Bishops adopt covenant pledging to work for equity and justice

July 8, 2018

Members of the House of Bishops spend time in table conversation July 8 before debate on adopting a covenant to combat abuse, harassment and exploitation. Photo: Melodie Woerman/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] The House of Bishops on July 8 adopted a covenant that commits them to seek changes in their dioceses to combat abuse, harassment and exploitation.

“The church as both community of faith and workplace is not immune to abuse, harassment and exploitation of people of varying gender, racial and cultural identities,” the bishops say in the document, which applies only to bishops, entitled “A Working Covenant for the Practice of Equity and Justice for All in The Episcopal Church.”

The text of the document is due to be posted in the House of Bishops’ Virtual Binder soon.

While calling attention to structures that work against people of all gender, racial and cultural identities, the idea of a covenant grew out of the stories shared during a Liturgy of Listening during General Convention on July 4. In that service, bishops offered laments and confession for the church’s role in sexism and misogyny.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves of the Diocese of El Camino Real said that after the Liturgy of Listening it was clear that there is no way we can do this and nothing more.” 

Sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation are part of the system,” she said. “This is about acknowledging and accepting that.”

The document reads in part, “As pastoral and prophetic leaders of the church, we bear the responsibility to continue the healing and transformational work that has yet to be fully realized.” The bishops also committed “to strive daily, transforming the culture of our church into a more just, safe, caring and prophetic place for all.”

Gray-Reeves said she knows the bishops have good will and good intentions, but that alone won’t help them change systemic cultural issues within the church. “We need each other’s help to do that as a churchwide organization,” she said. The covenant is intended to do that.

The covenant spells out ways the bishops can begin:

  • Recognizing the power of their office and using it with humility in service of others
  • Engaging in self-examination and making changes in how they use their power
  • Being aware of and listening to stories of people affected by biases
  • Giving space for leadership based on equity
  • Making room for a variety of cultural and gender-based ways of leading
  • Supporting a range of leadership models
  • Eliminating pay and benefit inequities
  • Creating and enforcing equitable parental leave policies
  • Helping parish search committees to examine their biases as they make choices in the call of clergy

During debate on adopting the covenant, Central New York Bishop Dede Duncan-Probe said that she had grown up in the Episcopal Church, and “sexual abuse and harassment has been as much a part of my life as Bible study and communion.” The elements of the covenant offer bishops “something we are all called to do as part of the Jesus movement.”

Bishop Greg Brewer of Central Florida said he looks forward to taking the document back to the women clergy in his diocese and saying, “Let’s talk. What do you think?”

Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Gayle Harris said the covenant “lifts up that which has been an aspiration of this house.” As a woman of color, she urged bishops to uphold differences of all those made in God’s image and to work to end discrimination.

After the covenant was adopted, Eastern Michigan Bishop Provisional Cate Waynick told Episcopal News Service that this was the first time in her 30-plus years of ordained ministry that the House of Bishops “actually decided to take a hard look at the way women have been treated.” She said her fellow bishops now are awakening to the pain and consequences of how women have been treated. Waynick is grateful that the bishops have agreed to ongoing conversation and to holding each other accountable, and as a result, “maybe our daughters and granddaughters won’t have to have these experiences.”

Bishop Brain Thom of Idaho said the covenant invites “serious self-examination” and asks bishops to take steps to change themselves personally  He added that men of the generation of many bishops, himself included, can find it hard to change because “we are sure it’s not us” responsible for such pain and experiences. “But I have been convicted by sexism,” he told ENS.

Washington Bishop Marian Budde, who also spoke to ENS, said that throughout her life in the church, women have taken it for granted “that we would be treated badly. We had to shrug it off.” But, she said, “This is not the way of Jesus. This is not the way of love.”

Several bishops said they wanted to be sure the covenant was on the agenda of every meeting of the House of Bishops going forward. Bishop Audrey Scanlan of Central Pennsylvania said during the debate that plans are underway to create a toolkit to help dioceses create their own kind of listening events to begin the hard work that is needed. “Sexual violence, aggression, exploitation and harassment exist in our church. We can’t let that be the last word,” she said.

— Melodie Woerman is director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas and is a member of the ENS General Convention reporting team.