Episcopal Church needs to look for #MeToo in the details

This op-ed piece originally appeared at the Religion News Service, July 3, 2018

(RNS) — Anyone who follows the news from the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, which begins this week (July 5) in Austin, Texas, might hear about the more than 20 resolutions put forward by an all-female special committee on sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation that will come before the convention.

All of these resolutions are important, though some will make the eyes of even a church nerd glaze over. But the devil is in the details, and we need to get him out of there.

If we pass these resolutions, however, it is essential that we not sit back and say we’ve done what the moment — and the gospel — demands.  

The Episcopal Church has much work to do to ensure the fair treatment of women at every institutional level, from the local parish to the highest positions of power. Even though sexual abuse is the most urgent matter, and should thus be given priority, the problems go far deeper and cut to the heart of how the church treats women.

Biases, both conscious and unconscious, still conspire to push female church employees into lower-paying or part-time positions more frequently than their male counterparts. That means they advance more slowly into leadership, earn less money than men —as much as 11 cents on the dollar less over the course of a career — and retire with smaller pensions.

To work against these biases we need to keep a close eye on disparities in pay. We need to strengthen the internal church laws that prohibit discriminatory hiring practices, continue the collection of compensation data and establish anti-sexism training in seminaries. These measures are included in the committee’s resolutions and are all worthy of support.

Closing the pay gap will require a commitment on the part of bishops to make pay parity a priority. Nine years ago, I instituted a system in my diocese in which I meet with the leaders of a congregation in need of a priest and determine the compensation appropriate to the position before the parish determines which candidates to consider. It is not a perfect solution, because it sometimes results in offering candidates with differing experience the same pay, yet that is a small price to get closer to pay parity.

I don’t suggest that the convention spend all of its time examining pay scales and other personnel matters. We will once again be debating same-sex marriage and deciding whether to revise our Book of Common Prayer. We also will rally against gun violence and the inhumane treatment of refugees.

But the #MeToo movement demands our attention, and we need to make sure that everyone, but especially women, can feel safe in the Episcopal Church. The legislation to be offered at convention that most inspires me calls for the creation of a “Task Force for Women, Truth, and Reconciliation for the purpose of helping the Church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms by those in power in the Church … ”

In 2010, I learned that one of my predecessors as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania had sexually abused numerous pre-pubescent girls at the diocesan summer camp 30 years earlier. The months that followed were an education both in the depths of human sinfulness and the profound difficulty churches have in dealing with their own failings.

It takes only brief exposure to people who work on these issues to learn that there is deep dissatisfaction among victims and their advocates over the way the church has handled complaints of abuse, especially against bishops. I hope creating this task force will be the first step to ensuring that complaints of assault and abuse are handled sensitively and confidentially, but also that the interest of powerful perpetrators are not protected at the expense of victims and that we do not put the reputation of the church before the demands of justice.

As with our failures in the human resources realm, we need to address these issues at a detailed level. We need to support a resolution that would create an alternative path for reporting abuse or harassment when circumstances within victims’ home dioceses might give them pause about pursuing a complaint. We should extend the statute of limitations to report abuse or harassment for three years, so that previously unreported cases can be heard under this new system. We should vote to protect whistleblowers who report instances of abuse or harassment but are not complainants or witnesses themselves.

These kinds of procedural revisions are essential to building trust in our disciplinary processes. As the gospel leads us to believe, they are small steps that are necessary and significant if we want to create a safer and fairer church.

The Rt. Rev. Sean W. Rowe is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem, PA. 

Ask the Bishop: Summer Camp Edition

Straight from Camp Nazareth, it’s Ask the Bishop!

Bishop Sean discusses the hot button issues of General Convention, the buzz generated by Presiding Bishop Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding, and his favorite part of summer camp below.

Welcoming Dreamers the Obvious Choice

This op-ed piece originally appeared in the Morning Call on January 29, 2018. 

The current political morass in Washington has thrown light on a deep and ugly divide in our country and in our faith communities on the issue of immigration.

More than half of white evangelical Christians — a group that gave 81 percent of its votes to President Trump in the 2016 election — say that immigration is a threat to this country’s “traditional customs and values.”

In the same survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in 2015, 70 percent of Hispanic Catholics say that immigration “strengthens American society.” Other Christian groups fall in between, but only among white evangelicals does the majority report being threatened by immigration.

Proponents of these sharply contrasting views are on center stage as Congress prepares to negotiate what Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York called “a global agreement” that will include the fate of the young people who live in this country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated by President Obama in 2012 and ended by President Trump last September.

Under DACA, some 800,000 children who were brought to this country illegally by their parents were protected from deportation thanks to renewable two-year deferments. The program also made it possible for these young people, popularly known as Dreamers, to receive work permits.

The politics of immigration are complicated, but as an Episcopal bishop who graduated from Grove City College, a bastion of evangelical higher education in Mercer County, I believe that the teachings of the Christian faith along with those of the world’s other great religious and ethical traditions make it clear that we must protect the vulnerable, provide for those in need, and, when necessary, sacrifice from our own substance to fulfill this duty.

To pick just two of the manifold scriptural examples from my own tradition:

In the 23rd chapter of Exodus we read these oft-quoted, yet seemingly forgotten, words, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

And in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we read that Jesus and his parents had to flee their homeland to escape a king who wanted to kill the Christ child. We do ourselves and our faiths a disservice if we pretend that these stories and teachings have no meaning for us today.

Dreamers, like every human being, are created in the image and likeness of God regardless of their immigration status or country of origin. They deserve a chance to live full lives in the only country most of them have ever known. They deserve to live free from fear of deportation to a country whose customs they may not know and whose languages they may not speak.

Even as I make this argument, however, I realize that not all hearts are changed by a clergyman’s appeal to our common membership in the family of God. So let me offer another verse, this one from Matthew 7: “Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

Thanks to DACA, about 685,000 people are currently working in this country, paying taxes and contributing to the economic life of our communities. In several Rust Belt cities, DACA recipients, refugees and immigrants have repopulated failing neighborhoods and revived the community’s economic fortunes.

A study last year by the Center for American Progress estimated that the loss of all DACA recipients from the workforce would reduce our country’s gross domestic product by $460 billion over the next 10 years. Pennsylvania, home to nearly 6,000 DACA recipients, would lose more than $357 million each year.

Christians and all people of goodwill are called to do the right thing, even if it hurts. In this case it helps. Our choice is obvious.

The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe is bishop provisional of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem and bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Courage & Collaboration – Bishops’ Addresses from Convention 2017

During the plenary session of the 107th Diocesan Convention we heard from both the Rt. Rev. William Franklin of the Diocese of Western New York and our own Bishop Sean as they discussed the potential collaborative relationship between our two dioceses. The full addresses are available below.

107th Diocesan Convention Wrap-Up

This year’s convention had it all: business, programming, guests from Western New York, some surprises, and even a little dancing (check out Facebook for that!).  The first surprise of the weekend came from the Standing Committee, who issued a proclamation at the start of business that this convention was being held in honor of the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe’s tenth consecration anniversary.

Guests from the Diocese of Western New York, including the Rt. Rev. William Franklin, joined us for a day and half of programming led by the Rev. Canon Scott Slater, who guided the conversation on the possibility of a shared future using the Daring Way methodology of Brene Brown.  Many delegates remarked that they found the methodology useful in framing the conversation and enjoyed the time getting to know new people both from Western New York and our own diocese.

At the banquet, Paul and Lane Nelson, members of St. Mark’s in Erie, were honored with the Bishop’s Cross, which is given to those in the diocese who have contributed to the diocese over a significant number of years and in a variety of ways.  Also at the banquet, Bishop Sean was surprised with a video honoring his ten years as bishop, with contributions from people in the diocese, as well as outside the diocese including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

Elections were held for a variety of offices. The Rev. Jason Shank was newly elected to the Standing Committee, with Jack Malovich being re-elected to the lay seat on Standing Committee.  The Rev. Erin Betz Shank and Ed Palattella regained their seats on Diocesan Council and the Rev. Matthew Scott and Bob Guerrein regained theirs on the Constitution and Canons committee.

The 2018 budget and assessments, as well as the 2018 minimum stipends for clergy were passed as presented.

It was announced that convention next year will be held jointly with the Diocese of Western New York, regardless of any decisions made about a shared future.  Convention will be held October 26-27 at the Niagara Falls Convention Center in Niagara Falls, NY.

A huge thank you to our host committee of St. Mark’s, who did a fabulous job welcoming everyone to Erie and sharing a wonderful worship service with us.

All of the passed resolutions and materials from other presentations can be found on our website.

See you next year in Niagara Falls!

Christians Must Stand Against Racial Intolerance

This op-ed piece first appeared in the Erie Times-News on August 18, 2017. 

Last weekend, white supremacists marched and then rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia while the country looked on in horror. We have been conditioned to fear terrorists from other countries who speak different languages and practice different religions, but these violent, hateful extremists were mostly young white men, and mostly Christian. Those of us who are Christians need to acknowledge this, and we need to respond.

The League of the South, one hate group that participated in Unite the Right, as the Charlottesville rally was called, advocates establishing a white Christian theocratic state. In February the league called for the formation of a “Southern Defense Force,” a militia to combat the “leftist menace to our historic Christian civilization.”

It is comforting to assume that our faith never truly took hold in the hearts of people who are so hateful and so given to violence. But history makes plain that we are not entitled to such comfort.

In 1493, the church “granted” to Spain the lands where Columbus had landed. The assumptions that this land rightfully belonged to white European Christians and that the church ruled the earth in God’s stead were symptoms of the catastrophic theological arrogance that would have devastating consequences for indigenous people around the globe who would be sacrificed on the altar of Christian empire.

The decree that promulgated what became known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” gave the church’s blessing to colonization which, in turn, brought about the need for slave labor to make the colonies economically viable.

Nearly two years ago, I stood in the slave dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana. Beginning in 1664, the enormous fort was in the hands of the British, who used it to send nearly three million enslaved Africans to the New World. The soldiers and sailors who lived in the castle and traded in human beings built their Anglican chapel directly above the men’s dungeons. My own church, the Episcopal Church, is directly descended from these Anglican slave traders.

There are many more recent examples of the church’s complicity and active participation in racism, prejudice and bigotry.

Most churches in the United States split over the issue of slavery, with southern churches supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. But even in Union territory, segregation often prevailed. Here in our Episcopal cathedral in Erie, black people were made to worship separately from white people well into the twentieth century.

During the Nazi regime, Christians belonging to the German Evangelical Church supported Hitler and the extermination of Jewish people. Even the Confessing Church in Germany, often lauded for its resistance to Hitler, spoke primarily about the church’s independence from the state and, with few exceptions, did not speak or act in support of Jews being deported to their deaths in concentration camps. And in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church actively supported the racist system of apartheid that finally fell in 1991.

It is possible to argue that those whose hearts are filled with racially-motivated hatred have never understood the true teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but only if one acknowledges that the church itself has misunderstood these teachings. It may, however, be more accurate to say that churches, for centuries, have denied the radical egalitarianism of Jesus’ teaching for its own self-interested reasons.

If contemporary Christians are to oppose the racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia that has asserted themselves with renewed and appalling vigor since the election of President Trump, we must look beyond our self-interest. We must not be as timid as the Peter who denied Jesus on the night of his arrest, but as bold as the Peter who, after the Resurrection proclaimed that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

The President continues to send what can be described, with an excess of charity, as mixed signals on issues of racial, religious and ethnic intolerance.  The church, with a humility born of its own sins, but a boldness born of its faith in Jesus, must challenge any ambiguity with the clarity of the Gospel. It is our duty to speak out, to engage the civic organizations of our communities on behalf of those who are being persecuted, and to name evil where we see it—whether it is in our leaders, or within our own equivocating souls.

The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe is the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. He and his family live in Erie.

Have a question? Ask the Bishop!

The Diocese is getting ready to film the eighth installment of the “Ask the Bishop” video series, which means we’re looking for questions from you!

Unfortunately, Bishop Sean cannot be with every member of the diocese all the time, but he would like to be able to answer questions you may have. If there is something you’d like to hear the bishop’s thoughts on (i.e., Convention, Explorer’s Day, Bible questions, you name it!), send your questions to Megin (msewak@dionwpa.org) by August 30.  You can view past “Ask the Bishop” videos here and see what sort of topics have already been covered.

Please include your name and congregation with your submission, and then watch for ‘Ask the Bishop 8’ on the Forward blog, Facebook, and Twitter!
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