By Matthew Townsend
In a busy legislative session on July 9, the House of Deputies passed a substitute resolution that continues the 79th General Convention’s effort to shed light on the harassment and exploitation of women in the church.
Substitute Resolution D016 — or Seeking Truth, Reconciliation and Restoration — rolled together an original resolution by the same name and D020-Understanding the Truth of Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Episcopal Church. The deputies passed the vote with no more than a handful of dissenting voices — a barely audible “no” against overwhelming agreement. The resolution will proceed to the House of Bishops.
Before the vote, women testified for about a half an hour about suffering within the church — and the need for action that would drive the Episcopal Church toward confession and reconciliation.
The resolution, if passed by the House of Bishops in this form, will establish 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, making an accounting of things done and left undone in thought, word, and deed, intending amendment of life, and seeking counsel, direction, and absolution as we are restored in love, grace, and trust with each other through Christ.”
The resolution names specific tools for carrying out this work: surveying, auditing, multiple reports, and a truth and reconciliation process. The resolution seeks $320,000 for this work.
Judith Andrews, lay chair of the committee on Safeguarding and Title IV, addressed the house on the resolution’s development.
“The committee is grateful to the women and the men who testified before the committee, telling their stories in the church. Their stories and many others show the wide extent of sexual harassment and abuse in the church,” she said. “D016 provides us with the opportunity to take important steps to address the gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls that exists in our culture and in our church.”
Resolution co-author Julia Ayala Harris of Oklahoma, an Executive Council member and two-time delegate to the United Nations Mission on the Status of Women, said the resolution’s intent to address gender-based violence and discrimination on an “overall structural, systematic, and cultural level.” She said the resolution draws from work already begun by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church.
“I urge this body to support this resolution in order for us as a church to live with integrity as we follow Jesus. We are a community that can bring healing, blessing, and wholeness to the world, but first we must examine ourselves and become reconciled to each other.”
Zoe Cole of Colorado told the body that she had been involved with General Convention committees in the past — but the response to this one was different.
“We have never had so many people come to testify. I’m not sure the church has ever been safe for women,” she said. “Women have been told forever that we are not fully human in the body of Christ. We need to begin to tell the truth. This afternoon, as I listened to more testimony, I was overwhelmed by a sense of simply wanting to say, ‘Stop it. Stop it now.’ It is time to tell the truth.”
The Rev. Kelly Steele of the Diocese of Georgia also spoke in favor of the resolution, sharing her experience. “My husband and I got confirmed together within the Episcopal Church because of the Anglican via media. Since then, we’ve done everything at the same time: graduation from seminary with the same honors, nomination for ordination, internships, ordinations to the diaconate and the priesthood in the same diocese,” she said.
“My bishop and canon have been, thankfully, very helpful in keeping our experiences and compensation equitable, as we are the same age with the same exact credentials. But already, two years into our priesthood, my husband and I worry about our remaining decades in ministry. He has been warned that his career ‘would suffer because he’s yoked with a woman priest.’ And I’ve been warned that the church would ‘chew me up and spit me out.’”
“It is time for women to be at the forefront, to no longer be oppressed,” said Erica Pomerank of Colorado. She spoke of being ignored when her husband was present.
The Rev. Fran Holiday told the house that after 15 years of ordained ministry, “I have yet to find another woman colleague who has not suffered unwanted advances, sexual harassment, or some type of victimization as a cleric. The day of truth-telling as come. I ask this church to face up to our sins and to work for reconciliation.”
Mary Jones of Albany spoke against the resolution “as it is presently written. I do not support systems of injustice or oppression. I have been subjected to emotional and physical abuse by those men and women. My concern is that some who have not been complicit in abuse will be caught up in zeal that is not always grounded in wisdom or truth.”
The House of Deputies also debated, amended, and adopted D019-Ending Church Complicity in the Occupation 619 to 214. The resolution calls for developing a “human rights social criteria investment screen based on the social teachings of this Church and 70 years of Church policy on Israel/Palestine by General Convention and Executive Council as the basis for such a screen in the Israeli occupation of Palestine i.e., the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.”
Discussion took about 75 minutes of legislative time, with significant disagreement on whether the resolution amounted to divestment and disengagement from the conflict or if it would put necessary pressure on the Israeli government.
“The official position of the Episcopal Church is and has been supporting negotiations of a two-state solution. But passing resolutions adopting boycotts and divestment — which an investment screen is — will only distance us from that option,” the Rev. Hillary Raining of Pennsylvania said in opposition to the resolution. “If the Episcopal Church is going to play any role in this, we need to engage with both sides — not divest, not boycott.”
Newland F. Smith of Chicago said conditions for Palestinians had only worsened over the 20 years that the church has been calling for negotiations. “By calling for a human-rights social criteria investment screening, our church will take the next step to end its investment in corporations taking part in the military occupation of the Palestinian land, including East Jerusalem.”
The House of Bishops has not yet scheduled discussion of the resolution.