The awful death Saturday in Baltimore of a biker who was hit by an Episcopal bishop has set off questions around the country: How long after she hit the man did she return to the scene? Could dividers bordering the bike lane have helped?
But mostly: How could a member of the clergy do that kind of thing?
Baltimore police have released almost no information about what they believe happened Saturday when Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook hit the bike of Thomas Palermo before leaving the scene and returning some time later. But that hasn’t stopped the incident from immediately setting off passionate debate about our expectations of religious leaders and exactly what kind of flaws should disqualify someone from the clergy. The case shows that even with Americans’ cynicism about institutional religion, many pine to hold faith leaders to a higher standard.
Well-trafficked public and private listservs and blogs about church life have been filled with people quoting scripture for both the notion that clergy be “above reproach” as well as the need for forgiveness, redemption and grace.
“Clergy are human, and that’s the harsh reality of this moment. Despite our wanting to be whole and healthy and hopeful people, we’re all too human in these moments,” said the Rev. Cameron Trimble, a United Church of Christ pastor who heads a consulting firm to help churches.
First Sunday came the news that the driver in the crash was a bishop — the No. 2 Episcopal bishop in the Diocese of Maryland — which initially drew a national audience intrigued by the moral complications of a high-ranking clergy possibly abandoning someone who was hurt. Then Monday and Tuesday came additional detail about an ugly 2010 drunk driving arrest involving Cook, then a priest. Police records show she was so drunk she couldn’t even complete the sobriety tests, had apparently thrown up on her shirt while driving and was driving on only three wheels as one tire had been worn to its rims.
The fact that top church leaders involved in picking Cook as bishop knew of the 2010 incident — though they didn’t share the information with all people voting — intensely divided people who took to the Web to debate whether it should have immediately disqualified her from becoming a bishop.
“I think we make a mistake when we extend ‘judge not’ to leadership. This is a Bishop, and we must hold our leaders accountable. I Timothy 3, whether you agree with the ‘letter of the law’ or not, is clearly asking us to make judgments about leadership,” wrote one of many commenters on the popular episcopalcafe blog, citing the long list of qualifications of an “overseer” in one part of New Testament scripture that can seem both ancient and modern.
“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money,” the Book of Timothy reads. “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him..he must not be a recent convert.”
More contemporary liturgy for high clergy is a bit less specific about disqualifiers, emphasizing the need to be merciful, prayerful and willing to evangelize.
“Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?” asks the section of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer about ordaining bishops.
Someone else on the episcopalcafe blog responded to say simply having a DUI shouldn’t disqualify someone — after all, the writer said, Cook could have been in recovery from drinking.
“After all, there are many fine church people — clergy and laity alike — who are sober and have served in their positions for many years without scandal or injury to anyone,” an author identified as “Karen” wrote.
As blogs and well-trafficked Facebook pages and listservs logged hundreds of comments apiece, experts on clergy hiring, leaders involved in electing Cook and other top clergy from various denominations refused to comment on the record. Specifics of Cook’s case aren’t yet known and she is a high-ranking leader in the Episcopal Church.
Trimble said it’s her experience that something like a DUI wouldn’t automatically disqualify a person from being considered for priest or bishop. Trimble works with various Mainline Protestant denominations.
“As people of faith, the undergirding value is of forgiveness, and so redemption,” she said. “As people go through these systems, a lot of people have lots of things in their past. The question would be how she handled talking about that incident, was she transparent, and did she take all the appropriate steps in that instance [in 2010] that a healthy person would?”
Trimble emphasized that she doesn’t know Cook or the details of her specific case.
Many commenters were outraged that the diocese’s search committee picked her — particularly as she was the first woman bishop in the diocese --to be the No. 2 or “suffragan” bishop. While female priests are common the in the Episcopal Church (which is headed by one) the broader Anglican Communion of which it is part remains sharply divided on the issue of women leadership. The Church of England — the English wing of the Communion — just named its first female bishop earlier this month.
“Could someone tell me where the hell the Suffragan Search Committee was on this one?” wrote one commenter. “Heather Cook led the field in a slate of five women candidates. It strikes me that Maryland’s political zeal to have a woman suffragan blinded the people who should have vetted all five properly.”