Church, wider culture continue to address sexual harassment, abuse in #MeToo age

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Jan 24, 2019

From left, Central New York Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe, Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel and House of Bishops Vice President and El Camino Real Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves pray July 4 during the House of Bishops’ “Liturgy of Listening” session at General Convention in Austin, Texas. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Sexual misconduct and harassment include more than stranger or acquaintance rape and physical abuse. In some instances, inappropriate touching, an unwanted kiss on the cheek, an awkward embrace or a hand placed too low on a woman’s back are more obvious forms of sexual harassment.

Other forms are less obvious, more insidious: commenting on a woman’s appearance; inviting a woman into one’s office on the pretext of a meeting, when really, the intention is of a sexual nature; referring to women and girls as “baby,” “honey” or “sweetheart”; talking over women and deferring to men in meetings; the enduring gender pay gap.

Or, common forms women clergy confront in The Episcopal Church, such as being told, “You’re too young to be a priest,” or “You’re too pretty to be a priest.”

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal that rocked Hollywood and led to the downfall of powerful men across industries and professions, The Episcopal Church began in January 2018 its own examination of ingrained behaviors, practices and policies affecting women.

One year and one General Convention later, Resolution D034, establishing a three-year suspension on the statute of limitations for sexual misconduct committed by clergy against an adult, became effective Jan. 1.

“A three-year suspension, that’s huge,” said House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, in an interview with Episcopal News Service. “We are suspending the statute of limitations because we want to hear your voice.”

Resolution D034 was one of 24 resolutions addressing sexual harassment, abuse, sexism, inequality and discrimination submitted by the Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation; a 49-member, female-only committee appointed by Jennings.

As a result of the special committee’s legislative work, Jennings said, three task forces emerged from convention: on Women, Truth and Reconciliation; to Develop Model Sexual Harassment Policies & Safe Church Training; and to Study Sexism in The Episcopal Church & Develop Anti-Sexism Training.

“I don’t think this would have happened, frankly, if that special committee had not brought pressure to bear,” said Jennings. “If you look at the report … all of the resolutions that were put in, they were wildly successful.

“These issues have only become more urgent since convention.”

General Convention’s actions came after a series of steps taken by The Episcopal Church’s leaders.

In January 2018, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Jennings issued a call to the church to examine its historical failures to protect victims of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse. The letter, which came four months after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, marked the beginning of the church’s wrangling with its own harassment issues. (The Chicago Tribune offers a timeline of the #MeToo movements.)

In February, Jennings appointed the special committee. Then in May, Episcopal Church bishops invited reflections from those hurt by the church. Twelve of the 40 stories the bishops received formed the basis for a “Liturgy of Listening” on July 4 during the 79th General Convention.

During convention, the House of Bishops took another step and adopted a covenant in response to abuse and exploitation.

In late September, 328 Episcopal clergy women signed on to a letter published in the New York Times that raised concerns about Episcopal priest and former U.S. Sen. John Danforth’s defense of then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Sexual assault allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist and professor, and two other women against Kavanaugh brought the justice’s confirmation into question and triggered traumatic memories for many women.

Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers. Ford’s credibility was attacked. The hearings also laid bare male attitudes toward women and sexual assault accusations.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court on Oct. 6, in a 50-48 vote. Two days later, the Christian Century published a piece by Jennings that addressed the church’s response to sexual assault survivors.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, Ford’s credibility was tested, as many, mostly men, wondered why she’d kept silent for 30 years. In her piece, Jennings offered an explanation of women’s silence.

“Our silence originates in the Bible, where women are largely anonymous, treated as property, used as sexual slaves, and demeaned by men as heroic as David and as divine as Jesus. Women who are called by name account for no more than 8 percent of the people in the Bible, and fewer than 50 of those actually speak,” she wrote.

Feminist and womanist scholars, including the Rev. Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest and Hebrew Bible professor, have pointed out that rape is normative in the Bible, wrote Jennings, from Pharaoh, Amnon, the men of Gibeah and even God.

“These stories — of men who rape and abuse and of women who stay silent — are part of the faith tradition that girls and women absorb while sitting in the pews of our churches each week,” Jennings wrote. “They have permeated our culture and shaped our expectations about how men ought to behave toward women and how women ought to respond. So when a woman gathers her courage to speak — to object to being treated like women in the Bible are treated — we should not be surprised when Christian men belittle and ignore her, just as the heroes of their faith have done in stories passed down for millennia.”

By publicly sharing her story, Ford gave other women the courage to speak up, as well, including women across the church who reached out to clergy and laity for support. And over the triennium, The Episcopal Church will address harassment, abuse, inequity and discrimination, and women, and men, will continue to tell their stories.

For example, liturgies of listening, like the one held at General Convention, have continued across the church. During its 242nd annual convention in November, the Diocese of New York held a Liturgy for Listening and Lamentation.

The six stories read during the service were submitted through an anonymous, confidential form. They mostly touched on the less obvious forms of harassment, the inappropriate sexual advance, the belittling of a woman’s leadership position based on her age or physical appearance, a married priest’s awkward come-on at the bar during a clergy conference.

“The stories are more nuanced. Sometimes, it’s difficult for women, and it’s mostly women, in part we’re dealing in a world of microaggression … a subtler form of oppression,” said New York Assistant Bishop Mary D. Glasspool in an interview with ENS following the service. “Like paper cuts, each one individually is seen as small, even innocuous, but you put them all together, and there’s just a preponderance of what’s really toxic for people and demoralizing and filled with shame.”

The Diocese of New York has its own #MeToo Task Force, and after diocesan convention, it established a help line which people can call to share their stories and seek help. Still, the journey is just getting started and will take shape over time, Glasspool said.

“We didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to change it overnight. That’s why the journey, the movement part of it … it’s something that we have to continue to work on,” said Glasspool, adding that sexual harassment and abuse are not unlike the sin of racism.

“It’s clearly not the case in this country that, because we had a black president for eight years, we’ve dealt with racism. It’s not the case in the church that, because we had a female presiding bishop for nine years, that we’ve completely dealt with sexism,” she said. “It’s just not the case.”

The resolutions put forth by the Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation and adopted by General Convention provide framework beyond storytelling for the church to use over the triennium to address issues brought to light by the #MeToo movement, in both the church and the larger society.

Liturgies and storytelling are an important part of healing, but there’s more to the work, said Jennings.

“The real work, the ongoing work, is to change the culture and the structures of the church that allow gender-based harassment, exploitation and violence, and to recommit, and I hope that General Convention helped us redouble our efforts for the church to advocate for women’s safety and equality in the world because we are obligated to do it, all of it, because our own tradition has helped create a culture where that’s acceptable,” said Jennings.

“If the church has helped to create this culture, it’s also our responsibility to help dismantle it.”

– Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at