A Martyr, a Reality TV Star, and a Drunk Driver walk into the Bar (Association)

(It would be a cheap shot to continue with “walk into a bar”.) But what do they have in common? In these particular cases, the notion that “sin” by Christians does not have secular implications, and is best handled in-house, that “house” being the Church. Despite worshipping at Canterbury Cathedral for a couple of years, I’ve never been a big fan of Thomas Becket, and I explain why here.  In brief, I’ve had qualms about Becket’s insistence that “criminous clerks” (men in holy orders–even minor orders such as acolytes and lectors–who committed civil crimes, sometimes serious ones such as rape and murder) should come under the discipline of the church only, and not be subject to civil proceedings. Becket’s stature as a murder victim has historically blinded us to the idea that ecclesial and secular disciplines are not entirely separate, and often both need to be in place.  Church penalties for civil crimes, especially when the victims are not part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, are insufficient. Even for lay Christians, a civil crime may carry a penalty imposed by spiritual authority–confession of, and penance for, secular misdemeanor has been part of the Church for a very long time.  But confession and penance do not substitute for civil penalty. And a church whose practice is to protect the penitent from the civil consequences of his or her actions deserves to be held in suspicion. That has been my main problem with the way the Duggar family (of TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting” fame) has handled the confession of their oldest son Josh, concerning his teenage “mistake” of sexual misconduct with underage girls, some of whom are reported to be his own sisters.  The parents had knowledge as early as 2002. Instead of using legal channels to remove the offending child from the home in an effort to protect younger children, they took it first to the church.  Church leaders assisted the Duggar parents in deciding the “penalty” of Josh going to another location for “labor and counseling” at a supposedly Christian facility.  (It turns out the labor wasn’t strenuous, and the counseling did not exist.) Supposedly the younger victims of the abuse were afforded counseling, but whether it happened, or the qualifications of those providing it, remain question-marks in my mind.

Progressive Christians like to think we are better than this. Sometimes we are, but we are far from always getting it right.  We’ve become better than we once were about sexual scandal, especially when it involves minor children.  We’ve put in place all kinds of provisions for safe church, and we try to properly vet and train those who will work with children or vulnerable adults.  We make sure that civil authorities are called in when there are financial misdoings.  We’re not as good about sexual harrassment and gender-based discrimination as we need to be.

We are nowhere near as good as we have to be when it comes to substance abuse. We think we can handle it in-house when a candidate for high office has had prior civil charges brought, and we don’t investigate nearly as well as we should prior to admitting that person.  This is what happened with Heather Cook, the now-deposed suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. Cook was asked about her record for impaired driving during the vetting process by which she was put on the ballot for episcopal office. Assurances were given, as was the option to discuss it in greater detail with those who would vote for the next suffragan bishop of her diocese–she chose not to do so.  Other clergy indicated that Cook was intoxicated at events leading up to her consecration last autumn.  No action was taken, either to stop or delay proceedings in order to conduct further investigations.

Even though Cook was not acting in any ministerial capacity at the time she was operating a motor vehicle while under rather heavy influence of alcohol–and an innocent man died as a result–the Church is not blameless.  We know that episcopacy is a high-stress, high visibility job.  We knew she had a history of alcohol (and possibly other substance) abuse issues, and had operated a vehicle while impaired, prior to her election and consecration.  We chose not to investigate further into how she intended to cope with stress, what steps had been taken to control her substance issues, and to go ahead and make Heather Cook a bishop.

Fortunately, Ms. Cook is no longer serving in an ordained capacity in the Episcopal Church.  And it is no bad thing if the Church has had to suffer a good bit of embarrassment concerning her consecration and subsequent revocation of orders, as it is pushing the Church to reconsider how it copes with the inevitable intersection of civil law and ecclesiastical process.  I hope that the wise words and experience of the new Assisting Bishop, Chilton Knudsen, will be heeded in this regard.

Because as long as there are people whose lives intersect church and civil society, those authorities will intersect.  They need not clash. The Church–whether extreme conservative or progressive mainline–needs to work with the resources and competencies civil authorities, including its law enforcement agencies, can contribute to a safer, saner, more just society.

Because safety, sanity, and justice are part of the one prayer that Jesus taught all Christians:  your will be done, on earth.  So that earth can be a little more like heaven.


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