the system is set up to fail, that the system is incapable of producing change, then some of these outcomes and stories you've described suddenly make more sense.

  7. Holy Fool, I couldn't, sadly, agree more with what you say. Systems are (by and large) set up to produce the results they produce and our dysfunctional, abusive COM process reflects deeper systemic, abusive dysfunctional aspects of the church.


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