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The Culture of Bullying in the Body of Christ

I was a scrawny kid in an English boys’ boarding school, small for my age, a late developer, sitting prey for bullies. For several years I was regularly beaten up, emotionally hurt, and publicly humiliated. Not until I shot up a bit, filled out, and discovered my athletic ability did the bullying cease. By then, I had learned how to look after myself, using my fists if necessary. I was an adult before recognizing that this early experience had enabled me to identify bullies from a mile off, and to do something about them.

Bullying is not solely the realm of testosterone-overloaded teenage males. Alas, today we live in what might describe as a nationwide bullying culture, both in real life, online, and amplified by cable television news. Hardly a day passes without our hearing of another fatal bullying incident, while it has become the norm with politicians to shout abusive odds at one another, modeling the bullying culture for our “edification.”

It should not surprise us that there’s bullying in the life of the church. I have seen and experienced my fair share during 55 years of ordained life. I was naïve enough when made deacon in March 1969 to think I was removing myself from the danger of bullying, but it comes in varied shapes and flavors. It did not take long to discover bishops, priests, deacons, and laity (mostly male, but sometimes female) who were unrepentant bullies. There have also been times, I sadly confess, when I have been tempted into the sort of bullying seen in so many ecclesiastical settings. Sometimes it is evident; more often it is cunning, indirect, even flaunting a veneer of pretended spirituality.

Parish dynamics can be such that parishioners, often fine people in so many ways, develop a taste for picking on clergy, wardens, and so forth. The worst culprits are those whose emotional needs are not met either at work or home, so the congregation becomes the arena in which they work out ego issues, sometimes planting landmines for those in leadership.

I was 23 and very green when made deacon, beginning ordained life as curate of a lively parish in the Diocese of London. There were great folks and good things happening, yet I hadn’t been there long before grasping that the vicar had issues. My predecessor as curate, a delightful man, bailed out early.

We managed to survive for the three years to which I was committed, but I came within a whisker of leaving parish ministry, even abandoning the priesthood. The vicar was a surly man, a former naval engineer who treated people as if they could be coaxed into what he thought was the right shape, then welded into place. When they didn’t fit, he was deft with a heavy emotional hammer.

Fifty years have passed since then and my assessment of him is a little kinder than it used to be, but it was a mistake to ordain a man so prone to harassment. A loving mentor intervened, helping me find a setting in which I could thrive. He and his wife provided Rosemary and me with prayer backing, love, and encouragement. They were also there for us as we lived through two miscarriages. God’s grace and this priest’s experience had tempered the aggressive side of his strong personality. All this taught us that Christian leaders, clergy especially, need a network of friends and mentors for shelter and support.

I have served under 14 bishops in six dioceses on both sides of the Atlantic — diocesans, suffragans, coadjutors, and assistants. To date, all have been men. Four of them have been everything I could want in a bishop, especially when I have stumbled, been hurt, or have backed myself into some kind of ministerial or spiritual cul-de-sac.

Yet some were overbearing and inevitably domineering. I am sure they did not set out to terrorize, but under so many ministry pressures, bullying seemed to have become part of their defense mechanism. I have watched contemporaries being elected bishop, some maturing into shining examples of grace, especially when stressed to the limits, but others have cracked under the weight of being the ordinary, becoming aggressive, bad-tempered, and hiding behind all that a purple shirt symbolizes. I have wondered where grace in pastoral care and firmness in necessary discipline morph into hurtful abuse of those they are called to serve while leading.

Even as I have defended myself against bullies, it always makes me feel bad about myself. This then gets taken home.  Being on the receiving end of ecclesiastical bullying can be a significant source of stress in a priest’s home life. We have over the years been greatly helped by good counselors and therapists, and our daughters have grown into stable human beings, mothers, and committed Christians.

As I said at the outset, ours is a bullying culture. Even as I was writing this, the phone rang and I found myself on the receiving end of a conversation that out of nowhere turned nasty when an elderly man turned on me over something that had not been part of our talk. His tone became menacing, blaming, and attacking. Such is the approach of the innate bully, but we managed to end without lasting animus.

Bullying is about grasping for power over others, snatching at a place higher up the pecking order, demonstrating a pretended superiority. Yet our model should be the one who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the Cross. The question is how we nurture this humility as citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, and in Christ.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I really appreciated Father Kew’s courageously personal perspective on Bullying in the Episcopal Church by bishops, priests and laity. We live in a fiercely competitive culture where people are desperate to be right, push people around and hold power. One-upmanship seems to be a national pastime. And, as Father Kew noted, people sometimes also feel the need to share their miserable day with others through abusive behavior. While these inclinations do not mesh well with Christ’s message, and it is easy to notice a bully’s wrongdoing, it is also important to note that bullying involves not only perpetrators and victims, but also bystanders. Bystanders often turn a blind eye toward wrongdoing to protect their interests, whether these are comfort, power, convenience, or fear that they may become a bully’s target. However, the bystanders’ silence and complacency are complicity. When one fails to speak against wrongdoing, the bully gains implicit support, tangible empowerment and gathers accomplices.

    Bystander silence is an equally disturbing characteristic of contemporary politics and society, which we see far too often also in The Episcopal Church (TEC). TEC explicitly pretends to address such bullying and other abuses, within its ranks, through canonical Title III and Title IV protocols. The Title IV protocols as well call for the provision of pastoral care to complainants. Yet one need not look far to notice that the Title III and Title IV policies are failing in practice. These failures cause me to question, not my faith, but the legitimacy and authenticity of TEC as an organization committed to stand as the Body of Christ. This is very sad because TEC offers a beautiful liturgical tradition and profoundly touching sacraments. The disconnect between what TEC pretends to be and its failure to acknowledge its profusion of bullies and silent bystanders is a corruption that is threatening its existence. It is no surprise, under these circumstances, that church attendance and membership are in severe decline. People are not so easily fooled by glib concessions to social justice. Institutions that fail to honestly and compassionately address internal wrongdoing come across as smug. Such a vibration is neither inviting, nor inspiring. The Episcopal Church would do well to roll up its sleeves and admit that it has three problems to correct: 1) bullies; 2) silent bystanders, and 3) failed policies. Once these problems are admitted, then people can do what is necessary to repair TEC, console and support victims, and create mechanisms to prevent and effectively censure bullies. Otherwise, silence and denial will continue accelerating demise.

  2. Full disclosure: I’m the editor of Anglican Watch, a publication that addresses abuse and bullying in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the comments here. The Episcopal Church, as currently postured, is one of the least psychologically safe places one can be.

    As the author above notes, bullying and narcissistic abuse run rampant in the denomination.

    The causes are multi-faceted, but at the end of the day, much of the responsibility rests with the denomination itself. Specifically, the Title IV clergy disciplinary process sounds good on paper. But the reality is that, unless it involves sex, money, or children, the church treats misconduct as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.”

    Even worse, the church does not take its own clergy disciplinary canons seriously. Bishops and other judicatories routinely ignore canonical requirements; some bishops, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Todd Ousley, Chilton Knudsen, Shannon Johnston, Susan Goff, Alan Gates, and others, decide they don’t want to get involved, even when allegations of criminal conduct by clergy arise. This paradigm is the very definition of corruption, and it meets the definition that federal agencies use for a “corrupt organization.”

    Meanwhile, we hear Sean Rowe talk about how we need to get our act together. While I agree with the notion, it’s actually not that complex. We merely need to do what we say we are going to do.

    What does that mean in real life?

    For starters, it means that we need to adhere to the notion, stated in Title IV, that clergy are held to a higher standard. That means if the conduct in question would get me fired from a non-church job, it should engender the same result for clergy.

    Similarly, judicatories need to enforce all of Title IV. For example, diocesan officials must hold clergy accountable for criminal activity, even if it does not result in criminal charges.

    For example, I personally have an active Title IV complaint against a priest, who remains active and has repeatedly offered perjurious testimony in civil court against me. Moreover, it is indisputable that he has committed perjury, as his sworn statements are facially inconsistent. Yet that priest continues to officiate in a parish in Massachusetts, and Bishop Alan Gates has brushed off my complaints, as has Bishop Shannon Johnston. And Chilton Knudsen, who until recently headed up the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, even held in writing that my allegations were not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.”

    It is a pathetic situation indeed in which the Episcopal Church can say that criminal perjury, a felony under state law, is not relevant.

    And, of course, the same bishops lament the exodus from the denomination, narcissistically unaware that it is their corruption that empowers bullying, and leads many of us to leave.

    Finally, I take full responsibility for the entire content of this post, and recognize that, were the facts alleged not true, these claims could be construed as libelous. I am solely responsible for these comments.

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