Thinking faithfully about sexual misconduct

Jamie Howison reflects on the issue of sexual misconduct as it impacts the church


everal years ago, I invited Dr Brett Cane, a priest-colleague then new to our diocese, to come to the parish I was pastoring and lead us through an exploration of worship space and church architecture.  Prior to ordination Brett had worked as an architect, is well-versed in the history of church buildings, and that evening he offered up a challenging presentation about how our little church space might better “work” for us.

At the end of the session, I suggested he and I go for coffee or maybe a beer, and Brett immediately opted for the beer.  When we sat down at our table in the restaurant lounge, he explained that some years back he had made a decision to never partake of alcohol on his own, and so he quite relished the opportunity to have a drink with a friend.  He went on to say that as a single man, he had found this a prudent practice.  “After all,” he said, “you do know that the two things most likely to get clergy in trouble are alcohol and sex.”

Well, I suppose it didn’t entirely surprise me, though I was a bit taken aback by just how bluntly it was stated.  Brett went on to talk a bit about how the abuse of alcohol and sex are both used as forms of self-medication by clergy; people who are often in places of feeling themselves required to meet the needs of others, and (as the old line goes…) whose “work is never done.”   Quite pointedly, he added that as a single man he was more vulnerable to falling into patterns of abuse, as he lived without the mutual accountability that comes in the context of the married life.

And there are interesting parallels between alcohol and sexuality.  The deuterocanonical book of Ecclesiasticus – a  Jewish wisdom book written in the period between the Old and New Testaments – includes the following reflection on wine:

Wine is very life to human beings
if taken in moderation.
What is life to one who is without wine?
It has been created to make people happy.
Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation
is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.
Wine drunk to excess leads to bitterness of spirit,
to quarrels and stumbling.
Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his own hurt,
reducing his strength and adding wounds.
(Ecclesiasticus 31:27-30)

In short, wine is a good thing, gifted to us by the Creator… but it is also a dangerous thing, which can lead to all kinds of heartbreak when abused.  The very same thing can be said of our sexuality, in that it is a gift and a great good; but then think of the heartbreak it can cause when it is used simply for self-gratification, as a means of control and manipulation, or as an emotional anesthetic.

I’ve thought about these things many times over the years, but recently my conversation with Brett has come to mind with a real poignancy.  As many of you will be aware, the Winnipeg Free Press quite recently ran a story about the extra-marital affair that had resulted in the resignation of the director of Siloam Mission, a local ministry to marginalized people.  A very high profile figure in our city, this man’s sexual misconduct was just the latest in a long, sad series of similar events.  In the past few months we’ve heard of the Roman Catholic bishop in Nova Scotia who was charged with offenses related to child pornography, and within the last few weeks I received news of a less high-profile child pornography case against a much respected Anglican priest in Newfoundland.

Needless to say, the widely publicized story of Tiger Woods and his series of affairs is a reminder that it is not just clergy who can get themselves in such trouble.  People might be tempted to look at photographs of Woods’ wife, and ask themselves, “what was he thinking, cheating on her,” but that is to make some assumptions about a supposed correlation between physical beauty and sexual intimacy.  It also represents a misunderstanding about how sexual activity, when divorced from a relationship of trust and intimacy, can become merely self-gratifying in a drug-like way.

And it isn’t always men.  I do not for a minute dispute that the majority of transgressions that get aired in the public square do have a man at the centre.  I also believe that there are real differences between the way in which men and women experience their own sexuality; their own power and vulnerability.  Think, though, of the very public acting-out of a Britney Spears or a Courtney Love, and you have to admit that in spite of the fact that the media seems to revel in their wild and erratic behaviors, their lives are no less disordered than those of that bishop or of at least one former president of the United States.

But back to Tiger Woods:  what did he think he was doing?  Well, it is hard to really know, and in fact he may not have much of a sense of what all was motivating him, but it probably had at least something to do with his being on a kind of hero’s pedestal, from which he could ask for – and get – just about anything he wanted.  Easy to convince yourself that you are entitled to indulge, when you spend your life revered by fans and marketers alike, and are credited with being a major figure in extending one of the world’s biggest sporting goods manufacturers into the golf market.   As in the case of the biblical figure of King David in his affair with Bathsheba, things really get dangerous when you begin to believe your own myth.

But clergy?  We are not exactly the marketer’s dream, and most of us are a whole world away from being the “rock star pastors” who have arisen both in the mega-church and the emergent church movements, but there is certainly a sad history of placing some clergy on pedestals.  Any church context in which the pastor (or bishop or priest…) always “knows best” is not healthy for anyone, and when that dynamic evolves into an unspoken prohibition against questioning the preacher’s authority it becomes downright dangerous.

I suspect, though, that more often it is not a pedestal that is at work, but rather an experience of loneliness and of spiritual exhaustion.  Some twenty years ago, Hauerwas and Willimon wrote about this in their classic book, Resident Aliens:

Because the church is not a place to worship God, but rather a therapeutic center for the meeting of one another’s unchecked needs, the pastor is exhausted…  Not knowing why their pastor is there, the congregation expects the pastor to be and do everything.  They become unrealistic critics of the clergy rather than coworkers, fellow truth-tellers.

The burden of being a generally good person, open and available to people of unbounded need, is too great for anybody to bear.  Self-hate and loneliness result. (p. 124)

And frankly, it just doesn’t have to be that way.  Not only can clergy not meet everyone’s unchecked needs, we shouldn’t be in that business in the first place.  Right alongside of the myth of unchallengeable authority comes the illusion of being indispensible and endlessly needed.  Again from Resident Aliens:

The church at worship continues to be the acid-test for all parish ministry.  In our worship, we retell and are held accountable to God’s story, the adventure story about what God is doing with us in Christ.  All ministry can be evaluated by essentially liturgical criteria: How well does the act of ministry enable people to be with God?  … Pastors would do well to examine their schedules and ruthlessly delete any activity unable to be an opportunity to help us do that which we do in worship. (138-39)

That doesn’t mean that clergy should spend all of their time prepping for and leading worship, but rather that we should always be looking at things in terms of that crucial question, “how well does the act of ministry enable people to be with God?”  This hospital visit or that conversation in a coffee shop; this study group or that marriage preparation session; this social event or that planning meeting; are these things enabling us to be with God?  Or are we being little more than sanctified social workers, generally nice and helpful people, and micro-managers in the administrative structure of our churches?

It might sound like a bit of madness, but in following the latter job description the pastor may well be setting him or herself up to want a bit of that self-medication, perhaps of the sort that at least some have found in a bottle or a bed.  I think, too, that here at least some version of the pedestal is at work.  It is all fine for a pastor to have some version of a misspent youth or a great conversion/awakening story that speaks of earlier struggles.  But what if that pastor’s life is coming off the rails ten years into ministry?  What if she or he is fighting depression, dealing with some temptation to act out sexually, or flirting at the edges of addiction?  Can he or she actually say that out loud to someone?  Seek real help?  Tell the truth about what they are experiencing?  Or does it all get repressed and hidden, only to fester to the point where it becomes all but uncontrollable?

And here, I really wonder about that bishop with his predilection for images of young boys, or that mission director and his affair with his employee.  Could either of them have confided in someone at an earlier stage of things, and maybe not only avoided the acting out, but through a real process of accountability and discernment become more integrated in life and faith than they’d even dreamed possible?  Could our churches be the sorts of places where that is actually possible?

For those who fear that such misconduct throws the legitimacy of the offending person’s entire ministry out the window – that now the work of Siloam Mission is ruined or compromised – the Anglican tradition has always come with a perspective that says that God is bigger than our personal failings, and that good and true ministry can come even through one who is living in brokenness (see particularly Article XXVI of the 39 Articles of Religion – “Of the unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament”).  I personally find that to be good and comforting news.

I admire Brett Cane in all of this.  His willingness to look at his own shortcomings and vulnerabilities and to then build boundaries that keep him intact is very wise.  I’d like to think that my own church community is as realistic about my shortcomings and my vulnerabilities, such that I am not likely to get devoured by a parade of endless needs, and in those seasons when I might find my knees buckling under some kind of interior strain, I’ll be given the space to be a person with needs or hurts, and the resources and grace to find my way back.

The greatest gift we can give to each other – clergy and lay people alike – is a real space in which our truth can be told, our struggles shared, and our wounds tended.  Our weaknesses must not be hidden away in shame, for as St Paul teaches us, in Christ “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10)… but only if we have the courage and the humility to admit those weaknesses.

Jamie Howison

2 Responses to Thinking faithfully about sexual misconduct

  1. Anderson says:

    I think this is such a timely discussion. Scary, perhaps, to think about how many pastors could be living in this dark place, feeling as though there is no chance of the difficult revealing act. I think the book of James has it right when it says those who confess their sins to each other will be healed. I think I was reading something written by Bonhoeffer (sp?) in which he said to the effect that being “truthful” to God but not to man is not really being all that truthful after all. Maybe we are made for this confession to one another. Have we even tapped into the power of revealing ourselves to one another, the healing that CAN come from that? Just some thoughts…

  2. byron says:

    I just re-read this Jamie, and I am happy to report to you that I am removing you from your pedestal. Clearly it is for your own protection.

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