Western, Eastern Michigan deputies ask convention to order review of how bishops are disciplined

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 24, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] When The Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development applies the church’s clergy discipline canons to a bishop, the resulting process can “perpetuate systemic, white male, episcopal privilege in a way that is costly to the church in terms of money, members, and institutional integrity,” according to a group of Western and Eastern Michigan Episcopalians who recently experienced such a process.

The Episcopalians in the dioceses of Western and Eastern Michigan have proposed Resolution D095 to the 80th General Convention to start breaking what they call the “systemic cycle of privilege by virtue of position (and perhaps gender and race) [that] still has a firm hold on us,” according to their sharply worded explanation.

They called for a “Task Force for Review of the Presiding Bishop’s Office of Pastoral Development and Title IV Process” to examine the implementation of Title IV cases in which a bishop is the respondent; the consistency of Title IV processes for priests, deacons, and bishops; the process of episcopal transition, especially the placement of interim or bishops provisional; and “other pastoral care offered and authority exercised by the office.” The disciplinary process is outlined in Title IV of the church’s constitution and canons.

The Rt. Rev. Whayne Hougland Jr., former bishop of the dioceses of Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, was suspended from episcopal ministry in June 2020 for a year after admitting to an extramarital affair. Photo: Diocese of Eastern Michigan

The resolution proposers base their concerns on their experience of the disciplinary process when the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hougland Jr., former bishop of the dioceses of Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, was suspended from episcopal ministry in June 2020 for a year after admitting to an extramarital affair.

During a hearing on June 23, the House of Bishops’ legislative committee on Title IV disciplinary canons unanimously agreed to revise the resolution to have convention direct the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons to conduct the review. Committee members said the change would give more time for a review than the slightly more than a year that would be available for a task force before it had to report to the 2024 gathering of the 81st General Convention. The bishops’ committee handled the revision because the resolution was assigned to the House of Bishops for initial action.

The Rev. Jennifer Adams, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Holland, Michigan, in Western Michigan and the resolution’s proposer, told Episcopal News Service that the change is “a wise course forward.” She noted that a standing commission can continue its work into the subsequent triennium while a task force would have to end its work and convention would have to agree to reconstitute it.

An additional 13 lay and clergy deputies from both dioceses endorsed the resolution, 11 more than the required number. Two other people are listed as “supporters” of the resolution. The drafters consulted with Western and Eastern Michigan Bishop Provisional Prince Singh, according to Adams.

Adams said the deputies offer the resolution “a part of our healing to be able to speak the truth of what happened to the larger church” and to help others in The Episcopal Church avoid the hurt they say they suffered. “We’re grateful to be in a church where we can raise issues like this and be heard,” she said.

Hougland’s suspension ended in July 2021, and he resigned his position in both dioceses. He also had to complete other stipulations made in a disciplinary accord, including receiving counseling. He was unanimously re-admitted to the House of Bishops as a non-voting member in March 2022 after his colleagues were told that he had “completely and generously and graciously fulfilled” the other stipulations of the disciplinary accord, including receiving counseling.

After the House’s vote, the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, bishop for pastoral development, praised Hougland’s return as a “moment of reconciliation” that was an example of “living into the highest ideals of our Title IV process,” according to a press release from the church’s Office of Public Affairs.

The “highest ideals” to which Ousley referred were written into the church’s clergy disciplinary canons by the 76th General Convention in 2009 when it approved their overhaul, moving them away from a court-oriented system towards one based on safety, truth-telling, healing and reconciliation. The deputies who proposed D095 say what they experienced fell short of those ideals.

Their explanation contends that “the way in which Title IV was implemented in our situation only served to reinforce some of our worst, collective failings.” They say that the dioceses felt obligated to fund the costs of the disciplinary accord Hougland and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry agreed to without all the steps of the Title IV disciplinary process being followed. They also said that there was “inconsistent monitoring” of Hougland’s compliance with its terms.

Hougland took a 40%  pay cut with full benefits continued, according to the deputies, who added that a few months earlier the bishop received a 40% salary increase at his insistence upon assuming responsibility for both dioceses. The deputies say, “the system not only took care of him [emphasis in original], it did so in extremely expensive ways, to the financial and emotional cost of those whom he had vowed to pastor, in the name of ‘healing’ and ‘reconciliation.’” They contend that the dioceses received “almost none” of the sorts of support that Hougland did.

Adams said that the deputies who put forth D095 hope that the resolution is not about any one person or one office. They hope that “our experience could speak to something larger in need of attention, specifically the processes and practices and policies of the Office of Pastoral Development along with the need to better resource and support that work.”

The deputies say in their explanation that there are issues in the Office of Pastoral Development’s structure and lines of authority. They say there is “a lack of clarity about what is expected from this office given the multiple parties involved in the discipline of a bishop and the lack of a public, documented process for this disciplinary situation.”

According to the deputies, Ousley “appeared obligated to serve in conflicting roles in this case.” He was the intake officer who received Hougland’s admission of the affair and was responsible for the provision of pastoral support and for providing candidates for provisional episcopal oversight. Plus, Ousley had been the bishop of Eastern Michigan from 2007 until his appointment to the Office of Pastoral Development in 2013.

The proposers also contend that the Office of Pastoral Development is “under-resourced” for the work it must do. General Convention will also consider Resolution A143, proposed by the church’s Executive Council, to add a permanent senior staff position to the Office of Pastoral Development.

Ousley was out of the office on June 24 when ENS tried to contact him, but he previously told The Living Church it would be inappropriate to speak about pending legislation as a church employee.

Hougland was elected the ninth bishop of Western Michigan in May 2013. The Diocese of Eastern Michigan elected him as its bishop provisional during its October 2019 convention. Hougland was to serve both dioceses as the two bodies entered a three- to five-year period of conversation around relationship and shared resources.

He is due to become the interim rector of St. Chrysostom Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois, in July. The church’s announcement included information about Hougland’s suspension, saying parish leaders believe that his experience “might be an asset to our community – to help us be more open about the places we fall short and catalyze new conversations about our identity, heritage, and future.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.