By Cara Modisett, St. John's, Roanoke
Yesterday’s Liturgy of Listening centered around story and silence, a reflective and penitent note the night before formal General Convention began as the House of Bishops invited all to a Eucharist acknowledging the Episcopal Church’s role in the #MeToo movement, opening with prayer.
“Tonight, we acknowledge the church has failed her people,” prayed Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “Some have committed offenses against another – some have denied or covered up those offenses – some have silently observed and done nothing.” He invited those present into “a time of lament and confession, a commitment to move forward as the body of Christ in covenant with one another.”
Over the course of the service, which Curry described as “a sacred container,” twelve bishops came to the table and read the stories of women and men who had been victim/survivors, as one voice phrased it, of sexual discrimination or abuse. The narratives were anonymous, and each bishop was witnessed by two more bishops, each standing on either side of him or her, silently.
“There is pain in these stories. There is courage in the people who have offered them. Let us honor that courage, let us honor that vulnerability, let us honor that pain.”
The readings began with Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, a story which criticized the Office of the Presiding Bishop for seeking legal solutions that silence the victims and protect the bishops and the institution. Other stories touched on the destructive dynamics of power, on broken relationships and the abuse of pastoral care, on the lack of compensation for women in ministry. Some of the voices:
A parish administrator: “I was told to wear dresses and skirts more because ‘they looked better’ on me.”
A female priest who was sexually assaulted by a parishioner: “I felt very powerless… I am still at a loss, 30 years later.”
A male priest who provided pastoral care to women who had been pressured into sex by a priest providing spiritual guidance, who retired with no repercussions: “These women felt shamed and humiliated. I find myself wondering how many other women suffered at the hands of the same abuser.”
A former member of a boys’ choir whose singers suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse for years: “I have stopped counting the suicides, the substance abuse, the broken marriages, the poverty, the failed careers, the prison sentences and the distorted religious lens created by the choir in its alumni.”
Several of the stories called the bishops to action:
“My prayer is for a day when the church and the office of the Presiding Bishop will act with integrity and baptismal faith.”
“I ask that the House of Bishops seek and find the other women pioneers who have offered faithful, if not adequately compensated, ministries, and to help to build the foundation for other women to have other opportunities not offered to us.
“I long for the House of Bishops to develop some meaningful and tangible reparations to those of us who have suffered these injustices at the hands of the church. I hold you all, and our General Convention, close in my prayers.”
“For all that each of you are, my right reverend fathers and mothers in God, you are also my brothers and sisters through our shared baptism in Christ. Please, love the vulnerable people in your dioceses like cherished siblings, not merely as employees or spiritual children. Please, take us seriously, and take seriously the plague of sexual misconduct that affects our branch of the Jesus Movement.”
Each reading was followed by silence and prayer as the bishops remained at the table, and then a singing of the Kyrie. Following the readings, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry led the Lord’s Prayer, again with pauses for silence, followed by a litany that interwove elements of the baptismal vows. The service ended with a Eucharist.
“Our call is to work that has already begun…
“We commit to listening for understanding. We commit to speaking the truth in love. We will respect the dignity of all. We will strive for justice and peace.”
The Episcopal News Service gives some background into the service in a June 27 story, reporting that a call for stories went out in May, and that the reading bishops do not know the identities behind the stories they are reading. Forty stories were shared, and the liturgy was designed by the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Response to #MeToo Planning Team, chaired by DeDe Duncan-Probe, Bishop of the Diocese of Central New York:
The liturgy, says Duncan-Probe in Episcopal News Service, was to be “anchored in the idea that Episcopalians believe in the transformational power of liturgy. ‘We come in our pain and our sorrow, and we hold it before God’s dream for the church and God’s mercy and grace,’ she said. ‘As we do that, Jesus is in our midst and we have a moment where a new future is possible.’”
Additional note: The service’s music had a local connection to our diocese – Sam Hensley, formerly of St. John’s where his wife, the Reverend Erin Hensley, was associate rector, was the guitarist on stage. Erin is now rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, and Sam is director of music and mission for The Hill, the second campus of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, both in Austin, Texas, host of General Convention 79.