Monday, September 11, 2023

Church Conflict


Matthew 18:15-20

Proper 18 / Year A

When the preacher took to the pulpit everyone in the congregation noticed the huge Band-Aid on his chin.  As the sermon dragged on and on and on, minds began to stray and most wondered how the preacher had injured himself.  After the service he was bombarded by everyone with the same question: What did you do to your chin?  He patiently answered each person.  “While I was shaving I was thinking intently about my sermon and, not paying attention to what I was doing, I accidently cut myself.”  Without missing a beat, one of the church’s longtime members responded, “Next time, focus on shaving and cut the sermon!”

I don’t know how much you keep up with news about the Episcopal Church.  For those who do, you know this has been an interesting couple of weeks.  On August 30, Julia Ayala Harris, the President of the House of Deputies (elected lay and clergy leaders from every diocese in our church), announced in a letter to the members of this body that a retired bishop had made “unwanted and non-consensual physical contact” with her followed by “inappropriate verbal comments” immediately after her election to her office. 

Ayala Harris found the actions so egregious she filed a formal complaint under the process outlined by our national disciplinary canons.  She said nothing publicly about this while the investigation was on-going, which went on for over a year.  Even though the event was witnessed by three other people who corroborated her account, a church attorney determined the incident merited only a “pastoral response”, rather than a more severe form of punishment.  This is when the president chose to go public with her experience.  She did not name the bishop responsible for these offenses, but subsequent reports revealed him to be her former bishop from the Diocese of Oklahoma. 

This incident follows on the heels of two other accusations against bishops in our church.  One bishop has been accused by his adult children of being physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive toward them and his ex-wife.  Another bishop has been accused of “a pattern and practice” of discrimination against LGBTQ clergy and their supporters. 

On August 31, a group of over fifty bishops signed a letter indicating they are aware of all three allegations and are deeply concerned about the perception bishops accused of misconduct get a “free pass.”  Bishop Susan did not sign this letter because she serves on the Disciplinary Panel which oversees this process and thus is not able to comment publicly on matters which might fall to them.  As I understand it, she would not be involved in any of these cases until they reached the point of a church trial. 

From this morning’s gospel reading we learn there has always been conflict in the church – always.  Jesus experienced it within his own small band of followers.  Paul dealt with it in several of the churches he founded, especially the church in Corinth.  The process Jesus lays out for dealing with conflict is rooted in the belief our relationships in Christ matter.  Every effort must be made to nurture and protect them, and, when damaged, to heal and restore them.

It also speaks to the need to safeguard the health and well-being of the community as a whole.  If one person’s actions or behavior is disruptive or detrimental to the common life of a congregation, it cannot be ignored or swept under a rug.  Fortunately, most congregations have a healthy culture which allows for things to get worked out in a fairly natural way.  But, there are times when a more direct, aggressive approach is necessary.  Sometimes this will resolve the issue.  Sometimes it won’t.  The stronger the relationship – what Jesus refers to as “binding” – the more likely a positive outcome will be.

The person most likely to be most disruptive in a faith community is the ordained leader.  We clergy can cause all manner of mischief!  A few years ago, the Episcopal Church changed its canons around clergy discipline – what is referred to a Title IV.  The old canons were based on the model of a military court marshal and allowed little room for flexibility or discernment.  The current model is more pastoral in nature, provides care for the accuser and the accused, and seeks healing and restoration whenever possible.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it is better than what we had before and seems more adaptable to necessary change.  If you would like to know more about this, talk with John Rector.  He has been elected by our Diocesan Council to serve on our Disciplinary Board.  As such, he has undergone extensive training in the Tile IV process. 

In her letter to the deputies, Julia Ayala Harris wrote, “My motivation for sharing this story stems from a deep love for our church.  It is from this place of profound care and concern that I raise important questions about safety and security.”  I applaud her courage and pray her actions will lead to deeper awareness and reform.