As is often the case with popular reporting on “religion” issues, Michelle Boorstein’s article in the Washington Post (“Bishop accused in bicylist [sic] death raises question: Who’s qualified to be clergy?” – December 31, 2014) somewhat missed the mark. Still, it has sparked a needful conversation.
It seems to me that the central question is less about clergy qualifications (or more to the point, automatic disqualifications) than it is about how the Church approaches (or more to the point, avoids) dealing with potentially conflictual issues before they become public.
The article, like many discussions of this issue I have heard in the days since the accident, presents the issue in either/or terms. Should Bishop Cook’s previous D.U.I. conviction have automatically disqualified from episcopal office? Or not? Should Bishop Cook be held responsible for her actions? Or should she be forgiven?
Too much of the conversation around this incident seems to have come from the mistaken assumption that forgiveness and accountability are mutually exclusive choices. They are not. Because forgiveness and accountability are two discrete decisions about two separate issues. Being forgiven does not relieve us from responsibility for our actions any more than making amends for our actions forecloses forgiveness.
I hope the family of the victim may some day find it in their hearts to forgive Bishop Cooke, for their sake as much as hers. I hope she will be able to accept that forgiveness if it comes and that she will come to the place where she can forgive herself. Still, forgiveness is not a once-and-done proposition, but a repetitive process that will span both their entire lives, as they deal with their feelings of loss and she deals with her feelings of guilt.
On the other hand, Bishop Cook’s acknowledged actions in leaving the scene of an accident in which she had likely fatally injured someone is such an egregious and irreparable lapse of judgment, moral responsibility, and basic human compassion (not to mention, a serious crime), that I cannot see how she could continue in the position. I say this 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. If I were in her shoes at this point, I would hope for forgiveness, but accountability would require my resignation.
Too much of the conversation has focused on issues of individual responsibility and accountability while avoiding issues responsibility and accountability at the systemic level. It seems to me that the church as a whole (not just the Episcopal Church) is so conflict-averse that it focuses more on avoiding public controversy than it does on healthily confronting issues. While I understand the discomfort involved in addressing conflictual issues and the desire to avoid it, giving in to that impulse never helps, but always makes things worse by allowing them to fester and grow and escalate. And ironically, in the end, the issue almost always erupts publically anyway.
It is worth noting that the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and Bishop Eugene Sutton are doing all the right things in response to this incident. Bishop Cook was placed on administrative leave and a statement issued almost immediately. I understand that the Diocese will be reviewing not only this incident but also its own internal processes. These are all healthy responses. And while the police are investigating the causes and the criminal aspects of this tragic accident, it is worth reminding ourselves to take care to avoid speculation, judgments, and conclusions about things we do not yet know.
Still one has to wonder whether in the church as a whole our internal dynamics don’t get in the way of prevention and early intervention in situations like these. Is it possible that we place too much emphasis on deference to authority? Is it possible that we place too much emphasis on ridding ourselves of those of us who fail big and publically, and too little emphasis on accepting and learning from smaller failures? Is it possible that we simply lack the stomach for the routine conflict of intervening while problems are still small and large problems are still preventable? Is it possible that our vocational discernment processes for aspiring clergy function like an overactive immune system, weeded out those who would ask tough but healthy questions about the church, and selecting instead for people who won’t rock the boat? These and more are questions worth considering.
So as we hold in our prayers the bicyclist and the bishop, and the families, friends, and co-workers of both, I hope we will also pray God that might redeem this tragedy in part by opening us a the institutional church to self-critical introspection, insight, correction, and healing.