A Spin Through the Work of the #MeToo Committee

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The House of Deputies Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation, known informally as the #MeToo committee, has submitted 24 resolutions to General Convention. They touch on so many aspects of church life that following their progress in real time requires one of the little electric scooters that are popular among tourists in Austin.

You can scoot to the J. W. Marriott to hear the legislative Committee on Safeguarding and Title IV hear testimony from Deputy Julia Ayala Harris of Oklahoma on why the church should establish a truth and reconciliation task force to help the church “engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms by those in power in the Church…” And then head over to the Hilton Austin where Deputy Beth Scriven of Missouri is explaining to the Committee on Constitution and Canons why the church needs to toughen its anti-discrimination canons. And then later visit the Convention Center where Deputy Laurie Brock of Lexington and others are appealing to the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to make the money available for some of the key initiatives.

That’s a full day, but you missed the work that Deputy Laura Russell of Newark and her sub-committee have put before the Committee on Social Justice and United States policy, and the various inclusive and expansive language resolutions that Alternate Deputy Ruth Meyers of California and her sub-committee submitted to the two legislative committees working on the prayer book and other texts for worship.

Fortunately, General Convention is just getting started.

Meyers, who is the vice-chair of the entire #MeToo effort, said the group understood shortly after it was appointed in February by House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings that it needed to cast a wide net. The 47 members were appointed to five subgroups, one each on theology and language, structural equity, Title IV and training issues, truth and reconciliation efforts and social justice for women.

“We recognize that this problem is multi layered and complex,” said Meyers, who is academic dean and Hodges-Haynes professor of liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. “It was exciting to sit down with the conveners and look at the scope of the resolutions. Just to see the energy and thoughtfulness people were bringing to this work I am really excited to see where it is going to go.”

Russell, who chaired the subcommittee on social justice for women, agreed. “We all knew the issues existed,” she said. “We weren’t shocked by hearing them. We were just so happy to be together and to be able to talk about them.”

Perhaps the most notable of the resolutions, the call for the truth and reconciliation task force, was amended to encompass parts of Resolution A109 (Create a Task Force on Sexual Harassment) and approved by the Safeguarding and Title IV committee yesterday.  A clause calling for “inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity,” was included in the omnibus prayer book revision resolution (A068) that will go before the House of Deputies this afternoon.

Most of the other resolutions, including those seeking to reverse inequities in pay and pension, await committee action.

The work of each subcommittee had its own distinctive character. The two subcommittees on structural issue focused on straightforward questions of employment discrimination, says Deputy Crystal Plummer of Chicago.

“Throughout church life, if women don’t have equal access to jobs and to know what jobs in cardinal parishes are out there, if they don’t have access to those positions don’t know about those positions, aren’t considered for those positions and are diverted to part-times jobs or churches that aren’t as well-heeled they won’t get the same salaries and their lesser salaries throughout their careers and they won’t’ get the same pensions as their male counterparts,” she said.

The group’s resolutions include a call to keep collecting the data that makes the church’s problem with employment discrimination evident.

“I don’t feel like people just want to be unfair,” said Plummer, interim director of networking in the Diocese of Chicago. “I could be idealistic about this but I get the feeling that especially around gender issues there is more of an openness and willingness to hear perspectives on this and consider them. The stuff we have is very factually based.”

Deputy Molly James of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut said the sub-committee on Title IV and anti-sexism training issues got off to a fast start because several members had worked together on the Standing Commission on Structure Governance, Constitution and Canons during the triennium, and their work came into focus quickly.

“A large part of why [Title IV] doesn’t work,” she said, “is that the process can still be political and people involved can still have conflicts of interest.” Her subcommittee proposed the creation of a churchwide intake officer to handle cases that victims might not want to report in their own dioceses.

“For far too long it hasn’t been safe to tell these stories in the church for lots of people,” said James, who is dean of formation in Connecticut. “So finding ways and creating structures that would allow that to happen without people feeling so afraid of the consequences was a big part of our work.

“Our motivation for change was very high,” she said. “The structural changes and these canonical changes can have real impact. But acknowledging that is only the beginning of the work.”

The sub-committee on theology and language began its work in a more expansive way. “We started by talking about the issues we identified in our language and theology and the ways those issues contributed to a climate that allowed exploitation and harassment to exist and ways that they hamper mission and evangelism,” Meyers said. “One of our members talked about inviting people to church and talking about what a welcoming and expansive community it was and then feeling that when she brought her friend to the liturgy it was kind of a bait and switch because the language of the liturgy is very masculine.”

In addition to a resolution on prayer book revision, the committee submitted a resolution that might be useful if prayer book revision fails. Resolution D046 “encourage(s) the use of inclusive and expansive language within existing authorized resources, including but not limited to the Book of Common Prayer and Enriching Our Worship, by replacing masculine-gendered language for God with feminine or neutral language.” It also encourages the development on expansive language liturgies on a local level.

“We are calling for grassroots development of liturgical resources and asking people to send those resources to the SCLM,” Meyers said. “This is encouraging continuing development of liturgy and on a local level as appropriate. But prayer book revision has to happen as authorized by the general convention.”

The social justice sub-committee spent a lot of time looking through the online archives of the Episcopal Church examining stands the church had already taken on immigration, the social safety net and other issues.

“General Convention has addressed most of these topics under other headings,” Russell said. “Our work refocuses these issues to make it clear that in many instances women are the ones who bear the brunt of failed policies.

“If you look at the immigration issue, for instance, when you talk about how people cross the borders and end up in detention centers, the face of the problem is women and children,” she said. “Men tend to cross the border in a different fashion.”

She expects Resolution D032, Equal Access to Health Care Regardless of Gender, which asks the church to “recognize that women’s reproductive health and reproductive health procedures should be treated as all other medical procedures,” to be perhaps the most contentious resolution.

Ayala Harris said her sub-committee felt called to frame their work in such a way that it kept the #MeToo conversation “focused on women, but not exclusively on women because we know there is sexual assault toward men and boys and sexual harassment for men and boys. So how can we show leadership on that while keeping the focus on women?”

They found an answer by exploring the work other churches had done on issues of sexual harassment and exploitation. As she said in her remarks to the legislative committee yesterday, “It is important to note that among the many models for our church to lean on as we embark on a truth and reconciliation process; the creation of the mandate and the task force in this resolution has been inspired by our full communion partner the ELCA and their Women and Justice: One in Christ Task Force that was formed in 2009.”

The reason, she added, why the subcommittee didn’t call upon the presiding bishop’s office to immediately open the church’s books on previous Title IV cases involving bishops, for instance, is that members were “trying to learn from the example of international friends in Rwanda, South Africa and Canada.

“How do you go about truth and reconciliation commission and where do you begin? Slowly by the creation of a task force that makes discernment about what qualities are part of a truth and reconciliation process.”

Hearings on the #MeToo committees resolutions, all but two of which are D resolutions (submitted by deputies) continues at sites in and around the convention center today.