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A Lenten message from the Diocese of Maryland

A Lenten message from the Diocese of Maryland

The Rt. Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton’s Lenten message to the diocese acknowledges that “repentance is not a solitary act”:

Repentance is a corporate act of righting things within a spiritual community so that community can restore its right relationship with God…

For me personally and as your bishop, the process of repentance must begin with the Palermo family who suffered the unbearable loss of Thomas Palermo on December 27. I’m sorry for their loss and regret his death was by all accounts caused by the extreme impairment of my recently-installed bishop colleague Heather Cook.

I regret that my sister in faith, Heather apparently caused so much damage and suffering due to her disease of alcoholism, and sorry I was unable to recognize warning signs of her illness. I humbly repent not learning more about the “cunning, baffling and powerful nature of alcoholism. I pledge to do everything I can to educate myself and churches of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland about the insidious nature of addiction.

The full text can be read here.

Posted by Cara Ellen Modisett


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Dave Thomas

It would be nice and easy to just say we can ban alcohol and take care of this subject finally and in it’s entirety, but that’s an unrealistic and immature approach to the subject at hand. Alcoholism won’t magically disappear from among our ranks by taking it off the menu. It’s kind of like saying that since I (and many other parishioners at my church) are on a diet that we need to cease serving cookies at coffee hour.

It’s way past time for the church to have a serious discussion about addiction (among the laity and the clergy). It’s way past time for the church to have a serious discussion about how we have failed concerning the vetting process of candidates for bishop.

It’s discouraging that it has taken a tragic situation like this to get the ball rolling.

Helen Kromm

“Where exactly have you both been, Helen & Jim? For the past two months, Bishop Sutton has been holding open meetings at churches around the diocese, meeting directly with people to listen and respond to the people of our diocese. An epic failure isn’t any one single person’s fault – it was a systemic failure.”

Allow me to tell you where I have been Rev. Scarborough. As this story began to unfold, and as I witnessed the wholly unsatisfactory response from my church, I spent days conducting research into this whole mess. Days spent uncovering facts regarding the principles, and developing background research. All of this research was turned over to reporters who are doing an exemplary job as this story unfolds. That is where I have been.

“it was a systemic failure.”

What a horribly weak and utterly baffling assessment to make. That assessment points to the greatest problem we face. Which is well intentioned clerics placing the blame for this on some vague systemic failure. How convenient…

This was not a systemic failure. This was a failure in leadership. A monumental failure in leadership, and the prerequisite courage that should accompany it.

“Or perhaps you can suggest some realistic ideas for the future.”

Thank-you Ann. I can actually suggest some ideas for the here and now.

Broadly, I believe this church needs to formulate a policy that no longer tolerates alcohol at church related affairs. A good start would be cancelling this beer tasting being offered as a prize at the general convention- and yes, I believe Jennings needs to renounce her leadership position for her terrible handling of this and support of this.

I believe alcohol needs to go. Period. Not because I am a non-drinker, but because I believe it ill serves our brothers and sisters that struggle in recovery. Any organization that supports and counsels those in recovery also encourages them to avoid functions where alcohol is served. And this wholly lame policy that alcohol can be served as long as non-alcoholic beverages are served is ridiculous. It serves our recovering brothers and sisters not at all.

Sutton must go. It’s that simple. He has outright lied and practiced deception. No, I don’t believe he needs a public flogging, and certainly there is redemption in the man. But as to leadership- emphatically no. And how dare you, or anyone, suggest such a thing. Suggest in any way that seeking the truth and justice in this matter equates to seeking a public flogging for a leader that has lied to us.

Others must go as well. Frankly, anyone who believes this is a systemic failure has grossly strayed from their calling. Comfortable clerics condoning and happy with cronyism and outside consultants… Disgraceful in light of all this beyond words.

Frankie Andreu

Helen Kromm is to be admired by all Episcopalians for caring so much for her Church. It is time that PS Jefferts Schori, B Eugene Sutton, and B Bud Shand told the truth and the whole truth of what they knew and what they did. This is simple. It should not take two days, let alone two months.

Jennifer Caldwell

“This was not a systemic failure. This was a failure in leadership.”

Well stated! Thank you for clearing the smoke in the room.

Jean Lall

The principle of accountability applies broadly, but the mechanisms and the timetable according to which it can be accomplished vary considerably based on the nature of the institution. Mr. Frodge continues to hold up his police department experience as a model, but the Episcopal Church is not comparable to a local police department. The church’s canons require a lengthy process to address a matter of this gravity. That process is underway. In due course, we will learn “who knew what, when did they know,” etc. It might be satisfying if someone — say, the Presiding Bishop — would just fall on her sword and say, “I did it! It’s all my fault.” But if the process were short-circuited in that way the church as a whole would not learn what we need to learn from this tragedy.

Mr. Frodge wants “the facts”, but it is not at all clear, and cannot instantly be made clear, what “the facts” are, since we are dealing with the inherently deceptive phenomenon of alcohol abuse. As Dr. Merryman’s comments make clear, we don’t know yet what kind of “alcohol problem” Heather Cook has. Only fragmentary information about her past history is available. This means that we don’t yet know what signs were observed or missed, not only leading up to her election and consecration as a bishop but in previous stages of her career. All of this is worth knowing, but it will take time to find out.

If we really want accountability, we must have patience.

Harry M. Merryman

I agree completely with Ms. Lall.

Mr. Frodge’s comments regarding HC’s “alcohol problem” betray the kind of common, but mistaken view of alcohol abuse that is rampant among lay persons, including our law enforcement and criminal justice systems. The fact that her attorneys are representing her to be an “alcoholic” who has been in “treatment” does not tell us the nature of HC’s harmful involvement with alcohol, much less how it manifested itself. That’s because the common belief is that anyone who has an “alcohol problem” is an “alcoholic” (i.e., alcohol dependent) and in need of treatment for a “progressive disease.” As I have previously observed, there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that this view is dangerously simplistic.

The apparent fact that HC has been in “treatment” for alcoholism may be, ironically, an indication that she is not alcohol dependent. That’s because there is much in the literature to suggest that the commonplace 12-step 28-day treatment programs in which HC was probably enrolled are not effective with episodic drinkers, especially those who are highly educated. Behavioral treatments focused on harm reduction are more effective, but these treatment protocols do not follow or subscribe to a progressive “disease model” which assumes that all alcohol abuse is an indication of the “disease.” In short, neither our criminal justice system nor the public at-large have an informed view of the varieties of alcohol and substance abuse. Until we move beyond a one-size-fits-all understanding of and treatment response to “alcohol problems,” we can expect to see more tragedies such as the one through which we are currently living.

Philip B. Spivey

You make some excellent points, Dr. Merryman .Your experiences, as an examiner in diocesan vetting processes, leave me encouraged. I hope these practices have been widely adopted because, as we now know, we need improved rigor in the process. House of Deputies head Gay Clark Jennings seems to be pointing us in the right direction.

Harry M. Merryman

Mr. Spivey: Thank you for this very helpful comment. I agree with much of what you have said. My previous observations regarding what may have been the pattern of HC’s alcohol abuse were offered, in part, as a counterbalance to many commentators here who seem prepared to condemn others for not having either seen her problem nor confronted her. I was hoping to suggest the situation *at the time* (prior to 12/27) may have been much less clear than many here have assumed, and that, as you have counseled, we should withhold judgment until we have more facts. I am in no position to diagnose HC, only to suggest that based on *what we know now*, she does not fit the profile of an out-of-control compulsive drinker whose problem would have been obvious to those around her.

You raise an important issue with regard to the vetting process, and particularly the clinical evaluation which takes place for those who aspire to Holy Orders. Canon law requires that an aspirant undergo a “thorough psychological evaluation no more than 36 months prior to ordination.” When one has been elected bishop, canon law requires a that the individual undergo a psychiatric examination by a medical doctor authorized by the Presiding Bishop attesting “that they have thoroughly examined the Bishop-elect as to that person’s medical, psychological and psychiatric condition and have not discovered any reason why the person would not be fit to undertake the work for which the person has been chosen.” I would be very surprised if HC had not undergone these evaluations, both prior to her initial ordination to the diaconate and to her consecration. Not being a psychiatrist, I have not evaluated a Bishop-elect, so I cannot speak to the methods employed by the clinician(s) who perform these evaluations. However, I have performed over 75 evaluations of aspirants for Holy Orders for two dioceses in upstate New York over the past 15 years.

You ask how the clinicians who performed these evaluations could have missed HC’s drinking problem. You then state: “The answer is simple: It was missed because the clinicians weren’t looking for it and Heather Cook did not disclose it. End of story.” Although there is no standard practice for these evaluations, in my experience, this is *not* the answer. In my practice, specific questions addressing the frequency and pattern of alcohol and other drug use are included in the screening questionnaire which each aspirant completes. Clinical instruments are administered, some of which specifically measure risk for addiction. Finally, there is a clinical interview where any disclosed history of substance abuse or any test results which indicate a possible problem form the basis for additional in-depth inquiry. If an individual fails to disclose a DUI, this will be discovered in the course of the background check. Since aspirants are asked specifically to disclose any convictions, no matter how minor, and must sign a statement attesting to the truthfulness of their responses, any dissembling would very likely bring the process towards ordination to a halt.

In my practice, I have encountered aspirants who have reported previous substance abuse problems, including a DUI. (For obvious reasons, I have never encountered an aspirant who reports having a substance abuse problem at the time of evaluation.) As I said, when there is a reported or suspected history of substance abuse, additional inquiry is undertaken to determine: what, specifically was pattern of abuse; how did it affect the aspirant’s life at the time; how did the aspirant decide to change their pattern of use; what treatment or methods were used to effect these changes; how does the aspirant currently maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol and other drugs (including abstinence, when appropriate); and in anticipating ordained life, what does the aspirant see as possible challenges to the maintenance of their health with regard to alcohol or other drugs.

I can’t speak for others who perform these evaluations, but I would be surprised if they were markedly different from what I have described. In the end, however, I am called upon to make a judgment and a prediction. The judgment concerns the aspirant’s current emotional and psychological health, including any active substance abuse. The prediction involves the likelihood that the aspirant will be able to maintain their health under the strains of ordained life.

So, I doubt very much that clinicians are not looking for substance abuse problems, or even that aspirants, on the whole, do not disclose histories of substance abuse. That simply has not been my experience. However, these evaluations involve both science and art, and it should be obvious that clinical judgments and predictions are never going to be one hundred percent accurate. With regard to predicting substance abuse problems, the reality is that no psychological evaluation process—or other vetting processes, for that matter—will guarantee that no individual who is ordained will manifest a problem in the future.

The psychological examination is one part of a multi-faceted process, and there are certainly ways it might be improved—a topic for another time. The overall process is really one of due diligence, and the question we must always ask ourselves is: how much is enough? It is easy to conclude that not enough was done in HC’s case. I suspect that some—including perhaps the PB—were relying on this process, trusting it to inform their decisions and actions, and the process failed.

This long-winded response, then, is to agree with your point that we need to thoroughly re-examine and strengthen the discernment process, remembering though, that no process will be infallible. We should also refrain from too harshly criticizing those who trust the processes that are in place to guide them when (hopefully very rarely) those processes fail.

Philip B. Spivey

Dr. Merryman: I appreciate your effort to delineate what science now knows about the disease of alcoholism. But in the case of Heather Cook, I don’t think her diagnosis matters, i.e., whether she’s a binge drinker or a chronic drinker. What concerns me is that there were no brakes available to her on a certain day, on a certain road in Maryland.

I did not diagnose and never referred to Heather Cook as an alcoholic, I referred to her as a problem drinker. That description is irrefutable and the etiology and manifestations of problem drinking are complex. But one thing is for very sure, ant kind of problem drinking leads to trouble for someone; sometimes more trouble, sometimes less.

In my experience in treating chemical dependency and other compulsive behaviors,
I know that by the time they come to see me, they have reached the point of no return, their lives are falling apart. What had been controlled drinking years earlier in their lives had now crossed the line to uncontrolled drinking. No harm reduction efforts could benefit these folks.

Two things continue to standout for me in this crisis: Our vetting process (aka, discernment) for aspirants is woefully behind the times. How did the psychiatrist (or psychologist) miss the fact that Heather Cook had a drinking problem? (I say that because I hope she was evaluated by a clinician prior to her ordination to the priesthood and her consecration, although I can’t be sure.) The answer is simple: It was missed because the clinicians weren’t looking for it and Heather Cook did not disclose it. End of story. So that any red flag that might suggest she had an impairment which would jeopardize her Holy Orders did not come form an expert trained to determine that, but through the grapevine of anecdotal gossip. And as you suggest, Dr. Merryman, she may not have been inebriated at every affair; she may be a binge drinker and that’s all the more confusing to the casual observer. Many compulsive drinkers doing their drinking in private.

Which leads me to my final point: The back and forth of “what did they know and when did they know it” suffers a little with 20/20 hindsight, That is because we are probably asking questions which only make sense to ask in hindsight. For example: When Bishop Sutton is asked, “Why didn’t you stop the consecration?” I think his response is based on an afterthought that the (20/20) question forced on him; i don’t think it occurred to him at the time because the tragic end of this story hadn’t been written, as yet. Likewise, when Presiding Bishop Shori purportedly said, “I’ll take care of it”, I ask, take care of what? Cancel the consecration? Scold her? Get her a cup of coffee? Put her into a taxi?

As one post above cautioned: It is much too early to put all of the important pieces together. Therefore, while some aspects of this event are crystal clear to me, I reserve judgement on many others.

Jim Frodge

We do know what kind of “alcohol problem” Heather Cook has, she has already told us. In 2010 in court in Maryland her attorneys told the court that Heather Cook was an alcoholic who had already participated in three treatment programs and had at one time voluntarily placed an ignition interlock device on her car. At her most recent bond hearing her attorney represented to the court that Heather Cook was an alcoholic and asked for a low bond in order to allow her to return to her latest treatment program. Through her attorneys Heather Cook has made it quite clear that she is an alcoholic and her background with alcohol is far from “fragmentary”.

I trust that my background in law enforcement is not an issue, it is simply the management model that I have worked with most of my life. The notion that the Canons dictate a lengthy process might just show a problem with the Canons. The organization dictates the process, the process can never be allowed to dictate to the organization. In other words the church can change to meet new situations.

The notion that gathering “facts” has to be a lengthy process is simply not true unless the organization allows that to happen. We, like many other similar organizations, had a strict thirty day deadline with full disclosure. In this case the church has Bishop Shand refusing to take calls, Bishop Sutton making statements that have to be revised later, a confidential report to the presiding bishop regarding Heather Cook being intoxicated at a consecration dinner and a presiding bishop who will not discuss the matter.

I can tell you that two weeks ago a friend of mine back where I worked was arrested for DUI while off-duty. He was also charged with a felony firearms violation because he had his off-duty weapon with him. Greg is four years short of retirement and a pension. If he is convicted of the DUI he will be demoted to patrol officer. If he is convicted of the felony he will be fired and lose his pension. Within twenty four hours of his arrest he was stripped of all police powers and suspended. These things will happen because people in positions of authority must be held to high standards of accountability. The presiding bishop took far longer to take away Heather Cooks authority. This speaks volumes about her management style.

As I said earlier this situation was not as difficult as many are attempting to make it out to be. What has made this situation difficult is the church’s failure to move quickly to assure the people in the pews that leadership is serious about accountability and transperancy.

Jean Lall

Jim, police work is a profession I greatly admire, and I appreciate your perspective here. What I am trying to convey is that different institutions have to work on different timetables. As you say, “the organization dictates the process”, and the canons of our Church have been designed to serve its particular needs. They may need revision, and the review process which the President of the House of Deputies has announced will no doubt look at that possibility, but I doubt that they would or should be altered to resemble police department procedures, and they certainly cannot be altered on the spur of the moment.

I continue to maintain that our knowledge (and here I include Bishop Sutton’s knowledge and perhaps that of PB Jefferts Schori) of Heather Cook’s alcohol problem is fragmentary. We still do not know how her alcoholism or binge drinking manifests itself. The word “alcoholic” is an umbrella term which is so widely used that most of us (including attorneys and judges) think we know what it means, but we don’t. Over the past several weeks I have talked with many people who have lived and/or worked with alcoholics and problem drinkers, and this has helped me to see that there is no one pattern to the way the problem shows itself. So even someone who grew up with an alcoholic parent may not immediately recognize another type of alcohol problem or a different “style” of alcoholism or addiction in a different person. What we really need to learn in church circles is how to recognize and address different types of addictive behavior. This can be challenging because of the alcohol-dependent person’s ingenuity in concealing the problem.

In the present circumstances there are additional complications. First, confidentiality. Some information about prior alcohol use which was gathered before and after HC’s election and consecration is in confidential files and cannot (I believe according to either law or canon) be released without her permission. Then there are the requirements of the Church canons, analogous to due process laws in the justice system, which require that all steps be taken to ensure a full investigation and a fair hearing to the accused person. Finally, there is the legal process going on in Maryland which also delays release of some information. The defendant and her attorney naturally do not wish to disclose more than they have to prior to the trial. As for the Diocesan officials, up until the date on which charges were filed, they were asked by the Baltimore City Police Department not to make public certain facts known to them. As I understand it, the purpose was to protect the integrity of the police investigation (which took almost two weeks) and to avoid contaminating a possible future jury pool.

The sad case of your friend with the DUI and firearms charges does not provide a clear parallel. In that situation there is straightforward physical evidence and presumably only one person to be held accountable. If the evidence holds up in court, the off-duty officer knows exactly what is facing him. Immediate suspension within 24 hours of his arrest was a matter of public safety and departmental discipline. If he is found guilty, the police department and the public need for him to be removed from duty permanently. In the case of Heather Cook, it was clear from December 27, 2014 on that her career as a bishop was over. She was promptly placed on administrative leave by Bishop Sutton, so that it was clear she could not perform any church duties and was not considered to be in good standing with the Diocese. The Presiding Bishop acted later, not because that is her management style, but because that is how due process for an accused bishop works. Please note that in the case of your friend who has been arrested, he was not immediately demoted, stripped of his pension, and thrown in jail for an indeterminate sentence. He was suspended, and he now has to go through the legal process. I am sure you want him to receive due process. In the same way, it is in everyone’s interest that Heather Cook receive due process in the church as well as under the law. She is off the streets and off duty. The process will continue.

Jay Croft

In fairness–

Bishop Sutton suspended Heather Cook from functioning in the Diocese, almost immediately after learning of what had happened. She was no longer allowed to carry out any ecclesiastical functions.

And just a few days later, the diocese’s Standing Committee requested her resignation.

It took a while for the PB to formally inhibit her, but HC was already suspended.

I do wish that the diocese had cut her pay down to a dollar a year until the matter is resolved in the criminal and ecclesiastical courts. I also wish that she had been put in jail with no bail.

For now we just have to wait while the lawyers do their dances.

Rev Andrew Gentry

If a person holding the position of a CEO finds himself or herself in need of a consultant to assist him or her in finding the right words on just how to say what you need to say about a grave situation most people in this digital age would automatically and perhaps cynically be a wee bit suspicious of both intent and substance. But if a person who is supposed to be the chief pastor of a community cannot find the words of contrition without the advice of a consultant then you have a problem of shall we say “Biblical” proportions!

Jean Lall

Just about any CEO these days has a communications consultant, or is well-advised to hire one at a time of crisis. There is no reason per se why engaging such a consultant should give rise to cynicism or suspicion regarding either intent or substance. It can indicate a commitment to clearer and more effective expression on important matters. Few people — even English majors — have writing skills adequate to all situations. Even professional writers (novelists, nonfiction authors) rely on editors to help them bring out their message more clearly, and even very articulate politicians often employ speechwriters for the same reason.
A communications consultant can not only be a good editor but help the speaker attune to all the different constituencies (parishioners, news media, etc.) that will be hearing the message with different ears and different agendas. Insofar as Bishop Sutton has executive responsibilities in the Diocese, he has done the responsible thing in hiring a consultant.

In the present situation, however, I don’t even see the relevance of your (cynical, suspicious) attitude. Where is the evidence that Bishop Sutton’s words of contrition were not his own?

More mind-reading.

Frankie Andreu

Jean Hall, thank you. There needs to be an expedient and open inquiry into the extent of the lying of Bishop Sutton, the knowledge and actions taken by PF Jefferts Schori and Bishop Schand.
There needs to be an open inquiry into the hiring of Canon Webster’s wife company by Bishop Sutton. There needs to be an open inquiry into the hiring of Mark Hansen and giving him the title of Pastor by Bishop Shand.

Jim Frodge

I would agree that some mind reading might be happening here but I would point out that this might be happening because those in authority have released very little factual and relevant information.

This situation should not have gone on this long. The essential information here is who knew what and when did they know. When asked did those with information disclose that information in full. Finally at any time were any policies or procedures overlooked or violated.

I retired from a police department after twenty seven years and over those years we made a number of mistakes, some small and some very large. In two cases the issue was so large that CNN came to town to cover it.

However we had in place firm policies to deal with these situations. Anybody who had any knowledge was compelled to reveal everything that they knew. All actions as well as relevant policies were also reviewed. A complete report of the matter including a determination of who if anybody made mistakes had to be completed within thirty days and that complete report was a public record available to all.

We took these steps because we knew that in order to effectively police our community we had to constantly earn the trust and the respect of the people that we served. One key element in earning that trust was to constantly monitor our activities, admit mistakes, hold any person who made a mistake accountable and always be open and transparent and do all of these things in a timely manner. I do not think that this is too high a standard for any organization to follow.

Finally we never hired consultants to help us manage these incidents. There was simply no need to. Consultants might help nuance statements but they cannot change the facts. The facts are what they are and they have to be put out as quickly as possible to ensure the trust of the people that you serve.

We are now some two months into this incident and we still have not been told who knew what, when did they know, did they truthfully report what they knew and were all policies followed. That is simply far too long to take if any organization wants to earn the trust of its constituents.

Anand Gnanadesikan

I believe Bishop Sutton is trying and I welcome this statement.


Repentance is most useful when it not only involves admitting error, but admitting the sinful desires that may have led to that error. When we start talking honestly about how our desire to put getting along above uncomfortable truth, how we conflate societal position with virtue, then I’ll feel like we’re getting somewhere.

Jean Lall

I continue to be amazed at the mind-reading capabilities of some commenters. Although they were not present at a certain dinner party last December, they know certain “facts” that have not been published (for example, that Heather Cook was allowed to drive home drunk that evening). They not only know the errors Bishop Sutton has acknowledged, but the innermost reasons for them, the “sinful desires” in his heart (“to put getting along above uncomfortable truth, [conflating] societal position with virtue”).

Anand Gnanadesikan

(got cut off)

… pride and sloth. It’s something that I miss- an approach to faith that isn’t cheap grace.

Which may be a reason for how I am (over?)reacting to the current situation.


Anand Gnanadesikan


Your last comment is the kind of conversation that we need to have. My perspective on this is as someone who became a Christian in college through evangelical Chiristianity and has spent time in a range of churches. As such I appreciate what you are saying about the power of sacramental community and the way in which preaching a God of love and forgiveness attracts many to the Episcopal Church.

However… a real danger in sacramental churches is the attitude that “as long as communion’s being given, everything’s okay”, what I’ve heard referred to as the Sacrament Factory approach to Christianity.

I see this reflected in the weakness among most of the Episcopal preaching I’ve heard, when it comes to talking about and engaging sin (especially personal sin). I’m not advocating hellfire and brimstone here, nor an obsessive focus on sexual sin. Over the years I’ve heard many preachers from other traditions (Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of the Nazarene, Pentecostal) speak humbly and movingly about anger, lust, p

Jean Lall

Anand, P.S. to your P.S.: Sorry, I did not mean to attribute to you the business about the dinner party; that was from a comment by Philip Spivey which was just ahead of yours but by now is way upthread!

I understand your point about people not wanting to know. And it is true that we often have a hard time believing that someone who belongs to our social group and “looks like us” is actually engaged in destructive, wicked, or illegal activity. What I think is also important to recognize, which hasn’t gotten much comment over these painful weeks, is the effect of the LOVE that arises in a Eucharistic community, which is not the same as our social class or set. Week by week, year by year, sharing the bread and the cup, looking deeply into each other’s faces in search of the face of Christ, we become more and more knitted together and more vulnerable to each other. We see each other’s weaknesses yet have high hopes for each other. And this sense of loving community extends beyond the parish and embraces our Diocese and Church, and keeps growing from there, but remains anchored around our own altar. Sister Heather came into our midst and was received into our hearts. It was plain to see that Bishop Sutton had also taken her into his heart and felt great confidence in the future of their shared ministry. On December 27, all of our hearts were broken. While it is important to be clear-eyed and rigorous in searching for answers, we also have to embrace this heartbreak and not back away from the consequences of love (which is not the same thing as denial). The pressure to obtain definitive knowledge, the urgency to identify wrongdoers and uncover sin, can be a way of avoiding the grief over an unbearable betrayal and loss. I’m not directing this at you personally, Anand, but reflecting on many, many threads of discussion over these weeks, in which I’ve heard a lot more blaming than grieving.

Jean Lall

Anand, I’m sorry, but what you wrote above clearly implied that you knew what sinful desires Bishop Sutton was guilty of. You welcomed his statement but found it inadequate. “Repentance,” you write, “is most useful when it not only involves admitting error, but admitting the sinful desires that may have led to that error,” and then you went on to spell out what you believed those to be.

Now you clarify that statement by generalizing that sin (“our desire to put getting along above uncomfortable truth, . . . [conflating] societal position with virtue”), attributing it to the Standing Committee and the rest of us Episcopalians. I don’t find this helpful. Of course, we all want to know what happened with the Standing Committee and why, but speculating and generalizing (and basically, preaching at us all based on your speculations and generalizations) won’t get us there.

I don’t know what things are like in your parish, but your characterization doesn’t fit my experience. People in my congregation don’t “make an idol of politeness”, but we try to be kind and give people the benefit of the doubt. We don’t constantly scrutinize each other for signs of sinful desires, but we do have sermons that address the problem of “the devices and desires of our own hearts”. I don’t think any of us imagines that we have “got the sin thing under control” and can therefore avoid attention to it.

You write, “A church which confronts what [sin] means is in a better position to preach the Gospel than a church which sees tragedy as the result of well-intentioned mistakes.” This is a false dichotomy. Not all tragedies are the result of people acting on sinful desires; some result from well-intentioned actions that were based on insufficient information. Some may involve a mixture of both. We don’t know yet what combination of factors gave rise to the Dec. 27 catastrophe. The task before us is to study what actually happened and then learn from that, instead of imagining what might have happened and then judging or admonishing others prematurely on that basis.

Anand Gnanadesikan

PS Jean, I don’t know where you got the idea that I was talking about the dinner party… I certainly don’t expect any church leader to be omniscient.

However, my experience in general with this kind of personal disaster is that when people say “I didn’t know”, it is often cover for saying “I didn’t want to deal with the cost that would come from knowing.” This has been an issue in clerical abuse, divorce, and other scandals, some of which I’ve seen personally.

I think it’s worth asking Bishop Sutton if he thinks this was involved in the present case. I know it is something I’ve had to struggle with as a lay leader. I think confronting that tendency, which we all have, would be healthy for the denomination.

Anand Gnanadesikan


I’m actually trying to make a broader point about what I see as a weakness in the Episcopal Church, not to be harsh on Bishop Sutton.

It looks like nobody on the Standing Committee asked the hard questions about the DUI or about her relationship status. I think it is worth asking why.

For example, maybe the problem is that we make an idol of politeness. Or maybe it is that we find it difficult to believe that an upper-class, well-educated member of our congregation could be an alcoholic, (or a pedophile, a wife-beater). To do otherwise might suggest that we haven’t got the “sin thing” under control. So we don’t even preach on such things, never mind look for the warning signs.

The longer version of the confession says “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” A church which confronts what that means is in a better position to preach the Gospel than a church which sees tragedy as the result of well-intentioned mistakes.


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The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

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