February: Grace in Fallibility


I’ve recently started watching the series “The Borgias” on Showtime, which chronicles the life and family of Rodrigo Borgia.  Borgia was a priest in the Catholic Church during the Italian Renaissance, who later was appointed Cardinal, and then finally elected pope. Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, and does a fine job in the role of this highly controversial pope.

Borgia was controversial at the time for several reasons – he was not Italian (from Aragon instead), and the celibacy required of a pope seemed to be a challenge to him. The extended Borgia family likewise was suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder – all employed in their grasp for power in the name of the church.

The Borgia family remains an archetype for religious corruption. While few in the church have outdone this family in their excess, corruption nonetheless remains a challenge for the church. The Episcopal Church is no stranger, sadly, to corruption as well. We have seen it in this Diocese, and nationally as well. The most recent example involves the hit and run killing of cyclist, husband, and father Thomas Palermo, by the Episcopal Suffragan Bishop in Maryland, Heather Cook.

Cook was charged with texting while driving, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and driving with an alcohol blood level of .22, more than twice the legal limit. She is facing manslaughter charges, and could spend the rest of her life in prison. Cook was recently elected bishop this past September, but this was not the first time she was charged with drunken driving. She was pulled over once before her election and the police officer noted that she reeked of alcohol, had vomit down the front of her blouse and there was a bottle of wine, a container of hard liquor and marijuana in the car. Her blood alcohol content was .27. The tragedy in all this is that many of those who elected her Bishop, were unaware of this previous DUI.

In my prayers, I pray for all involved in this situation, including the Palermo and Cook families. Addiction is a cruel disease, and while Cook’s addiction crossed a severe threshold, we nonetheless are also subject to the addictive and often corrosive patterns of our behaviors. I am not naive enough to believe that one day the church will be free of corruption, but my sincere prayer is that we might have the eyes to see God’s grace in the midst of human fallibility.

No sermon, newsletter article, or payout will change the sad news that has come out of Maryland. My hope is that in the midst of this, we will not immediately rush to judgment, but rather pray and intercede for those most hurt by our church.  

If anything, corruption reminds us that the church is a human institution, and therefore prone to hubris, arrogance, and greed. We do our best, and it is only by God’s grace that, in spite of ourselves, we nonetheless remain a church. Please know this article is not some sort of preface before revealing a skeleton in my closet (okay, I am a fan of Tom Jones, and even saw him once in Las Vegas, but that’s all you’re going to get!). Rather, I write this to remind us that as Christians, our task is not to judge, but to pray. Our sincere prayers will always guide our actions in the right direction.  

As Episcopalians, we do not practice private confession. However, there is a rite for individual confession in the prayer book entitled “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.” It prescribes the setting for a confessor to privately confess their sins to a priest. After receiving absolution, the priest concludes the service with these words: “Abide in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.” The power of that conclusion is that it drives home the point that all of us as members of Christ’s church are equally subject to sin and brokenness. And that is the grace, because we need each other. We need each other’s prayers. I hold you in my prayers. Will you, in turn, pray for me, a sinner?