Women tell #MeToo stories of life in the Episcopal Church

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 14, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] Sexual harassment and exploitation in the church are being highlighted in a series of reflections, essays and meditations, some of them explicit in their descriptions, that began Ash Wednesday on the House of Deputies website.

“The examples you read are from real women who shared instances of sexual harassment and abuse in real church settings. Any woman who wears a collar has these stories, seething just underneath the skin,” wrote the authors of the first post, the Rev. Laurie Brock and the Rev. Megan L. Castellan. “For most of us, we have so many they blur together into a giant mass of discomfort and scarcely-remembered sweeties, honeys, and forced grins at comments about our breasts.”

Brock is the rector of The Episcopal Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Lexington, Kentucky, and a General Convention deputy. Castellan is currently the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and by the end of Lent will be the rector at St. John’s, Ithaca, New York.

Some of the articles will be difficult to read, warned the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, in announcing the series.

Among the examples Brock and Castellan give:

  • “My bishop told me I would be more approachable as a woman priest if I looked more ‘feminine.’”
  • “A parishioner told me I would be more approachable as a woman priest if I looked less ‘feminine.’”
  • “A rector used to enjoy telling me how my breasts really filled out my clergy shirt. He usually did this in a meeting or around other parishioners. When I complained, I was told I’d need to develop a thicker skin if I wanted to be a ‘real’ priest.”
  • “When I shared explicit acts of sexual harassment I’d endured at the church where I served, the bishop told me, ‘Well, good luck getting another job if you make a big deal out of this.’”

The next article in the series is due to post Feb. 16.

The House of Deputies project follows a Jan. 22 letter from Jennings and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calling on Episcopalians to spend Lent and beyond examining the church’s history and how it has handled or mishandled cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse.

Jennings and Curry called in their letter for an Ash Wednesday Day of Prayer on Feb. 14, during which Episcopalians should meditate on how the church has “failed to stand with women and other victims of abuse and harassment.” They added that a Lenten discipline for the church would be to “consider how to redouble the church’s effort to build “communities of safety that stand against the spiritual and physical violence of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

When she announced the letter during the opening session of the winter meeting of Executive Council, Jennings said that many Christians might think that the exploitation and abuse surfacing via the #MeToo movement happen only in Hollywood or in business and industry “but not in the holy work we do.” However, she said, “those problems have been endemic in our culture in the church for far longer than Hollywood, or tech culture, or corporate journalism have existed.”

The New York Times has described the #MeToo movement as a “mass mobilization against sexual abuse, through an unprecedented wave of speaking out in conventional and social media.” Social activist Tarana Burke began the movement more than 10 years ago to help survivors realize they are not alone. Last fall actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet it to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” and added #MeToo. She later credited Burke for her efforts.

The House of Deputies website on Feb. 8 offered a Litany of Penitence written by the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego’s Task Force for the Compassionate Care of Survivors of Sexual Misconduct in the Church.

The litany, which is a modification of the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence, can be downloaded here. Brock and Castellan built their article around this litany.

In addition to posting the series of articles, Jennings is appointing a special House of Deputies committee on resolutions regarding sexual harassment and exploitation. The committee will have five subcommittees to draft resolutions on inclusive theology and language; disparities in pay, hiring, leave and pensions; changes to the Title IV disciplinary process and training; truth and reconciliation; and systemic social justice beyond the church.

The House of Deputies Rules of Order (Article X beginning on page 214 here) give the president the authority to appoint special committees for the “work of the House of Deputies at or between sessions of the General Convention.” The committee will meet electronically before General Convention officially begins July 5 in Austin, Texas. The committee will submit resolutions to be considered by convention’s legislative committees. The committee roster will be posted on the House of Deputies website after Jennings completes her appointments.

Curry and Jennings said in their Jan. 22 letter to the church that they wanted General Convention to discuss these issues because they “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.”

They placed their letter and the effort it describes in the context of recent “compelling testimony from women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted by powerful men [that] 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), they said, “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.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (16)

  1. Anne Rudig says:

    This is a very well-intentioned and laudable effort. I applaud the authors of these stories and the concept. But this is not #metoo. The distinctive, courageous and transforming thing about #metoo is that it consists of named women making specific allegations of harassment and/or abuse at the hands of specific named employers or supervisors – most of whom occupy positions of power. It is radical and dangerous transparency. That’s what makes it profound. These are not #metoo stories because they lack the who, what, when and where. I realize that within the church, that’s asking a lot. But it’s what’s happening outside the church right now.

  2. BD Howes says:

    Not defending (or indicting) anyone but I have this nagging feeling that we are be prodded by some who want to turn us against each other.

  3. Art House says:

    To be full and fair, any such effort must be inclusive of ALL instances of sexual harrassment within the church, without regard to the gender of the harrasser and that of the person harrassed. Harrassment of male on male, female on female, female on male and any combination involving transgendered individuals is just as grievous and sinful as male on female.

  4. Janet King says:

    This doesn’t only concern those with collars, or even those (as Rev’d Brock mentions in commentary following the litany) those in the ordincation process “who will come after us”, but also those in the discernment process for Holy Orders-including those who do not make the cut. I never faced actual sexual harassment, but did feel the effects both of gender and age discrimination. One reason cited by the bishop for my not continuing in process was my “ministry to my family.” I have also been told that the diaconal process was more appropriate for older people.

  5. Eric Bonetti says:

    As I mentioned on a previous post on this subject, we should not limit our efforts to sexual abuse and harassment. When I complained to the Diocese of Virginia about bullying on the part of my rector, and questionable governance practices, I got the big brush-off. A few days later, my (now former rector) instructed parish staff, clergy and lay leaders to shun and exclude us in retaliation for my complaint. When I told the diocese about the retaliation, I also got the big brush-off; the bishop subsequently sent out a letter saying he supports the clergy in question.

    On what planet is anyone in their right mind going to complain about sexual harassment or other clergy misconduct when it is okay for clergy to retaliate for doing so? Church officials are delusional if they think anyone is going to come forward if, by doing so, they put themselves in harm’s way.

  6. Jim Newman says:

    There is no excuse for sexual abuse or harassment. That said, what happened to forgiveness and judging. Has the #METOO mob taken over the Church? Sad. No wonder there are fewer and fewer congregants in the pews. All members of the Church should be thinking in terms of forgiveness and inclusiveness not divisiveness and identity politics.

    1. Robert Robinson says:

      Mob??? I would advise a more respectful reference even given your disproval of the academicians.

  7. Webster F. Paul says:

    As a lifelong member I have watched for years as the Progressive movement from within destroyed the physical structure of the church. We can argue over the bureaucracy that has grown much like that in Washington, DC. but loss of members alone show a failure of management. We’re this a business it would be in receivership years ago.

  8. mike geibel says:

    We must assume the descriptions are accurate, and they probably are, so nothing positive is presented about the Episcopal Church, where all male Bishops are condemned as a cadre of misogynist vipers. The individual essays paint a religious dictatorship run by lecherous and boorish males who are now being exposed by bitter victims who unfortunately come off sounding like they despise all men—especially white heterosexual men. Couple this ENS article with the recent thread advocating that masculine pronouns and words like “father” and “son” of Christ be erased from the BCP and Bible, and what may have been intended as a worthy effort to change a sexist culture in the Church, instead paints an ugly picture of a Church hierarchy in turmoil and seething with the hidden prejudices of a clergy engaged in a gender war within itself.

  9. Doug Desper says:

    While this is a necessary awareness, let me hasten to drop a note that our Church parrots 100% of the priorities of far left causes to the glaring exclusion of others. Yes, harassment is a form of abuse and violence. Work to expose and end it. However, not a SINGLE peep, eyebrow flinch, flared nostril, huff or puff is ever heard about the sin of the violence in abortion. Bishop Curry? Nothing. Reverend Jennings? Nothing. Nothing from anyone in any position of influence — ever. How late they now are. The Senate killed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act — which would have prohibited abortions starting at 20 weeks — something that would have protected the rights of humans in the womb from feeling the pain of being torn apart in an abortion procedure. (There ARE exceptions allowed that make sense when you read the Bill). Not a cough or yawn from our left-leaning leaders in the Church. The science is “out there” on the likelihood of pain being experienced in abortion past 20 weeks. Why is THIS science ignored while constantly quoting “rely on the science” in climate change? Why is the Episcopal Church one of a couple of denominations that doesn’t even have a pro-life emphasis or lobby? All the “right” causes are represented and garner news and attention if one is far left in politics and world view. Perhaps, by not representing a truer cross-section of 300 million+ Americans (who are widely polled as being against most abortion), our Church has intentionally crippled and doomed us all to become more irrelevant by the day. In WHAT country does our Church exist? Whom do we ever expect to walk through the door when our pronouncements rarely come close to what John and Jane America are expressing when they watch the news or are polled and asked their opinion? Have we really devolved into being a Boutique Church for progressive politics only?

    What are we to make of this? Aside from the leftist/Democrat political leanings not attempting to be hidden, this world view is a form of elitism which is at the heart of all sins, including racism and the violence of harassment. As long as this kind of elitism drives the Church then solving selected politically “hot” symptoms will only delude us into believing that we have upheld the dignity of all. Being against racism and harassment while NOT even clearing the throat about the violence and pain of being ripped apart in abortion doesn’t square up at all in a Church that constantly beats the drum of respecting the dignity of all. It’s really….”some”.

    Read the Bill then wonder why this Church is silent:

    1. Jim Newman says:

      As to Mr. Desper’s remarks…BRAVO…YEAH…AMEN, MY BROTHER. Liberal progressive within the Church (and most everywhere else) are trying to leverage their sexuality, engage in identity politics and play the “victim card” in a play for power. Over 30,000 abortions occur each day in the United States but not a peep about that. They would have us forget the innocents.

  10. mike geibel says:

    Dear Mr. Desper:
    There is an irony, if not contradiction, to be found in the gender-justice focus of the article and the “pro-choice” position of the EC, a position that certainly cannot be labeled sexist. Perhaps the TEC avoids organizing marches or protests for the rights of the unborn because this might be perceived as inconsistent, or maybe uncomfortable, for those Clergy advocating the leftist ideology of the Church.

    That said, I do not think that the TEC is pro-abortion. There are many “conservatives” like myself that simply believe the Federal Government, the States, and a Church should not be mandating what women do with their own bodies. That does not mean that we favor of or even approve of abortion, or pretend that abortion is not the termination of human life. Advocating for the legislation identified in your comment therefore presents a conundrum that perhaps could be better addressed with education. To selectively quote from the Resolution at the 71st General Convention:

    “All human life is sacred from its inception until death. . . . We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community. While we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion, as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience . . . . We believe that legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem. We therefore express our deep conviction that any proposed legislation on the part of national or state governments regarding abortions must take special care to see that the individual conscience is respected, and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored as the position of this Church.”

    Saying that women have the right to do it, does not say they should do it. I think the Resolution is telling us that it must be the woman and not the Federal Government, a state government, or even the Church, who controls her decisions regarding birthing a child. It is for God to judge the exercise of her free will, not politicians, and certainly not me.

    That said, there is an inconsistency in the TEC’s “in your face” leftist activism for laws and regulations relating to oil pipelines, climate change, transgender rights, and open borders/amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the Leadership’s relative silence on the rights of the unborn. I have not seen much from the TEC in the way of vocal advocacy for alternatives to abortion and providing education and funding for those alternatives. Maybe I missed it.

  11. Robert Robinson says:

    Birth control ought not be reduced to “convenience.” It is always a reflection of women’s control over her body. Attempting to have it both ways obfuscates the core principle of this right to decide the fate of your body. Abortions are tragic. E during tragedies is part of living and their is no evidence that God wishes them removed from the human experience. Is this not one of the mysteries?

  12. Doug Desper says:

    Mike — I agree with what you are saying for the most part. The one exception is that the unborn child is not, cannot be, nor ever will be “the woman’s body”. That child is entirely unique from the mother. The very infrequent cases of abortion for incest, rape, or the life of the mother are far overshadowed by the majority of abortions conducted for convenience. Our silence contributes to the delusion that “freedom of choice” is a high virtue that can be used in every case when it shouldn’t be considered for most instances at all. That’s the sin; that (apart from reasonable exceptions already mentioned) that one believes themselves entitled to elevate their own poverty of values above all else, including the sanctity of life. Let’s not forget that one of our own seminary deans (Katherine Ragsdale) taught up-and-coming clergy that “abortion is a blessing”.

    The elitism that makes one believe themselves entitled to abuse other races, and harass and bully others, is also vividly seen in a belief that human life is under control of human choice.
    We should call elitism out in all of its forms – not just in forms that match political leanings.

  13. Robert Robinson says:

    Elistism in the name of denying a women control over her body is called Patriarchy.

  14. Well said, Anne Rudig. We need to create safe space for people to tell their stories of being harassed and/or abused so they can have some measure of support for the avalanche of slander, the withdrawal of employment opportunities for which they are entirely qualified aside, and massive attempts to silce that will arise (just have they have in the past, when few or none were paying attention).

    I personally am willing to name names and diocese and parishes the moment anyone demonstrates the slightest interest in using that information toward justice. I will release corroborative evidence as well.

    As anyone who knows the sexual harassment I suffered through knows, there’s one set of names of individuals, parish, and diocese already on official diocesan record included in my formal diocesan complaints filed during multiple points of an ongoing case in which I was harassed. I will provide all of those names again if anyone wants to use that information constructively.

    I also am willing to name the diocese and every person — witnesses, bystanders, and the pertrator — in the second #MeToo story I posted on social media — the one about my having to endure repeated, prolonged, sexualized, and physical contact during my postulancy interviews — to anyone who will use that information to help work for justice and prevent others from enduring what I did.


    But I believe we need me set up conditions in which people who, unlike me, have not decided to prioritize telling the truth in full wherever needed over being able to make a living in this Episcopal Church, in which I have yet to hear any ranking leader do anything constructive with such a story, or even cite such a story as a tragedy inspiring a new policy move that provides more accountability to those in power.

    We need lay and ordained leaders with appropriate training to make specific commitments in support or any who come to them with stories of harassment and/or abuse.

    Enough of sending empty “thoughts and prayers” to victims. And why craft liturgies of repentance from unjust structures and practices that will continue as is?

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