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Time for a searching and fearless moral inventory of our church

Makeshift floral memorial on the spot where bicyclist Tom Palermo was struck and killed.

The Rev. Ken Howard

On Saturday, December 27, the newly installed Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Heather Cook, was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Baltimore, in which she struck and killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo. In the weeks following the incident, various facts – as well as much speculation – emerged about Heather’s earlier DUI arrest, potential weaknesses in the search process which resulted in her election, and whether she had been drinking at the time of latest accident. Last Friday, January 9, she was formally charged with vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence, texting while driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. She turned herself into authorities and was sent to the county jail to await arraignment. Those who are familiar with Maryland law say that, since the facts of the case are not in dispute, a conviction seems likely, as does jail time. Still, we must allow the justice system must run its course, and pray that justice is served…and tempered with mercy.

There have been many calls for prayer for all connected to this tragedy – Tom Palermo, his wife and children, Heather Cook, the Diocese of Maryland – from the Bishop of Maryland, the Presiding Bishop, my own Bishop of Washington, and many others. The response has been enormous and continuing: prayers for justice, prayers for mercy, prayers for forgiveness, prayers for accountability, and most off all prayers of profound solidarity in grief, in sorrow, and in loss. I join in them and I bid you to join in them as well.

Yet not even our most fervent prayers can change the fact that a man is dead, a wife is left without her beloved husband, and two children will never know their father. There is no way to measure the magnitude of their loss; no way to quantify the senselessness that occasioned it. A trust fund for the children has been established (the Palermo Children’s Fund), and I encourage you to give to it. By doing so we can help assure their education, but nothing we can do can make up for the loss of a father. And my guess Heather will struggle for the rest of her days with feelings of guilt for actions and consequences that cannot be undone. I cannot imagine the anguish I would be feeling if I were in her shoes.

The Bishop of Maryland, Eugene Sutton, a friend and colleague of many years, has pledged a review of search and selection process that resulted in the election of person with continuing uncontrolled alcohol problems. I trust he will follow through on that pledge and carry out its recommendations. At the denominational level, The Episcopal Church has inhibited Heather from acting as a bishop and has begun an investigatory process which will likely result in her being stripped of her ordination.

All of these things are healthy. All of these things are necessary. But in-and-of themselves they are not sufficient. If all we do as a church is pray and pay and make changes in one diocese’s search procedures – as important as these things are – we will have failed to seek the full redemption to which this tragedy calls us.

Some of the lessons we can learn from this tragedy are simple and straightforward. Don’t drink to excess. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t drug and drive. Don’t text while driving. Don’t leave the scene of an accident. Don’t keep secrets.

But what about the deeper and less obvious lessons?

In the last few weeks I have been involved in several online discussions about this tragedy. Much of it has focused on those involved in this specific case. Many important questions have been raised about Heather Cook and the Diocese of Maryland, which called her to be their Suffragan:

  • Did she or her diocese seek her elevation to bishop too soon after her 2010 DUI, before she was sufficiently established in her sobriety?
  • Assuming she deserved a second chance, was she and/or her diocese sufficiently transparent about her history, so that those who voted for her election could understand and support the risk they were taking?
  • Did she or her diocese put adequate safeguards in place to protect and maintain her sobriety, and to ensure their mutual accountability in that endeavor?

These are all good questions. And they deserve to be addressed. But if we only ask them of her and the diocese that elected her, we will have failed to fully redeem this tragedy.

Indeed, just as AA calls upon those following the 12 steps to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of ourselves,” those of us who follow Jesus Christ must open ourselves to the same level of fearless self-critical introspection and examination at every level. Individual followers and leaders, guilds and committees and the congregations of which they are apart, dioceses and synods, national churches and denominations, and the whole Church (indeed following all 12 steps wouldn’t hurt us). We have to begin to ask ourselves provocative and uncomfortable questions – questions like:

  • Do we strive to maintain a balance between acceptance and forgiveness on one hand, and transparency and accountability on the other? Or do we view them as mutually exclusive and tend to err on one side or the other?
  • Do we view differences or dissent as a sign of disfunction and avoid discussing them (either by avoiding those with whom we disagree or by changing the subject)? Or do we welcome differences as a sign of God-given diversity. and discussion of them as an opportunity to for Holy Spirit to teach and transform all of us.
  • Do we fall into what Jim Fenhagen (former seminarian dean and former rector of a Diocese of Maryland congregation) called the “unholy bargain,” in which the rector assures his congregation that they are “good people,” while they pretend to respect his authority? Or do we contract with each other name these unhealthy dynamics and subtexts whenever and wherever we find them.
  • Do our aspirancy, screening, discernment, education, and training processes for those who sense a call to ordained vocation produce healthy, assertive, servant leaders willing to take risks, learn from failure, ask tough questions about “the way things are done?” Or do they screen them out in favor of passive-aggressive, control-oriented leaders, who are risk averse, hide their mistakes, and “go along to get along?”
  • Do we elevate to the episcopacy, as my mentor Verna Dozier used to say, “too many people who want it too much?” Or do we look for candidate who, as the Bishop Ordination service says, must be “so persuaded” to accept the call? (BCP, p. 517)
  • Do our disciplinary processes allow us to prevent unhealthy behavior before it starts or intervene while there is still a chance for correction and a return to healthy functioning? Or do we tend to use them to dissociate ourselves from those who have publically embarrassed the church by getting caught?

It is not easy to ask such questions of ourselves and of our institutions. They do not lend themselves easy (or even consistent) answers. In fact, they may lead us to deeper and more uncomfortable questions, or to answers that may disrupt “safe” but unhealthy ways of being and doing church that have taken us generations to settle into and may require additional generations to fully break out of.

Yes, the Church is the body of Christ, and as such, God can work through us to transform the world. Yet, we must never forget that the Church is also a human institution, subject to every human weakness, error, and sin – including willful blindness – and as such, is capable doing great harm…even evil.

At its start almost two decades ago my congregation, St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, affirmed a vision credo which states our aspiration to be “A Place to Belong! A Place to Become!” In the days since this senseless tragedy, not a day has gone by that I haven’t given thanks for those two mutual callings, because, taken together, they define the tension that the we in the Church must maintain to keep the body of Christ healthy. “A Place to Belong” requires acceptance, forgiveness, and LOVE. “A Place to Become” requires transparency, accountability and LOVE.

Indeed, one might say, “the greatest of these is LOVE.” Not mushy affectionate love, not make me happy love, but the kind of LOVE that the crucified and resurrected One taught us. And that kind of LOVE might best be defined as forgiveness and accountability in dynamic tension, held within a relationship of mutual commitment.

That kind of LOVE is not easy, but hard. In fact, it’s beyond hard. Without the love of Christ surrounding us and filling us and flowing through us, we are unlikely to have sufficient desire, let alone capacity to LOVE like that.

Yet that’s the kind of LOVE to which our savior has called us.

Which makes it a blessing that God doesn’t require us to be successful, only faithful.

As always, I offer these thoughts and questions, I not with a sense of self-righteousness, but with a deep sense of my own shortcomings and sin. I cannot be certain that I would do better than she did. I came to the realization years ago that given the right set of circumstances, there is no sin that I am immune to committing.

Ken Howard is the Rector (Episcospeak for “senior pastor”) of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland, a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Wasington. He is the author of “Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them,” “Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church,” and to the forthcoming book, “Church-X: Experimental Christianity for a Church Beyond the Event Horizon.”

In a previous career iteration Ken was director of a drug and alcohol crisis intervention hotline and coordinator of a DUI program for the Virginia Beach, Virginia Community Services Board, coordinator of community substance abuse prevention for the Chesapeake Virginia Community Services Board, and training director for the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services. 

Related Articles

Forgiveness and Accountability Not Mutually Exclusive – by Ken Howard

The Right Questions – by Mike Kinman

A thoughtful pastoral letter – by Anjel Scarborough

Filed under: Paradoxical Thoughts Tagged: Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholism, Associated Press, Baltimore, Bishop, Blood alcohol content, Diocese of Maryland, DUI, Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church (United States), Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Heather Cook, Maryland, Suffragan bishop, Thomas Palermo, Vehicular homicide