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A tough weekend for the Episcopal Church

A tough weekend for the Episcopal Church

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.


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Adam Spencer

The TIMING of it all drives me crazy. The week before Christmas and there’s “no room in the Inn”? That’s some unfortunate symbolism, guys…

Kurt Wiesner

“But I did expect and need to hear something about Christ and the concerns expressed by many of the protesters about growing economic inequality and the ways in which people everywhere in the world are impacted by the actions and inactions of powerful financial interests”

Kathryn: my thanks for a great point!


Kurt Wiesner


I agree with your points, and concur that at the very least TWS did miss an opportunity, or as Jim says, that TWS failed “crisis management”.

But I do not agree with your “guarantee” as to how those outside the church now see TEC.

I think that there were many people who saw Bishop Packard, in purple cassock, first over the fence and then arrested by police. (Honestly, probably more people than those who took the time to read a statement by KJS).

My feeling is that, to those outside TEC, seeing and hearing about the Episcopal Church on both sides of Occupy is puzzling more than it is definitive.

It is up to Episcopalians everywhere to be clear that no one person speaks for us AND that we are among the first to criticize and act differently from our leaders when they do not further the Gospel, just as you are doing. Just because KJS weighed in does not mean that TEC has decided the “end of the story”. We Episcopalians are not unlike the country as a whole, where we entrust our elected leaders to work towards a vision for the world of justice and peace, and then actively participate in the process: sometimes even coming in conflict with our leaders’ decisions.

That is, for me, is the promise to be found in the Episcopal Church.

Kurt Wiesner

Paige Baker

That said, ++KJS is *not* TEC’s Pope (Alleluia in Excelsis!). She NEVER automatically speaks for all Episcopalians—her words should never be seen that way.–JCF

The Episcopal Church (wider, as you say) has not spoken on Occupy Wall Street.–Kurt

It’s all well and good to make those arguments–but I guarantee you that, for those who are paying attention from outside, KJS+ is seen as the equivalent of our “pope.” When the media want a statement about TEC, they call her office. What she says will be taken in wider circles as the “official” position of the Episcopal Church.

And it is all well and good to talk about how it is too easy for those of us at a distance to judge the actions of TWS–but Kathryn Jensen has eloquently articulated the major FAIL here.

And I would ask–just how did TWS’s actions support and further the Gospel? If someone outside the church looks at this situation, what is the lesson zie will draw from it?

We are all so busy wringing our hands over our loss of members, and blathering endlessly about “mission”–but here was the perfect opportunity to show that we, as a faith community, are truly committed to the Biblical values of justice and mercy, and we blew it. The people who represent us to the public sided with the 1%–and called the massive power of the state down to “protect” a tiny piece of property from people who are actually committed to those Biblical values, by their actions if not their affiliations.

I cannot find any justification for that use of force in the name of the church. Again, I will ask: Just how did TWS’s actions support and further the Gospel?

Kathryn Jensen

I can’t determine from the distance at which I am watching this unfold…”

should be taken together with this:

“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.”

What the Episcopal leaders failed to do was to communicate anything of substance concerning the underlying causes of or even the rationales for the positions on either side of this dispute. They might well have not spoken at all since what they said did nothing but support the worst of what many, at least from afar, feared were their motives — namely, that protection of property was what counted the most, that protesters, in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, are little more than mindless rabble or impulsive children in need of pastoral care, and that the body of Christ, as supposedly represented by the church, can never tolerate, let alone sanction, acts of civil disobedience in furtherance of economic justice, or seek to protect those, even with whom they disagree, against police violence.

Many of us who recall the excesses of some protesters in the 1960’s and 1970’s can well imagine circumstances in which people of good will can be caught between their sympathies for the ideas or causes espoused by the protesters and serious doubts and questions about the way they are being expressed or even the character or the motives of the people involved. Consequently, a good many of us graying folks on the sidelines very much wanted to extend the sentiments Jim articulated to the leadership, as well as the protesters, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they had good reasons for what they were doing. But they gave us nothing and even less to those already viewing them with suspicion.

In other contexts, these leaders have spoken in ways convincing, at least to Episcopalian insiders, of their faith and commitment to Christian values and concerns. But here was their chance to speak to the world at large, to all those they say we, as the Episcopal Church, not only welcome but cherish, the dignity of each and every human being, in accord with our baptismal covenant. And without at least acknowledging in their recent statements that they and we all need to put those words into action in our lives, both corporately and individually, their previously spoken words now ring hollow.

I don’t mean to berate any of our leaders as individuals. While I have disagreed with, for example, our Presiding Bishop, over her words and actions at GC2006 and in some of the ways she has governed the church and seeks to change its governing structures, I also recall her presence with me, our diocese, and many of our parishioners, at our diocesan convention, literally days after my husband died so suddenly. Indeed, I have shared a meal with her, and I have listened to and been inspired by many of her words, and felt the warmness of her heart. The others and, of course, Desmond Tutu, have also been good servants of Christ and all His people on many occasions, no doubt far better than I have ever come close to being.

But my regard for our leaders and our church is precisely why I find their words and actions so heartbreaking. I do not automatically assume that they simply should have caved in to the protesters’ demands, nor do I have any solid information about the extent to which they were open to compromise and alternative forms of assistance or even whether they had good reasons to back off from the prior support. And I did not expect them to provide the details of their private negotiations.

But I did expect and need to hear something about Christ and the concerns expressed by many of the protesters about growing economic inequality and the ways in which people everywhere in the world are impacted by the actions and inactions of powerful financial interests, some of which scarcely have names or faces but operate as giant technocratic and autocratic robots, clicking away, following the path of the greatest profits second by second (and nano-second), with no persons of conscience who can or will exert any control or guidance in light of global needs and long-term consequences of policies often driven by the dynamics of the corporate structures they inhabit and the marketplace in which they freely roam.

What I heard instead was a simple and stilted “no”, we cannot and will not help you, with no expression of sympathy or even principled disagreement with the protestors. Worse yet, the “no” was couched in the patronizing language that clearly put the church in the position of authority and power, looking down on those around them rather than speaking as (if, at least) equals. I do, indeed, sympathize with the difficulty of composing and issuing public statements, but surely these generally wise persons could have sought and received some assistance when, in fact, the whole world was watching. The point however, is not to harp on what they should have done, but rather to lament for the sake of the church as a whole that “we” have much damage to repair.

Or to put it in a different way, as someone recently remarked about Episcopalians in the context of diocesan affairs, “we” do a reasonable job, now and then, of feeding the hungry in soup kitchens and the like, but do so little in the way of healing wounds. I would add that Christ’s wounds go far deeper than our individual hurts and concerns and need to be addressed by concerted and principled action, as well as words, to not only comfort the afflicted but to speak boldly and peacefully against the needless affliction of the many at the hands of the few, whether it be at the end of a police baton, a corporate, computer-generated foreclosure, or global economic forces that leave so many poor, hungry, and with little or no hope. But without making ourselves vulnerable, listening closely to others, in person and in the streets, and encouraging others to do the same, and by too often allowing ourselves to be wrapped up in and distracted by our attempts to design and even implement structures for “corporate mission,” we may not have a prayer of a chance of finding where God’s will is in all of this, let alone God’s face in each and every one.

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