Women tell #MeToo stories of life in the Episcopal Church

February 13, 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 are:

  • “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 its 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 created a 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.