Change is hard for most people. It’s even harder for most churches, where people often are wedded to the status quo. And it will be especially hard for Grace Episcopal, the clergy perjury parish, as the church tries to put Bob Malm in the rear view mirror.
There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which is perjuring priest Bob Malm’s long tenure.
First, an observation, which is that over time churches adopt the characteristics of their senior clergy. In Grace Church’s case, the place is superficially welcoming and friendly. But there’s little substance to this, and it’s not the result of a lively faith. Instead, it’s an attribute of the church’s role as a religion club, in which the primary focus is social activity.
Second is a related observation, which is that faith at Grace Church is only liturgy deep. Yes, liturgy is important, and it can provide a window into a deeper faith. But just as perjuring priest Bob Malm can say Mass every Sunday yet have no issue with lying in court, so too there is no compunction in the parish against bullying, mobbing, and even urging others to commit suicide. Thus, it will be very difficult to find a rector who has a deep and abiding faith, yet is interested in becoming part of a church in which faith has such a limited role. Of course, that’s not to say that there are not persons of faith in the parish, but many who actually adhere to the Christian faith packed it in long ago, once they realized how little substance there is to Grace Church and how bad the conduct within it can be.
Third, persons at Grace are largely blind to the troubled relationship between the parish and perjuring priest Bob Malm. Whether it’s Bob’s tampering with the internal workings of the vestry, his refusal to do parts of his job that he did not enjoy, or his efforts to force others out of the parish, folks are distracted by Bob’s seemingly friendly behavior.
Fourth, persons have a vested psychological interest in not seeing the truth, for doing so is to admit that much of what parishioners held dear over the past 30 years was a fraud. That’s not to say that a priest must be sinless to serve a church; obviously, that is not possible. But when, as here, a priest engages in illegal and unethical conduct and there is zero accountability, it calls into question the very nature of The Episcopal Church. In other words, why bother with a bishop or diocese if they are going to take a pass on clergy misconduct that does not involve sex?
Fifth, the parish faces the same dilemma as do many Catholic churches: Having named part of the building after an abusive priest, the parish is now wedded to the notion that perjuring priest Bob Malm deserves to be honored in this way. Reversing course will be all but impossible, and the church remains saddled with the fact it is honoring abusive conduct. And no, the whole “we’re recognizing the positive sides of Bob’s ministry” routine doesn’t cut it. Given the outrageous nature of perjuring priest Bob Malm’s misconduct, naming part of the building after him is just as inappropriate as would be naming the chancel after Robert E. Lee. Maybe even more so—Lee at least was a devoted Christian, which is more than can be said for Bob.
Sixth, as is often the case with clergy who engage in misconduct, those who have chosen to stay despite perjuring priest Bob Malm’s misconduct are a mishmash of attributes, ranging from the passive-aggressive, to enablers, to bullies, to sycophants, to the mentally ill, to those who just want to avoid making waves. In short, the current composition of the parish is such that there are few with the insight, skills, and courage to help effectuate change.
Seventh, the pandemic will remain a major risk for a long time to come, with the result that we are months, if not years, away from returning to congregational singing, the Easter Vigil, and the other things that feel like church for most parishioners. And given that a great many are simply there for a social outlet, Zoom simply isn’t going to cut it.
In short, the odds are strongly stacked against Grace Church overcoming the problems it faces. A far more likely outcome is to effect a few superficial repairs to the mess that is Grace Church, while driving the toxic toxic behavior that characterizes the parish underground, from where it will again emerge, stronger than ever.