I can understand why Bishop Mark Sisk released a statement in advance of Occupy Wall Street’s demonstration at an empty lot owned by Trinity, Wall Street in lower Manhattan. Trinity is a church in his diocese. His clergy had been following the issue closely, and some were passionately supportive of the group that wanted to take over the property.
Any bishop is such a situation might have wanted to offer a few words of moral guidance. That I wish he had offered somewhat different words doesn’t change the fact that it was appropriate for him to speak.
I am less certain why Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori felt the need to lend her moral credibility, and by extension that of the Episcopal Church, to Trinity at this particular moment. In situations like the one that was playing out in Lower Manhattan it might have been wiser to acknowledge that people of good faith and judicious temperament can come to differing conclusions, urge further conversation, and remind both sides of the need to eschew violence. Instead she inserted herself into a parochial matter in a way that seemed to suggest that she believed a movement that has suffered far more violence than it has initiated, was about to move on Duarte Square through “force of arms.”
The Presiding Bishop, however, emerges from the weekend’s events looking far better than Archbishop Desmond Tutu who first released a statement, through the Occupy website supporting the movement’s plan to take Duarte Park and urging Trinity Wall Street not to ask the police to make arrests, then releasing a second statement, through Trinity’s website saying that the previous statement was by no means an endorsement of lawbreaking. Why the police would arrest someone who had not broken the law was not made clear.
The Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity Wall Street, quoted extensively from the statements by all three bishops in the statement he released on Saturday night after some fifty demonstrators, including Bishop George Packard, the Rev. John Merz and at least two other Episcopal clergy, were arrested after climbing a ladder and standing in Duarte Square.
I don’t have an opinion about whether Trinity Wall Street should allow Occupy Wall Street to establish a winter camp in Duarte Square. I can’t determine from the distance at which I am watching this unfold whether Trinity is actually offering real aid to Occupy or engaging in the Lady Bountiful behavior that earns the parish perhaps more credit that it strictly deserves. But I know at least a little bit about crisis communications, and that the way in which organizations speak and act during crises tend to reveal—often inadvertently—their deepest values.
In this particular crisis, Trinity embarrassed Desmond Tutu into publicly reversing himself and induced the Presiding Bishop into weighing in on a fractious parochial matter in which the wider church has nothing at stake. At issue, in essence, was Trinity’s right to dispose of a tiny piece of its vast commercial real estate empire as it saw fit. I don’t necessarily contest that right, but I believe that in defending it, Trinity treated the good name of our church as a commodity that it had purchased through philanthropy and was now free to deploy.
That good name is now somewhat the worse for wear, I think, and I am wondering how we get it back.