Letter to the Episcopal Church from Presiding Bishop, President of House of Deputies

Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs
Posted Jan 22, 2018

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings have written the following letter to the Episcopal Church.


January 22, 2018

Dear People of God in the Episcopal Church:

In recent weeks, compelling testimony from women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted by powerful men has turned our minds to a particularly difficult passage of holy scripture:  the story of the rape of King David’s daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13: 1-22). It is a passage in which a conspiracy of men plots the exploitation and rape of a young woman. She is stripped of the power to speak or act, her father ignores the crime, and the fate of the rapist, not the victim, is mourned. It is a Bible story devoid of justice.

For more than two decades, African women from marginalized communities have studied this passage of scripture using a method called contextual Bible study to explore and speak about the trauma of sexual assault in their own lives. Using a manual published by the Tamar Campaign, they ask, “What can the Church do to break the silence against gender-based violence?”

It is, as the old-time preachers say, a convicting question. As our societies have been forced into fresh recognition that women in all walks of life have suffered unspoken trauma at the hands of male aggressors and harassers, we have become convinced that the Episcopal Church must work even harder to create a church that is not simply safe, but holy, humane and decent. We must commit to treating every person as a child of God, deserving of dignity and respect. We must also commit to ending the systemic sexism, misogyny and misuse of power that plague the church just as they corrupt our culture, institutions and governments.

Like our African siblings in faith, we must create contexts in which women can speak of their unspoken trauma, whether suffered within the church or elsewhere. And we must do more.

Our church must examine its history and come to a fuller understanding of how it has handled or mishandled cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse through the years. When facts dictate, we must confess and repent of those times when the church, its ministers or its members have been antagonistic or unresponsive to people—women, children and men—who have been sexually exploited or abused. And we must acknowledge that in our church and in our culture, the sexual exploitation of women is part of the same unjust system that also causes gender gaps in pay, promotion, health and empowerment.

We believe that each of us has a role to play in our collective repentance. And so, today, we invite you to join us in an Ash Wednesday Day of Prayer on February 14 devoted to meditating on the ways in which we in the church have failed to stand with women and other victims of abuse and harassment and to consider, as part of our Lenten disciplines, how we can redouble our work to be communities of safety that stand against the spiritual and physical violence of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Neither of us professes to have all of the wisdom necessary to change the culture of our church and the society in which it ministers, and at this summer’s General Convention, we want to hear the voice of the wider church as we determine how to proceed in both atoning for the church’s past and shaping a more just future. May we find in our deliberations opportunities to listen to one another, to be honest about our own failings and brokenness, and to discern prayerfully the ways that God is calling us to stand with Tamar in all of the places we find her—both inside the church and beyond our doors, which we have too often used to shut her out.

Faithfully,

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry                            The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
Presiding Bishop                                                   President, House of Deputies


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Comments (10)

  1. Michelle Wright says:

    The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry and The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings wrote:

    “[W]e must confess and repent of those times when the church, its ministers or its members have been antagonistic or unresponsive to people—women, children and men—who have been sexually exploited or abused.”

    Thank you. It’s about time.

    It’s easy to say all the right things. Now, I hope that the church will really do something, not just say that it will repent of past sexual exploitation and abuse. Prayer means little unless it’s backed up by concrete action.

  2. Patricia Ross says:

    I find this letter a bit of a vapid first, baby step. And I suppose many will wonder why I am not just rolling with gratitude for a baby step. The short answer is that I expect the Church, the Body of Christ, to act like a grown-up, a leader, an example, not a tiny child who must be taught to make proper greetings.

    This church has been guilty of harming thousands of women, yet the call to action in this letter is to meditate on how the church has failed. Thankfully, the writers did not call us to meditate on whether we have failed; that is an important distinction.

    I am troubled by the call for more consultation, in which, the victims must once again explain and persuade and teach and chart the way for the whole church to figure out how to repent of oppression, rape, domination.

    I ask our leaders: Please lead. Please go out on a limb for justice. Please set the example of apology and restitution.

    Thank you

  3. C. A. Duncan says:

    Speaking as a longtime friend of one of the victims and as someone who has witnessed firsthand the harm that this abuse has done for years, my response to this “statement” by the church is that it’s far too little, far too late. Furthermore, it was likely written by, and/or with the advice of, the church’s legal team. (I work in legal myself, so I readily recognize the “show remorse for those hurt by wrongdoing but don’t personally admit to doing it” approach.) It is classic “lip service”: “Yes, a bad thing was done. The bad thing was bad. No one should do the bad thing anymore. When we’re told the bad thing happened, we should say we’re sorry the bad thing was done. And we are.” I’ve literally earned my living typing countless settlement agreements, drafted by lawyers, that say some version of this!

    Is this really supposed to make the victims feel better? Aren’t they owed just a little bit more (and by a little, I mean a LOT)? Law enforcement should be investigating this kind of thing. If crime is discovered, the guilty should be punished. The Catholic church had to pay hundreds of millions in settlements (one notorious priest, Oliver O’Grady, did go to jail, but is now living a free life in his native Ireland – an injustice which damaged his victims all over again).

    “Repentance” will not suffice here. There exists a duty to report. NO ONE engaging in such behavior should get a free pass – except to jail! Shame on the episcopal diocese for this weak-kneed response. Clearly, the only interests it’s protecting are its own.

  4. Michael Wainwright says:

    My friend, Reverend Carter Heyward recently wrote a Guest Column in our local newspaper entitled, “Time to Address Patriarchal Power Relations” in which she said, “Make no mistake, systems and dynamics of patriarchal privilege, power, and control – – not a random heap of sexually confused men – – are the root cause of the sexual misconduct crisis we are facing. Unless we get at the root, there will be no lasting change.”

    The purpose of this letter is to suggest that we, as a church that has stood at the forefront of social justice efforts, should now step up to lead in the current movement to make gender equality a reality. TEC should undertake a comprehensive and honest look at how our lives are ”literally built on long-standing gendered assumptions about power.” Undeniably, TEC has been and to a degree remains a contributor to the perpetuation of some of those assumptions.

    To its credit, TEC has developed and embraced programs like Dismantling Racism and Child Protection. While it also has in place policies addressing sexual misconduct relating to priest and church staff, I am urging us to undertake a far more widespread initiative encompassing all the Church. We need to raise awareness and sensitivity to how so many of our customs and practices are permeated with gender bias. To paraphrase Dr. King, we need to strive for a world where people “will not be judged by their gender, but by the content of their character.”

    A number of clergy from various denominations recently signed a letter entitled, “#SilenceIsNotSpiritual – Breaking the Silence on Violence Against Women and Girls.” The letter noted, “We are experiencing a kairos moment – a window of opportunity to bring healing in the world and in the church. The rise of the recent #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have compelled us to examine our own beliefs and actions concerning the state of women.” The letter concludes with “Called by faith, compelled by love, and committed to the promise that women will live free from the terror of violence, we, the undersigned, invite you to join this movement, an awakening of repentance and reconciliation, sparking genuine change in the very place we call our home – the local church.”

    From a practical prospective, in the December 20, 2017 edition of The New Yorker, Jeannie Suk Gersen’s article, “The Transformation of Sexual-Harassment Law Will Be Double-Faced” posed the question, “How will the current avalanche of sexual-harassment allegations toppling prominent men in media and government roll down to more mundane workplaces? As employers and employees across the country try to apply lessons from #MeToo into quotidian employment contexts, legal norms that govern sexual harassment may also be poised to undergo epochal transformations.” Professor Gersen concludes her article saying, “Among the imperatives of #MeToo is that employers, and, indeed, all institutions, must take care to implement orderly processes in which reports of harassment are fairly and impartially investigated, and yield results that inspire confidence – to the benefit of victims as well as the accused.”

    This rapid emergence of this movement has given voice to many who have long suffered in silence. The pervasiveness of the problem has interrupted long-held assumptions by many who had no clue as to the magnitude. Now is the time for TEC to step forward to bring focus and compassion to this challenge to make true and monumental change to our awareness, sensitivity and resolve to bring about gender equality.

    I urge the formation of a broad-based task force of clergy and lay persons that would be charged with developing a comprehensive curriculum that addresses the patriarchal roots of gender bias, that raises awareness of the myriad ways gender bias has become imbedded in our customs and practices of our churches and communities, that provides a better understanding of the various forms of sexual harassment that exist and that creates a forum for free and frank discussion of the many facets of gender equality issues.

  5. Michelle Wright says:

    With all due respect, it’s long past time for study and prayer. It’s too late for that. Repentance means that the church must act. I’m tired of empty words, no matter how noble they are. It’s time for the church to actually do something to protect future victims.

    I was assaulted in a church by my boss, a lay employee. When I reported it to the priest and to the diocese, nothing much happened.

    The only action taken was a slap on the wrist to the perpetrator, where he was required to take a safe church class. These classes aren’t a hardship. They’re routine, and indeed, are they’re required in the Roman Catholic Church.

    He kept his job. He called me a liar.

    Something must be done so that the church can take concrete action, not only when clergy go astray, but when lay employees hurt their underlings. Otherwise, future victims will never be safe, and all of the talk of repentance, love, and justice will be meaningless.

  6. Bill Louis says:

    Michelle, report the assault to the police. Let the law handle it and deal with the perp as he should be deal with. That’s how it works in the real world. The church has proven they will only sweep it under the rug.

    1. Michelle Wright says:

      Mr. Louis,

      That’s all very well and good, but as you pointed out, the church refuses to take responsibility for the behavior of its employees. It also refuses to support its victims.

      That’s what we’re discussing. The courts are a completely separate issue.

      Thanks for the thought, though.

  7. Michelle Wright says:

    Dear Mr. Louis,

    Here’s something else for you, as well as the church, to consider:

    First, suggesting that the victim contact the police, then take the perp to court, doesn’t free the church from its responsibility to discipline any employee who breaks the law, and to come to the victim’s aid.

    Without the victim having to fear retaliation.

    I’d like to add that the church needs to wake up: In the “real world”, women rarely report sexual assault and such for fear of reprisal, and being re-victimized by that “real world”.

  8. Bill Louis says:

    Michelle, understood. In the business world, lets be frank the EDUSA is in effect a business. Nothing gets their attention quicker than a law enforcement investigation and if warranted a civil law suit. The tone of the article as I read it says the church needs to understand its past sins and reconcile its policies to eliminate this kind of behavior. If the church is really serious then it would root out this kind of behavior and fire the people responsible. A slap on the wrist and a reassignment of the guilty party only serves to continue said behavior. (Isn’t there a law against retaliation for reporting sexual abuse?) Until the church is ready to step up to this issue the only way to get their attention is to hit them hard in the pocketbook.

  9. Judith Atkinson says:

    Thank you for this. With God’s Help together we can make a difference.

Comments are closed.