In an announcement that already is getting considerable pick-up within The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Virginia has announced that it is terminating its efforts to find a new Bishop suffragan, and will not hold an election to fill the slot. The announcement, found here, makes clear that Bishop Shannon may leave his current position sooner rather than later. More importantly, it mentions that the diocese hopes to bring in the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center to deal with serious internal issues. This suggests to me that the diocese has finally realized, at least in part, just what a hot mess it is. (I say “in part” because my experience is that, even when +Shannon recognizes that a mistake has been made, he often doesn’t really understand the depth or breadth of the matter. So, if the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center does get involved, pay close attention to the feedback, Bishop Shannon.)
All of this comes alongside a recent email I sent to Bishop Shannon, which he did not answer. I will treat most of the contents as confidential, except to say that my conclusion, based on my long and sordid encounter with both the diocese and Bob Malm, is that the diocese is morally bankrupt and stuck in a 1950’s time warp. Specifically, the diocese is willing to defrock clergy who have an affair in secret, yet it sees no problem with Bob Malm and his campaign of retaliation after I raised concerns about governance and possible sexual harassment at Grace Episcopal Church. That stands in marked contrast with corporate America, which both requires reporting and protects those who report such issues. (Publicly traded companies are required to do so under Sarbanes-Oxley and Gramm Rudman, among other statutory and regulatory requirements). Note, as well, that I am not suggesting having an affair is okay, merely that bullying and sexual harassment are every bit as important to the ministry of the church as are the moral implications of having an affair.
As a result, we are left with a situation in which The Episcopal Church bloviates about #metoo and #churchtoo and its desire to be part of a solution to these issues, all the while being a major and clueless part of the problem.
On a more transactional level, the announcement that DioVa is seriously screwed up is hardly news. For years, I have been frustrated at the utter lack of resources coming from the diocese. For example, in 2014 I asked the diocese if it had templated development resources to suppport parishes in their stewardship efforts. Given that as much as 16% of parish income goes off to the diocese, this would seem foundational and in the best interest of all parties.Yet I was surprised to discover that, even after 200 years of existence, the diocese has no such materials. Neither is this the first time I have experienced dysfunction within the diocese, nor the first time I have heard Bishop Shannon state that the problem is his responsibility to fix. Yet if the past indeed is a precursor to the future, Bishop Shannon’s solution will be ineffectual and largely meaningless, and skewed in favor of the status quo.
Further, it is well known in church circles that roughly only half of Mayo House (diocesan headquarters) staff are actually churchgoers. I get that, as working for church can quickly erode your desire to be in church on Sunday if you are not careful. But if your reason for working for a church isn’t your faith and your desire to serve God and others, you have an issue, because most church jobs offer low pay, long hours, and no or seriously crappy benefits. In other words, if your motive isn’t your faith, you really should not be in a church job. That also speaks to +Shannon’s comments about the commitment of diocesan staff. The reality is that many are not a good fit for the job.
The article also brings up the recent departure of Canon Pat Wingo. His leaving the diocese is a disappointment, as I have always had the feeling he is more committed to reconciliation and healing than is Bishop Shannon. The latter, I think, is all too willing to invoke his status as bishop, versus focusing on serving others as a priest. Yes, I get that there is a certain willingness to play the game that is needed in order to be elected bishop, but Bishop Shannon has for far too long been willing to tolerate ineptitude and bad behavior, both among diocesan staff and among clergy.
The news from the diocese also underscores one of the serious consequences of Bishop Shannon’s approach of “light-handed regulation” when it comes to diocesan governance, which is that he and other top-level leaders are all too often clueless when it comes to issues in the diocese, even when the issues are close at hand. I mean, I get that the recent litigation with the Anglicans was all-consuming, but that’s been over for quite a while, so that excuse no longer holds water. And after 11 years as bishop diocesan, are we really supposed to conclude that this is the first time that +Shannon is realizing that the diocese is screwed up? That would be hard to believe.
So what next?
In my case, I’d really like to see Bishop Shannon be a bishop in reality, not just title. That means setting expectations that Bob Malm act like a priest, instead of a bully, and stop the rhetoric and insinuations from Bob about mental illness on my part, many of which +Shannon has seen firsthand. That also means making clear with Bob Malm that appropriate behavior is not a suggestion, but rather a requirement. If Bob isn’t willing to do that, then it is time for Bob to retire. +Shannon is the bishop, and it’s okay to simply say, “That is how it’s going to be.” If +Shannon isn’t willing to do that, then he also should retire.
I’d also point out that Bishop Shannon never did follow-up on his offer to keep in touch with Mike. Yes, I get that no one here is falling over with excitement (at least with positive excitement) at the prospect of contact with the diocese, but having caused lasting harm to Mike’s spiritual journey and sense of self, the least the diocese could do is to keep in touch and offer a reassuring, non-anxious presence. Having failed to live up to that standard, the diocese is hardly in a position to complain that relationships are frayed.
Bishop Shannon also really needs to get over his notion that most issues can be solved by local vestries and wardens. Yes, I get that the bishop cannot be involved in each and every issue that comes up (nor should he or she), but it’s also true that a number of parishes here in Northern Virginia, Grace included, have rubber-stamp vestries whose role has been co-opted by the rector and serve only to provide air cover to the rector when, typically he, wishes to avoid ownership of a contentious issue.
On a larger level, this is the time for serious soul-searching on the part of the bishop and other diocesan leaders. The diocese has seriously lost its way, and the bishop would be well-advised to solicit advice and input from me and others with a negative view of the diocese. Yes, the comments may not be pleasant to hear, but that still beats blundering around clueless in the dark.
At the uppermost level, there is considerable healing that needs to occur, and, having created many of these issues, it is incumbent upon Bishop Shannon to work towards resolution. That includes making clear that all really are welcome, not just those who don’t rock the boat. And at all levels, the expectation needs to be set that bullying, shunning, and other relational aggression has no role in the life of the church.There also needs to be a meaningful way to fix the problem early on when clergy and others in positions of authority abuse that authority, including when that abuse doesn’t involve sex or jail time.
The tone and tenor come from the top—that’s a key tenet of real leadership. So Bishop Shannon, it’s time to step up to the plate and make clear that church will be a safe place for all persons, at all levels. If you don’t do so, you are squandering your spiritual and moral authority by virtue of standing idly by. And if that happens, there really is no point in having an Episcopal Church, and it is time for the church to call it quits.
The time to act is now.