Monday, February 9, 2015

Of Bishops, Clergy, Discrimination and Accountablity

February 9, 2015
Dear Deputies and Alternate Deputies:
Like many of you, I was deeply saddened by the news that bicyclist Thomas Palermo had died on December 27 after he was struck by a car driven by Bishop Heather Cook of the Diocese of Maryland. Mr. Palermo’s wife, Rachel, his children, Sadie and Sam, and his family are in my prayers every day. As a parent who has lost a child, I also grieve for Mr. Palermo’s parents, who survive him. I hope that you will consider a donation to the educational trust fund that has been established for his children.
 In the weeks since Mr. Palermo was killed, many people in the church have struggled to understand better how our systemic denial about alcohol and other drug abuse in the church may have contributed to Bishop Cook’s election and confirmation as a bishop even as she seemed to be struggling with addiction. Many Episcopalians are asking what people in positions of authority in the church knew about her history of addiction and driving while under the influence of alcohol. They are also asking why the electors in Maryland and the bishops and standing committees who consented to her election were not made aware of this information, some of which is a matter of public record.
Bishop Cook has been indicted on 13 counts including vehicular homicide and the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Maryland has asked her to resign as bishop suffragan. There is also a Title IV investigation underway, and I hope there will be an open reporting of its results that will answer many of these questions.
However, the ongoing Title IV investigation does not relieve those of us who help lead the church of our obligation to acknowledge that the credibility of the process by which we elect bishops is in question. Long before this crisis, many people in the church understood that the process no longer serves us well in some instances. I have served as consultant to six bishop search committees, and I concur. The seeming failure of the process in Maryland lends new urgency to the discussion.
Resolution A002 from The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church asks General Convention to authorize a task force to recommend a new process for selecting bishops to General Convention in 2018, and it is very likely that other resolutions that address the need for transparency and accountability in bishop searches and elections will come before convention as well.
In addition, I have decided to appoint a House of Deputies special legislative committee on alcohol and other drug abuse to review the General Convention’s 1985 policy on alcohol and drug abuse (Resolution A083) as well as propose and receive resolutions on this and related topics. I believe firmly that people who experience addiction can be called by God to lead our church. I have been blessed by the leadership and pastoral gifts of my own bishop, Mark Hollingsworth, who, since before being named a nominee for bishop, has spoken and written openly and powerfully to us about his many years as a recovering alcoholic. I also know that the church can sometimes confuse secrecy and confidentiality, and that our desire for reconciliation can sometimes make us reluctant to confront one another in love. I hope that we can examine our church’s relationship to alcohol and other drugs in a clear-eyed and forthright way, mindful of the systemic issues that can constrain transparency.
These are the measures I can take to help our church repent for our role in Thomas Palermo’s death. I ask each of you to remember that all of us bear responsibility for ensuring that we elect our leaders honestly and transparently. Even until the very last moment, we all bear responsibility for coming forward when we believe that the process has failed us; in fact, in the liturgy of ordination for a bishop, the Presiding Bishop says, “You have been assured of her suitability and that the Church has approved her for this sacred responsibility. Nevertheless, if any of you know any reason why we should not proceed, let it now be made known.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 514).
Please join me in praying for our church, for Heather Cook, for the Dioceses of Maryland and Easton, and most especially for the family and friends of Thomas Palermo.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
President, House of Deputies

I remember protesting the election of Jack Iker in 1991, but because no one in the House of Bishops wanted to take seriously the charge of  his clearly stating that he could not 'support the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church', nothing could stop Jack's consecration.  Neither
the attending bishops, the clergy nor the laity were willing to look forward enough to see what kind of lasting and destructive effect his election would have on the Church.  As Church it was easier to smile and 'be nice' rather than be willing to ask the hard questions that the dioceses of Fort Worth, Quincy, San Joaquin, et, al. were posing with their 'gentleman's agreement' on women's ordination.  

We have a similar 'gentleman's agreement' is now being touted in the House of Bishop's re., the ministry of LGBTQ persons and the bishops are not willing to see what kind of duplicity they are again farming.  Bishops in some areas believe that they have the right to control the priests  of their dioceses as to how they live, what they may wear, who they may see and where they may attend church.  The Diocese of Texas has been especially grievous in this matter since the days of +Benitez.  At least some of this is being rectified by that diocese today, but it does not go far enough to note the damage that the Church has done to LGBTQ persons. 

 The shame with which many of us had to grow up because of not only flawed theology, but outrageous Biblical scholarship, has been held in place by those who are frightened and unable to reflect on a human dignity other than their own. First of all, it is paternalistic, at best.  It is judgmental and discriminatory and worse.  It can leave clergy constantly in fear of losing their jobs, their careers, unable to support themselves or their families simply on the whim of a single person in bishop's orders. According to the canons, a bishop may not do this, but once again, there is no way to bring such charges against a bishop without really ruining one's career.  The Women's Caucus produced a long list of instances where clergy are being bullied by their bishops and it is a growing problem throughout mainline churches. It is an ugly little secret throughout the Church that our juridical officers are unable to be held accountable.

And while I am grateful to +Andy Doyle's leadership in his support of the repeal of discriminatory canons in the Diocese of Texas, this should not be a matter for just a bishop to
decide.  How the clergy may serve and how they may live is a matter for the laity and the clergy to decide also.  If we are to root out discrimination, it cannot be a matter single bishop's opinion.  It must be the will of the diocese; it needs to be canonical.  There must be a willingness of the diocese to fight the discrimination within themselves.  

As for the election of bishops: all too often we go the easiest route to avoid conflict when we go shopping for a new cleric, bishop or priest. In that kind of climate, it is easy to hide.  It is easy to appear 'nice' rather than able to face the conflict in life.  For someone who finds it difficult to address  conflict in their lives, the episcopacy is no place for them in the present-day Church, and for that matter, the ordained ministry of any order.  We need to develop clear system of vetting of candidates who can lead the Church through conflict rather than hide from it.  Alcoholism, drug abuse, role playing, social climbing, are all forms of hiding.  And the Church is full of clergy who play such games  because the structure of the church is no longer one in which transparency and integrity is held as a sacred value.  

When women's ministry in the early 80's began to erode the 'good ole boy' network, where a new clergy person had to 'know someone' in order to get a cure, we replaced it with a computer driven system that ostensibly put everyone on an equal footing.  But these days, it is often the diocese who becomes the lynch pin, for who is called.  It is a different twist on the 'good ole boy's club'.  And bishops still have inordinate control over the clergy's lives in ways that are not healthy and would be considered criminal in the public or private sector.  

General Convention '15 may just be able to begin to address some of these issues because they are fresh.  But my guess is that the House of Bishops, the lower house, will stall any work by the House of Deputies to bring order to the Church that might affect the slow decline of a Church that has lost faith in its leadership. Is this part of checks and balances?  Perhaps, or it may be leading to the kind of log jam we have in Congress that will end up killing us.

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Sunday, February 1, 2015

'Where God and Man have sat down'

What is appealing about sermons?  Today I have listened to 3 or 4 of them.  Now that I am retired I don’t have the weekly responsibility of preparing sermons.  I generally enjoyed the process of preaching. It is why I took my doctorate in it. But I like to listen to good sermons too.  I even go back and read some of the sermons of the great preachers not only of my tradition but others as well.

 Preaching isn’t what some lay folks think, a matter of talking off one’s head or out of one’s back pocket.  Preaching is a holy discipline of being willing to pay attention.  But it isn’t just a hyper-awareness; it is a programmed vigilance. It is programmed by the lectionary that keeps one connected to the readings of the Christian world but it is constantly changing by the events of the world and our lives.
I have never been one who could just pull out an old sermon and preach it.  Only when I was incapable of thinking when I was too sick for the synapses to fire did I ever repeat a sermon—themes, of course, theological points, sure. But I could never just pull up an old sermon and preach it.  It didn’t seem honest.

But now, when I listen to sermons, I long to hear the faith of the person preaching.  I don’t care about hearing a testimony. I don't want to just hear an interpretation of the passage.  I want to know if the person who is preaching really believes what s/he says.  I want to know if the passage that is being preached is something that made the preacher think.  Today, I have listened to Baptist, Methodist, Christian Science, Episcopal and a non-denominational mega feel good church and each one had a piece of the puzzle that God has for me today.  Some of it pulled me back into that comfortable rhythm of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and some of it was meditations on other texts.  

I remember Alec Baldwin saying that he went to a church (not the same one) every Sunday to listen to people who think.  I had never really thought about why people
listened to sermons.  It was a part of church going.  But now that I am listening, I too want to know what people think.  I want preachers who have bothered to prepare, have bothered to embrace either the Scripture or the topic.  I want to know that they have struggled with the things that are raised by an event, or better, how they have wrestled with the passage to glean some meaning for their lives as well as mine.

Rarely was I ever able to tell for whom a sermon was written.  Most of them were directed to me as much as anyone or any parish.  But occasionally, someone would say, “You were talking to me today”.  And I have even said the same to a preacher.  I always appreciated hearing that it had made an impact on someone, rather than “good sermon, Pastor.” 

But what does it mean for us when we do think about an issue.  Does it cause a change of behavior?  Not generally. But it starts the wheels rolling.  Sometimes, it does.  I still remember the sermon Dean Harvey Gutherie of EDS, a Scripture scholar, taking apart the prohibition of women speaking in Church in Timothy back in the ‘70’s.  And while I don’t remember exactly what he said, I knew what it meant when Scripture was 'opened' to me.  It felt like the top of my head had been opened to a new light and interpretation.  It opened me to the call I had been hearing but could not give myself permission to pursue.

Preaching is a holy discipline that requires not only struggle with Scripture but also a struggle with what is going on in the world and the particular world of the congregation.  The Bishop that ordained me, +Ned Cole, said one should preach with a
Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. No wonder I was always fatigued following preaching…struggling with so many things and pulling them together to make a coherent point.  

Today I come away from the lectionary readings with the sense that Jesus did not allow evil to speak in his hearing.  He silenced evil when he could.  He didn’t listen to the whine or the excuse.  He looked past it and called forth the goodness of the possessed.  That is a hard task, but it is one I want to hold on to today. 
I appreciate good preaching.  I appreciate the time and effort that others have given to the readings to make them come alive for me.  But like Alec Baldwin, I love to hear how people think.  It is the holy discipline—it is Incarnational theology at its best.  And like the Eucharist, it is ‘where God and Man [sic] have sat down.’