Accessibility & Inclusion committees debate, vote on five resolutions addressing non-discrimination issues

By Melodie Woerman
Posted May 23, 2024

Christina Reich (right) testifies in favor of Resolution C010 during a hearing of the Accessibility & Inclusion committees, while deputies’ chair the Rev. M.E. Eccles keeps time. Reich, a longtime volunteer with Kairos Prison Ministries, learned last year that the organization has policies that discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ community. Photo: Zoom screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] The Accessibility & Inclusion legislative committees acted on the five resolutions assigned to it during a hearing and discussion on May 22.

Resolution C010, addressing how The Episcopal Church engages in prison ministry, saw four people testify in favor.

The resolution, which was proposed by the Episcopal Diocese of California’s convention, grew out of its experience last fall when it learned that the Code of Conduct of Kairos Prison Ministry International – an interdenominational Christian ministry of volunteers who support prisoners and their families – requires the use of a person’s gender assigned at birth for volunteers and participants in its ministry weekends, meaning transgender or nonbinary people are not welcome.

C010 calls for any prison ministry with which The Episcopal Church is engaged to change any discriminatory policies it might have, and if that doesn’t happen, it urges dioceses to develop prison ministry programs “that are consistent with our church’s current spiritual teachings, principles, and policies.”

The 14-year Kairos volunteer who first learned of this policy, Christina Reich, testified in favor of the resolution. She said that while the ministry saved her life and that of her son when he was incarcerated, its policies against LGBTQ+ people are “hurtful and discriminatory.”

Two of the diocese’s trans priests, the Rev. Mees Tielens and the Rev. Cameron Partridge, also spoke in favor. Tielens said he regularly writes to a trans woman in prison and recently heard her confession as she prepares to be baptized next month. Policies like those of Kairos deprive LGBTQ+ prisoners of the opportunity for ministry, he said, which is “a particularly cruel reality for people that are already so deprived of connection and authenticity.”

Partridge said he and others reached out to Kairos to share their concerns about their policy and to seek a dialogue, but they received no reply.

In response to questions from committee members, the Rev.  Deborah White, who helped write the resolution, shared a timeline of events that noted that California Bishop Marc Andrus in April had reached out to the chief executive officer of Kairos Prison Ministries International asking them to remove the discriminatory language. White said that so far, the only response was a threat to sue The Episcopal Church if any Kairos materials were used to create a new Episcopal Church prison ministry.

Both the deputies’ and bishops’ committees voted to recommend C010 be adopted. Legislative committees include parallel deputies’ and bishops’ committees, which, though distinct, typically meet and deliberate together but vote separately.

The committees also heard from two members of General Convention’s Official Youth Presence – Gabriella Entrican from Massachusetts and Olivia Morin-Swanson from Minnesota – who spoke in favor of Resolution A050, which calls on church staff to publicize a best practices guide on disability inclusion and access. Entrican spoke of her own church that has made some structural changes but still has physical barriers to access by disabled people. Morin-Swanson described her twin brother, who has Down Syndrome, and the struggles she and her parents had in helping him participate in worship. She also came to know young people with a variety of disabilities who are active members of St. Paul’s Church in Clapham, England, where she studied during a semester abroad.

The committees voted to recommend adoption of A050, although they discussed the possibility of amending the resolutions’ explanation to add information on how those with disabilities prefer language referring to them – person-first language (for example, a person with Down Syndrome) or disability-first language (a Deaf person).

No testimony was offered on Resolution A133 – which would create a task force to study fair hiring practices with in The Episcopal Church – or on Resolutions A144 and A145. The latter two resolutions were proposed by the Task Force to Study Household and Relationship Diversity, which said it had found that some clergy and laity have faced Title IV proceedings, pastoral directives or other negative ecclesiastical consequences after disclosing their household or familial status.

On a motion to refer A133 to Executive Council, deputies voted in favor and bishops against. The two committees also split on A144 and A145 – in both cases, deputies voted in favor of recommending adoption, and bishops voted against.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.