Between General Conventions, church makes some progress on sexism, harassment, pay equity

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jun 22, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] The work of General Convention in 2018 is remembered in part for its significant discussions and efforts around the issues of sexual abuse, assault and harassment, which grew out of the rise of the #MeToo movement and similar stories from women in the church. In response, on Jan. 22, 2018, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Jennings,House of Deputies president, issued a letter to the church. In it, they said the church has to understand how it has failed to properly handle cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in the past – and to confess and repent when members of the church have been “antagonistic or unresponsive to people…who have been sexually exploited or abused.”

Weeks later Jennings appointed a 47-member Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation to draft legislation to be considered at the 79th General Convention. In an email to Episcopal News Service, she said that this was far from the first group to address gender-based issues during a General Convention. The first, she said, was in 1871, and in the 20th century, eight committees and commissions about women in the church were created. She said, “I am grateful to the many women and gender non-conforming leaders who have risen up to lead this work that will continue for many General Conventions to come.”

She added, “one convention will not be sufficient to dismantle the structural discrimination and misogyny that have been part of the Episcopal Church since its founding.”

By the end of convention most of the two dozen resolutions the committee proposed were enacted.

But what did those resolutions do, and what of that work is still taking place?

One of the more notable items passed was Resolution D034, which suspended the 10-year statute of limitation provision in the Title IV disciplinary canons for three years (Jan. 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2021) to allow adults to file complaints about clergy sexual misconduct no matter when that took place. There is no statute of limitations for reporting alleged physical violence, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation by clergy if it took place when the victim was under age 21.

This change prompted another letter to the church from Curry and Jennings, who wrote, “We hope that this temporary suspension of the statute of limitations will be one way for the church to come to terms with cases of sexual misconduct in our collective past.”

No churchwide database of Title IV allegations or actions, which are recorded at the diocesan level, exists. The Archives of the Episcopal Church maintains a database of official ecclesiastical actions reported by each diocese (clergy who are suspended, are deposed or renounce their ordination vows) going back at least to 2009, David Hales, the archive’s deputy for administration, told Episcopal News Service. But these actions, he said, may have nothing to do with Title IV matters.

Two resolutions dealing with the Title IV canons were amended to be referred to the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons. D033 called for creating a churchwide intake officer for the Title IV process, and D100 would have extended the discipline of Title IV to lay employees and volunteers in leadership positions.

Neither of these resolutions appears in the standing commission’s Blue Book report or its supplemental report.

Inclusive language, support for migrant women, expanding the social-safety net

Calls for the use of inclusive language in liturgies were referred to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, as well as the Task Force on Liturgical & Prayer Book Revision. SCLM also worked with the Association of Anglican Musicians to conduct a survey of the status of female church musicians in The Episcopal Church. In its Blue Book report, SCLM said it sought to collect data from Church Pension Group about the employment of women church musicians in The Episcopal Church, “but CPG was unable to furnish us any information at all about the employment of laypersons, reporting to us that they only gather data about the employment of clergy.”

Resolutions calling for greater clarity around clergy compensation, and how to make pensions more equitable for lay employees, were referred to CPG. In  October 2021 it provided an expanded look at clergy compensation by gender, and an online statement indicates that reports on lay pension parity will be made at General Convention in July.

Social issues, including support for migrant women, strengthening the social safety net and equity in health care, were addressed in resolutions that called on the Office of Government Relations to advocate for appropriate policies in Congress and through its network of supporters, the Episcopal Public Policy Network. Other resolutions called on bishops, other clergy and lay leaders to learn more about preventing domestic violence, as well as to support a variety of policies that can help reduce sexual harassment, assault and exploitation in the workplace.

In addition, three ongoing task forces to address issues of sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation of women were created by convention action in 2018, a move Jennings told ENS was “a clear call to action for the 21st-century church”:

  • Task Force on Women, Truth and Reconciliation;
  • Task Force to Study Sexism in the Episcopal Church & Develop Anti-Sexism Training;
  • Task Force to Develop Model Sexual Harassment Policies & Safe Church Training.

The Task Force on Women, Truth and Reconciliation centered its work on a survey mandated by the group’s enabling Resolution D016, which was to explore “gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence” against women and girls, including such things as “sexual and gender harassment, sexual assault, physical, spiritual, and emotionally abusive behavior, and oppression based on gender.”

The task force shared the results of its survey in the group’s Blue Book report submitted in December 2020 in anticipation of the 80th General Convention that because of the pandemic was postponed from July 2021 to July 2022.

The Task Force to Study Sexism in the Episcopal Church & Develop Anti-Sexism Training was formed (Resolution  D023) to “create anti-harassment training that would address the systemic sexism within the church and the larger society with the goals of raising awareness of bias, eliminating sexist hiring practices within the church,” which would be required for every clergyperson in the church as well as all lay people serving in a leadership body.

The group, in its Blue Book report, said it had researched and developed 10 anti-sexism training modules, each lasting less than an hour, that could be used in conjunction with existing in-person meetings led by local facilitators. The modules, the group said, “would teach the basic concepts of sexism and gender bias, how scripture can be misused to continue sexist beliefs, and how our baptism teaches us to honor all people.” Those require Executive Council approval before moving ahead, the group said.

In its efforts to study sexism, the task force said 2019 data from Church Pension Group shows the disparity in clergy salaries between men and women, which is more pronounced in some geographic regions in some positions, and that other sexist practices exist, “from harassment and abuse in church settings to disparities in the hiring process.”

But in addition, “One of the challenges to documenting and disrupting sexism and gender inequality in the church is a lack of coordinated resources and data,” the report said.

To begin to address that topic, the group proposed to the upcoming 80th General Convention Resolution A061, which would require dioceses, in their annual reports to Executive Council, to include demographic data “such as gender, age and race” for those in positions of leadership at the diocesan level, as well as for all congregation wardens and vestries.

This resolution was discussed on May 14 by the legislative committees on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Exploitation, & Safeguarding. Deputy Katie Sherrod of North Texas, who was a member of the task force, said, “In researching sexism, you need data. And one of the things we kept running up against was the lack of information gathered in a central place about pay and how many people are in what jobs.” Committee members suggested that this data also include salaries of lay employees at the diocesan and congregation level; and because parishes don’t provide such data in their annual reports to the dioceses, each diocese would need to determine how to collect it.

In another proposal discussed by the committee, the task force called for every diocese to create a plan to address gender imbalance in leadership (Resolution A062), something Sherrod stressed be done locally because “situations vary across the church and we cannot impose a reality on all dioceses.” The resolution’s explanation said dioceses would need to “examine the composition of their bodies of leadership, understand the dynamics of gender at play with each, and to create a plan to narrow any gender equity gaps.”

Reestablishing a full-time staff position of Director of Women’s Ministries (Resolution A063) also was proposed, to provide a place where women in the church can go for assistance with gender equality issues. This position, the task force said, could also serve as a coordinating clearinghouse for the kind of data that dioceses and parishes need to better understand their own issues of gender inequity. That proposal is under consideration by the Churchwide Leadership committees.

The Task Force to Develop Model Sexual Harassment Policies & Safe Church Training grew out of 2018 resolutions that created the task force and charged it with revamping safe church training that many in The Episcopal Church are required to take.

The task force extensively revised the Safe Church training that has been used across the church for a number of years and hired a vendor to create online modules for each topic: inclusion, healthy boundaries, power and relationships, pastoral relationships, abuse and neglect, and bullying.

The group proposed that this new training be adopted and promoted throughout the church (Resolution A064) and that materials be translated into Spanish, French and Haitian Creole, so Episcopalians for whom those are their primary language can better engage with the training (Resolution A065). Both resolutions were considered on April 30 by the legislative committees on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Exploitation, & Safeguarding.

The task force then set about creating best practices to address harassment, in its many forms, across the church. To assist in this, they drew on “a few helpful policies from individual churches; diocesan policies and guides against bullying; and anti-harassment work in secular contexts (these last ran the gamut from Fortune 500 companies to punk rock and protest movements).”

It also created a sample Model Policy as a suggested starting point for every Episcopal Church entity to create its own policy, addressing its own unique needs, before 2024. The task force said the proposed Model Policy provides a broad overview of the conduct that can be understood as harassing, as well as a definition of sexual harassment. The policy encourages all church leaders, lay and ordained, to respond to harassment whenever they witness it, recognizing leaders’ particular responsibility for ensuring a harassment-free environment and prompt responses to hurtful behavior.

A call to adopt the Model Policy and the best practices guides is contained in Resolution A067, which was considered on May 21 by the legislative committees on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Exploitation, & Safeguarding. There, Eric Travis of Upper South Carolina, who was a member of the task force, said that group “heard lots of testimony and other stories about members of our church at the receiving hand of harassment, both sexual and otherwise, and the need for a cohesive and unified policy within the Episcopal Church to address that.” He also said the best practices guide was created to help people across The Episcopal Church “look at ways of dealing with different levels of power and power differentials.”

Supporting the value of the proposed best practices guide, committee member Deputy Judy Andrews of Olympia, who was chair of the task force, said that she has experience in the areas of harassment and discrimination and said this was “the best list of best practices I’ve seen.”

The task force also recommended that a staff person be hired to respond to Safe Church inquiries and manage the Safe Church website (Resolution A069); that now is under consideration by the legislative committees on Churchwide Leadership.

It also called for changing church canons to require all church members to take Safe Church training to help create and maintain safe environments for people throughout the church. That resolution, A068, has been assigned to the legislative committees on Ministry.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.