A leader at my former church sent me a heads-up: “Our Easter flower donations list includes several donations by parishioners in appreciation of Scott and [his wife].” This leader didn’t want me to be blind-sided if I attended Holy Week or Easter services. I told her how much I appreciated her thoughtfulness. It feels good to have a church leader thinking, “How will my decisions affect someone who was harmed in my church?”
But she could have taken it a step further. I’m glad the church didn’t refuse the tribute donation, even though it honors a man who caused me such harm. The congregation loved Scott. Grief is a long and painful process, and we need to remember that denial and anger are part of the process. It may take years (or a lifetime) for Scott’s admirers to accept the fact of his guilt. Meanwhile, they are doing what they can to show their love.
Even given in love, these flowers create a hostile environment for victims and survivors. If Scott had harmed another woman at St Paul’s, and if she were trying to decide whether to come forward, the floral tribute might silence her forever.
How might church leaders address this problem? To balance things out, they could invite donations of flowers to honor the voices of survivors of abuse, or they could pass the hat at the staff meeting and make that donation themselves. They could include an awareness message in the service bulletins — unusual during Holy Week, but all the more impactful. They could pump up the publicity for the the classes on clergy misconduct.
Yes, you read that right! Next month, St Paul’s will offer a three-week series on clergy misconduct during the Sunday adult education hour. I was thrilled when I heard about it. I don’t plan to attend; the congregation needs to have an honest conversation, and my presence might make that difficult. But I am delighted they are doing this work. So — in response to the flowers honoring Scott, the church could make a stronger effort to get people to those classes.
Even more important: church leaders could recognize the grief in those floral tributes. Along with the educational effort, they could embark on a conscious course of healing for the congregation. It wouldn’t be easy; it would take a lot longer than three weeks. Rebuilding trust and vibrancy could take years. Hopkins & Laaser’s Restoring the Soul of a Church (Liturgical Press, 1995) tells stories of congregational healing; the leaders at St Paul’s might use these stories to generate their own process, including a liturgy of healing — because no one does liturgy like Episcopalians.
Speaking of liturgy: later this spring, St Paul’s will offer a service of healing for survivors of clergy misconduct. It will be open to all denominations. Even though I consider myself substantially healed, I’ll be at that service. I don’t expect any miracles; I know even the best liturgy can’t undo the damage or erase the scars of my experience. But then again, a floral tribute can’t erase Scott’s disgrace or restore him to the priesthood either. A healing service, like the floral tribute, is a gift of compassion and love.
And I accept with gratitude.