[Episcopal News Service] The House of Bishops approved a written statement on Sept. 22 acknowledging “the disappointment, pain and grief felt across The Episcopal Church” over the current process for handling disciplinary complaints against bishops and the perceptions that bishops are not held to the same standards as other clergy or lay leaders.
“The pain is absolutely real and urgent, both in the dioceses specifically affected by recent cases, and in cases where the recent complaints have recalled prior traumas elsewhere,” the five-paragraph statement says.
“We understand that when any bishop breaks the trust placed in us by the church, the Body of Christ suffers,” the bishops said. “We commit to each other and to the whole church that we will do our part in the work necessary to bring about the authentic changes our church needs ‘to walk in love as Christ loved us.’”
The statement, approved on the final day of the House of Bishops’ Sept. 19-22 meeting, was drafted by a small group of bishops and discussed by the full house in a closed session on Sept. 21 before being introduced and adopted in an open session on Sept. 22 that was livestreamed for reporters.
Its final language, as shared during the meeting, does not reference any particular disciplinary case or any bishop by name, though it comes after several recent cases against bishops drew renewed scrutiny to the church’s Title IV disciplinary canons.
The most prominent such case involved allegations that House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris made against retired Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny, accusing him of sexual harassment in July 2022 at the 80th General Convention shortly after she was elected. Konieczny has denied any wrongdoing, and the Title IV case ended with a “pastoral response” and no disciplinary action against Konieczny.
There are at least two other Title IV investigations currently pending against Episcopal bishops. In the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh resigned as bishop provisional of both dioceses on Sept. 8 while he faces allegations by his two sons that Singh had a history of physical, verbal and psychological abuse against them and their mother.
And in the Diocese of Florida, at least one priest has called for an investigation of Florida Bishop John Howard, who is accused of a pattern and practice of discriminating against LGBTQ+ clergy and those who opposed his stated views against same-sex marriage. Howard reached the mandatory clergy retirement age of 72 on Sept. 8 and is expected to step down before the next diocesan convention in November, though he still could face Title IV proceedings.
After Ayala Harris went public with the outcome of her case in an Aug. 30 letter to the House of Deputies, a small group of female bishops from the church’s Province VIII drafted a letter to their peers asking that the issue of bishop accountability be added to the agenda of this week’s House of Bishops meeting. They lamented “several recent high-profile cases in which bishops were accused of improper behavior, and many in the church believe those bishops received few or no consequences.”
“We are angered by and deeply concerned about the perception – or the reality – that bishops get a free pass on behavioral issues,” the bishops said in calling for a formal discussion of the matter. “We want to ensure that in our system, issues like these are taken seriously and treated appropriately. Bishops cannot be allowed to have a ‘free pass.’”
On Sept. 20, the House of Bishops invited Mary Kostel, chancellor to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, and J.B. Burtch, legal counsel for the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, to provide an overview of the Title IV disciplinary process for bishops and a timeline for how that process was followed in Ayala Harris’ case. That discussion did not address whether the case’s resolution was appropriate, only highlighted the process.
The church’s Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons also is considering whether to recommend changes to the Title IV canons in response to calls by Curry and Ayala Harris for a new review to ensure equal accountability for bishops and other clergy.
“This is a painful moment for our church,” Minnesota Bishop Craig Loya, who helped draft the bishops’ written statement, said Sept. 22 in moving for its approval. “Since we are elected and trusted with being shepherds of the church, our intention was to try be present for that painful moment with some scriptural and spiritual grounding.”
He added that the bishops wanted to affirm their own roles in ensuring fairness in disciplinary matters while also acknowledging the shared responsibility among all the church’s orders for clergy accountability and church governance.
New York Assistant Bishop Mary Glasspool, another member of the team that drafted the statement, said references to specific cases were deliberately left out so that bishops with differing views of those cases could all give their support to a message that spoke to the timeless issue of accountability.
“A statement needed to be made. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t end this meeting with a statement,” Glasspool said. “We are simply saying that we, the bishops, are wanting to take our appropriate role in holding ourselves and one another accountable and trying to make the process better and following Jesus.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.