By Steve Schlossberg
Reading an article the other day about recent sexual abuse scandals in ACNA, I found myself enjoying it. I don’t know if an ugly smirk actually crawled across my face as I read the article, but something like an enormous leer formed in my heart. I enjoyed the article because I am an Episcopalian, and I feel about ACNA what I feel about all my ex-girlfriends: it would be nice to believe, because it would be flattering to believe, that my ex-girlfriends can never be truly happy without me.
But it’s worse than that: I positively wish my ex-girlfriends ill. What I would like to believe, and what I would like to believe that these scandals demonstrate, is that the ecclesial body that believes my ecclesial body is morally degenerate is morally degenerate. They’re not only as bad as we are, or as bad as they believe we are, they’re actually worse: on top of being morally degenerate, they’ve now been exposed as hypocritical.
Let us politely overlook for a moment the enormous tumor of hypocrisy this exposes in me. What I would really like to believe is that these scandals prove my side of the argument with them, and my argument with them is ecclesiological. I believe that they, or at least their founders, are schismatic, and I not only want to be proven right, I want them to admit I’m right. But you know how that goes. Proving your side of an argument to the satisfaction of the person you’re arguing with happens just about as often as persuading your girlfriend that she will be truly happy if she spends the rest of her life with you. Unless you’re Larry King, you can reasonably expect to succeed at that approximately once in a lifetime, and even if you’re not Larry King, it never proves to be perfectly true.
But if I can’t prove myself right to ACNA’s satisfaction, then it’s enough to see that it has been proven wrong to my satisfaction. That’s what I would like to believe those scandals demonstrate, but of course they don’t. The only thing they prove about ACNA’s ecclesiology or mine is something we’ve never disagreed about: the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is a household of sinners.
No doubt some of ACNA’s founders occasionally lapsed into the fantasy or the conceit that they were forming, not just a theologically purified community, but a morally purified community. But to the degree that this conceit came of their associating theology with holiness of life, I believe that they were setting out to recover a spiritual legacy most of the rest of us long ago discarded. And the self-satisfaction with which I am able to read an account of violated bodies, shattered lives, and ruined reputations is not only an indictment of my character, it actually proves my immaculate ecclesiology a sham: I cannot imagine a more insidious or destructive form of schism than that of rejoicing in the suffering of fellow members of the body of Christ.
My wanting to believe that scandal proved something about ACNA proves something about me. But I’m afraid I’m even worse than that, because ACNA’s scandals aren’t the only scandals I enjoy reading about. When I read the news, I am first attracted to the gossipy headlines reporting someone’s failure of character. Be it a politician, preacher, or celebrity, I delight to read of their shame. A great part of this, I know, is just rank voyeurism, which is why stories about sexual misconduct are always the most interesting to me: I have a dirty mind.
But these stories appeal to something deeper and darker in me than that. I read them as the parabolic Pharisee studies the publican in the Temple: he flatters himself by contrast. I would never do, I think, what those people have done. But I am worse than the Pharisee: he at least thanks God that he doesn’t do what the tax collector does; he at least believes in grace. It never occurs to me to thank God that I have not sinned as apparently egregiously as others, because I naturally chalk up my relative innocence to my moral superiority.
That of course is rank hypocrisy. But I come by it, certainly not honestly, but to some small degree innocently, in the sense that innocence can mean ignorance. It’s easy for me to believe that I would never fall so far or stoop so low as others have, that my character flaws are relatively slight, and that I am impervious to any moral failure notorious enough to make headlines. The proof of that of course is that I have yet to make the headlines.
That of course is rank naiveté—at best. Much more often it’s a willful, if not always fully conscious, denial of reality. I am expert at overlooking my tumors and other enormities comfortably rooted in my heart and mind, metastasizing in my eyes and tongue, well on their way to consuming the rest of me. But I have material evidence to support my fantasy: the endlessly fascinating public scandals embroiling others, whose failures of character are superficially different than mine, serve to prove I’m right.
And then, every once in a great while, I suffer a sudden, disabling stroke of self-awareness. Many years ago, a friend of mine, a pastor, was publicly exposed to have been conducting an adulterous affair with one of his parishioners. Because I dearly loved this man, I was temporarily disabled from taking any satisfaction in his failure. In the days that followed the shocking disclosure, I was never once tempted (to my recollection anyway) to pride myself on never having fallen as far as he. In fact, I felt almost exactly the opposite. In the days that followed, I was completely rattled by a fearsome apprehension, almost approaching moral terror, of my vulnerability to temptation, for I knew that if my good friend could do what he did then I could do what he did. The difference between him and me, I realized, did not especially flatter me. The only demonstrable difference between him and me, I realized, was opportunity: since the day I married my wife, no one has evinced the slightest interest in being my girlfriend.
My friend’s scandal served to wake me to myself. In retrospect, however, I can see that, just like the scandals afflicting ACNA, it completely failed to wake any compassion in me. I hardly gave a thought to the suffering of my friend, and none at all to his many victims: his wife and children, his lover, his lover’s husband and children, and the devastated members of his flock. My thoughts in those days were entirely of myself.
Nevertheless, it proved a healthy shock to my system. It also proved to be a relatively short-lived shock, which I seldom remember now. Eventually I got over it, and in time I lapsed again into my habitual reading of reports of others’ failures and deriving a perverse satisfaction from what I would like to believe they prove about me.
No doubt ACNA has a lot to repent of. No doubt the Episcopal Church has a lot to repent of. But at this point, having read this article, you will find it impossible to politely overlook what I have to repent of, because I’ve been remarking it myself.
But just give me a few minutes, and I will forget it again.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.