By Kirk Petersen
A review of norms of behavior was the top item on the agenda when Executive Council convened online October 25. It was the first meeting since the presiding officers sent a remarkable letter September 11 admonishing council members to treat church staff with more respect.
The council also welcomed back Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, who had missed the June meeting for health reasons. Curry, looking cheerful and energetic, thanked the council and all the people who have been praying for his recovery. The 70-year-old presiding bishop underwent open surgery September 20 to remove an adrenal gland and an attached, noncancerous mass. He told council he had spent three days in the intensive care unit and two weeks overall in the hospital. Since returning home he has been undergoing physical therapy, in part by walking a bit further every day.
President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris began the discussion of behavior in open session by reading a series of norms that the council adopted at its June meeting. A copy of the norms is at the bottom of this article. Some of the language was echoed in the September 11 letter: “We will, at all times, treat each other with respect. We will challenge ideas, not individuals. We will assume positive intent and assume responsibility for impact.”
Most of the discussion of norms took place in executive session. Glimpses of the closed-door discussion may emerge later in the meeting, which runs through October 27.
The September 11 letter came after a year of rising tension that spans the church’s elected and appointed leadership, and that has prompted some longtime staff members to discuss whether they wanted to continue working for the church.
The presiding officers — Curry and Ayala Harris — urged council members to participate in Safe Church training modules addressing bullying, power and relationships, and healthy boundaries.
It has been a tumultuous time for governance in the Episcopal Church, and the council’s first plenary session provided a reminder of another recent controversy.
One council member called on Ayala Harris to discuss the nature of her allegations against her former bishop, Ed Konieczny, the retired Bishop of Oklahoma. Ayala Harris announced August 30 that she had pursued a Title IV disciplinary case for much of the prior year after Konieczny allegedly made inappropriate comments and physical contact within hours of her July 2022 election. Konieczny denies the allegations. The Title IV complaint was dismissed by the church attorney, essentially the prosecutor, with a recommendation for a pastoral response rather than discipline.
“While I appreciate the need to be sensitive to her, she has gone public with the charges and the accused bishop has refuted her claims, essentially turning the matter into a he said versus she said scenario. As a result, the church has been splintered into a Julia camp versus a bishop camp,” said Joe McDaniel Jr., council member from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, in a motion to add the discussion to the agenda.
“As the corporate board for [the Episcopal Church], we have a fiduciary obligation to try to mitigate the resulting harm being done to the organization,” McDaniel added. “However, we can’t appropriately respond if we don’t have all the facts.”
Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry ruled the motion out of order after Chief Legal Officer Kent Anker said such a discussion would be inappropriate. “The Executive Council does not have authority over Title IV,” Anker said. He said he would address McDaniel’s question about potential legal exposure for the church in executive session.
Regarding the Title IV complaint, “I shared the sensitive news with you because I sensed that if this could happen to the president of the House of Deputies, it could happen to anyone, anywhere,” Ayala Harris said in her opening remarks. “My story is not the only one that we’ve heard from in recent months. And it may be that there are more stories out there waiting to be heard. In order to get to where we want to go, it is clear that systematic change is needed, both within our structures and within our culture.”
She noted that the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons has been reviewing the Title IV process, and has sought comments from throughout the church.
Executive Council Norms June 2023