House of Bishops concludes meeting with eye towards Convention

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Mar 17, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church House of Bishops, meeting in its annual spring retreat, has agreed to write a new pastoral letter to the church on the sin of racism.

The letter, expected to be adopted at the spring 2016 meeting, will be “the most lasting response of this house to that issue,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said during a midday press conference on March 17, the final day of the bishops’ meeting.

The letter would follow on one adopted by the house in April 1994 and another one issued March 22, 2006. The 2006 letter noted the 1994 pastoral statement said a new letter was needed because the “pervasive sin” of racism “continues to plague our common life in the church and in our culture.”

The theme for the March 13-17 meeting at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, in the Diocese of Western North Carolina, was Fostering a culture of curiosity, compassion and courage in Christ.

“We have focused our conversation around curiosity about ‘the other,’ courage in encountering ‘the other’ and compassion in encountering ‘the other,’” Jefferts Schori said. She added that member bishops challenged their colleagues with “provocative” mediations about race, culture, class and dealing with other faith traditions.

“The conversations have been deeper than I have ever experienced in this house and I am immensely gratified at the depth of the conversations and what I think will result from this meeting,” she said.

The presiding bishop praised the work of the house’s planning committee for the depth of the members’ participation. Diocese of Eastern Michigan Bishop Todd Ousley, co-chair of the House of Bishops Planning Committee, said that the meeting was structured with the filter of first considering the legacy of slavery, and then moving to the “contemporary experience of the results of racism and divisions in this country and elsewhere around race.”

The movement allowed the bishops “to build on our experiences of what it means to be the church in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic culture where the other is next to us at all times,” Ousley said.

The meeting, which Ousley said was “packed to the brim with information and deep encounters with ourselves and our role as bishops,” also energized the bishops “by having gone so deep together and discovering how we have to be as bishops as we move into an increasingly rapid, fast-changing world.”

The bishops also “considered issues of impairment among our members and others in the church,” Jefferts Schori said, “and we hope to appoint a commission that will address those issues in a broad sense and provide us some feedback about what and how we might attend to those issues.”

The bishops passed a resolution calling on the presiding bishop, in consultation with the president of the House of Deputies, to appoint an independent commission to “explore the canonical, environment, behavioral and procedural dimensions of matters involving the serious impairment of individuals serving as leaders in the church, with special attention to issues of addiction and substance abuse,” according to the March 17 daily account of the meeting.

The resolution says that appointments to the commission ought to include individuals “with professional or personal experience with varieties of impairment,” as well as members of The Episcopal Church and of the church’s full-communion partners.

“Recommendations for both action and further review, as appropriate, in order to clarify lines of authority, to ensure mutual accountability, and to promote justice, well-being, and safety within both the church and the world were included,” the account said of the resolution.

The presiding bishop said there “will be an ongoing conversation” about how such a commission would do its work.

Jefferts Schori said the goal of the commission would be for the church to understand how it “might better respond both pastorally and ecclesiastically” to its members, both lay and ordained.

Diocese of Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe, vice president of the House of Bishops, said the commission is needed because “the church is an imperfect and dynamic institution and we’re always trying to learn how to be more faithful and find ways to better exercise our ministries.”

A member of the house, Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, is on administrative leave from the diocese while awaiting trial on charges that on Dec. 27 she allegedly was driving while intoxicated and was texting when she struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, 41.

The house also set its attention towards the 78th meeting of the church’s General Convention June 23-July 3 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Bishop Ken Price, secretary of the House of Bishops, said the bishops spent time talking about the topics that convention will consider. On March 17 the bishops began to shift their emphasis “to more of a legislative mode that we will be in at General Convention,” he said.

Twenty-two bishops have never attended convention as members of the House of Bishops, Price said. They will have a learning curve, but so will all the bishops, Price noted, as the convention moves toward a paperless operation.

“This is a new learning [experience] for bishops so we’re trying to get on board with that,” Price said.

The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, the convention’s executive officer, met with the bishops on March 17 to introduce them to the paperless plan.

“We’ve moved from prayerful to personal and now we’re moving into practical this afternoon,” Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce said during the March 17 press conference.

Price added that the house spent very little time discussing the impending General Convention election of Jefferts Schori’s successor because the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop has not yet released its slate of nominees. That committee has two meetings slated, March 19-22 and April 19-20, and has said it will make that announcement in early May. Prior to the last presiding bishop election in 2006, the committee announced its slate in January.

During the meeting, The Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs issued daily accounts that provided a brief overview of the bishops’ discussions and activities at Kanuga. Those accounts are here.

Members of the public and the news media were not allowed to observe the sessions. Some bishops blogged and tweeted during the retreat using #hoblent2015. Those tweets can be read here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (9)

  1. John Carl Stromberger says:

    The appointment of a commission on impairment is long overdue. For too long, the Church has skirted the issue among its members, both clergy and lay. It has no protocol for dealing with impaired persons in leadership and among the Body.

    The usual response to impairment is either to treat it “pastorally” and exercise forgiveness, calling it mercy or to ignore it completely. Both approaches are nothing more than enabling the disease of which the addiction is a symptom. We do not forgive one for having a physical disease like cancer or heart failure; why do we treat addiction differently?

    A commission on impairment would be a positive beginning for the Church to develop an effective, evidence based way of dealing with this deadly malady. Lawyers, doctors, dentists and other professions have such protocols in place and working well. Could the Church not learn to treat its professionals with the same courtesy, discipline and care as the secular professions?

    Within the Church is an organization that has been dealing with impairment issues for many years. It is Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church. Its website is The faithful in that body are a long overlooked asset within the Church.

    If I can help in this endeavor, please call me.
    Yours in Christ,
    J C Stromberger

  2. Doug Desper says:

    I am hopeful – but not overly – that the bishops’ racism letter will condemn the race-blame industry which has been well-funded and agitating during racial tensions, particular in Ferguson, MO. After months of blame and the fog of idea wars there is now clearing, and I don’t think that some people are getting an essential truth about Ferguson; that there is money to be made over not having resolution to strife. Leading liberal Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Capehart, looked at the Justice Department’s final report and he states essentially that “we’ve all been had”. The whole “Hands Up -Don’t Shoot” narrative was false from the start and was pushed by big money who transported “rent-a-mob” protesters to continually back the false – proven false – narrative of racial targeting and Officer Darren Wilson’s guilt. I wonder if the bishops’ letter will speak of the ruined life of Officer Wilson and others at the hands of a well-funded race-baiting machine that was unleashed. I hope that the bishops read the Justice Department report on the matter. I hope that the bishops are keeping up with the information and aren’t being handled by a narrative that even the Washington Post is admitting was a dupe foisted on the public for over half a year. Only when we stop allowing ourselves to be used can level headed souls engage with each other when relations are troubled. Coming at the issue of race-relations on the basis of false narratives is no place to start.

  3. Doug Desper says:

    While venting before going off to work (with impaired people BTW) let me applaud the bishops for addressing the issue of impairment. An assisting priest at St. John the Divine Cathedral was arrested on just last Friday for drunken driving through the Holland Tunnel in NYC. In the car was a bottle of Absolut vodka. The priest likes the social media moniker of “unrulypastor”. Having my own experience with alcoholics, and in years past trying to live under a priest who was sometimes more impaired than not, I think that it’s time for each bishop to clean up the act in the diocese they serve, and for some Standing Committees to clean up the act going on with their bishop. Some people need help, but they can’t live out the drama of shedding their human debris while serving as example and pastor. For General Convention: “CLOSE THE BAR”. Make a good start by going dry on site. When you see the floor vacating some desperate souls who don’t know what to do with themselves you will have an answer that you may not want to know.

  4. Canon Kale Francis King Tssf says:

    New to the Episcopal Church and soon after WWII, as a layperson and then again after I was ordained and still in the same diocese, I remember my priest describing the time clergy of the diocese met and the presence of “the bottle,” It seemed to me then that there could not be a gathering of clergy without alcohol present. Then, as a priest I found it true in another nearby diocese much later in my ministry.
    We have a problem that has grown in front of our faces. It may also be a problem among various lay bodies outside the Church but it need not devastate our various church bodies.
    Close the bar, in parishes as well as dioceses, including the love of local wines.

  5. Doug Desper says:

    Well said Canon King. If people can really “take it or leave it” then let’s see more leaving it at home. Considering how social alcohol use has become such a stumbling block — and now a deadly scandal in the Church let’s see some brave leadership. As regards the Church the issue of addiction and personality disorders are a greater threat than imagined.

  6. D Rebecca Snow says:

    I am trying to trust that the Bishops understand that under the polity of this church they have no legislative power by themselves. So, I am hoping that their resolution to have the PB appoint a commission on clergy/leadership impairment (because lay leaders can be impaired too) is meant to be presented to General Convention where it would be assigned to the new legislative committee 22 on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse. This resolution is a legislative action because it would create a body outside the usual structures of the church and one which will presumably need to be funded by the budget of the church. It would be most disheartening to discover that even with bishops who have previously served in both houses of the General Convention no one thought to use the existing possibilities for “independent study” – i.e., Task Forces – or thought that non-Episcopal voices ought to be heard in the process of developing a mandate for this body.
    The summary of the resolution said “Recommendations for both action and further review, as appropriate, in order to clarify lines of authority, to ensure mutual accountability, and to promote justice, well-being, and safety within both the Church and the world were included. ” I take that sentence to mean the resolution asked for recommendations on all those topics. If this “commission” is not created by General Convention, how are its recommendations to come before the church as a whole and to be acted on?

  7. Bob carter says:

    I am life episcopalian… Have been CEO of 2 companies and been in recovery for 18 years… And once for 9 before that. If I can help in any way with the discussion on addiction and leadership, I am a candidate. I also chaired the board of Gateway rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania and Ohio… Treating 7500 addicts/alcoholics every week. The following was published in 2013:

  8. Selena Smith says:

    Perhaps not supporting The Rev Gay Jennings’ (President of House of Deputies) Beer Tasting Fund Raiser at General Convention might be the beginning of addressing impairment among leadership
    on several levels.

  9. Selena Smith says:

    BTW during the HofB meeting, priest from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC was arrested for driving impaired (DUI) with open bottle of Vodka on the console, as well as in possession of a bottle of prescribed pain killers in the car which were not hers.

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