I am sure it is difficult for each of us to take in the events which have transpired in the Diocese of Maryland since the afternoon of Saint John’s Day in December. A new ministry begun with such joy and promise has been waylaid by tragedy and death. People in and out of the Church rightly feel shock, grief, betrayal and a wide range of other emotions. An innocent man is dead, a wife is widowed, and two children have lost their father, while extended family and friends are stricken by loss and sorrow.
Death happens daily around our city, state, nation and the world, and we read of tragedies un-numbered in passing, perhaps with a note of sadness, perhaps as just another headline. We have become inured to the commonality of daily death. Perhaps this must be so lest we be overcome by despair at so much grief and loss. But this particular death, this particular loss, engages us and is made immediate because one of our own, one of “us”, is at the heart it. Only someone who has no concept of what a church or Christian community is could possibly say as an Anglican Christian, “This doesn’t concern me.” Someone we have entrusted with the cure of souls and with leadership in example of Christian witness to a wider world, someone who represents us in Christ’s name, has brought death into our midst and to a circle of humanity who are now no longer strangers to us.
What should our response be? First, compassion and support for the family of Mr Palermo. It would be unfortunate, but, understandable for them to reject any ‘official’ overtures from us, but we can all offer up our prayers for them, and make ourselves ready to do what we can to assist in whatever ways we might discover. Second, contributions to their children’s educational fund could be made through the Diocese of Maryland or through one of the cycling groups to which Mr Palermo belonged.
We must also hold our Bishop Suffragan, Heather Cook, in compassionate prayer. In mere seconds her life and the ministry we entrusted to her were shattered. What we know is her acknowledgement of the accident and the charges laid against her. What we do not know about with any certainty is legal guilt or innocence. That judgement is for the legal process; it is not ours to make or speculate about at this time. Our Bishop and the Presiding Bishop have appropriately inhibited Bishop Cook from the exercise of any ministry in the Church at this time.
The provision of the Canons dealing with the discipline of the Clergy has been invoked and, falling under her jurisdiction, the Presiding Bishop has initiated an investigation. The Canons require that the investigation remain private until it is complete. There will be no steady stream of factual updates. The Church is not CNN. The investigation will follow the published, open, and transparent requirements of the Canons in a timely and orderly fashion. At its conclusion the findings will be made public. There may be updates as to the progress of the investigation itself. It is important to understand that the Church’s investigations are not criminal investigations in the same sense as legal criminal investigations. It is an investigation into whether or not evidence exists to discipline a member of the clergy— or laity —in accordance with the Canons, and whether or not an individual may continue to exercise any ministry in the Church. Through all of this ordeal, we must keep our Bishop Suffragan in our prayers and in our hearts. She is a person beloved of Christ and for whom he died; that alone calls us to compassion and reconciliation.
It hardly needs to be said that our diocesan Bishop, Bishop Sutton, is also in need of our continuing prayer, and those of his and Bishop Cook’s staff who have worked so closely together. Nor should we neglect to remember before God the members of the former Search Committee for a Suffragan Bishop. This has been a tortuous time for all of them, with many conflicting responsibilities and emotions. Pray for them, for wisdom, comfort, discernment, encouragement, and right actions.
Finally, it likely that it will take a great deal of time for reconciliation with the events which are still unfolding, both for us as a diocesan family and for the Palermo family. Some may never achieve it. However, it is of the utmost importance for each of us to remember that reconciliation is the very ministry explicitly entrusted to us by Jesus– it is the Christian ministry. We were not called by Jesus to judge our neighbour, but to love him or her. True reconciliation requires compassion, patience, understanding, discernment, forgiveness— indeed, all of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These have amply been given us in Baptism; it is for us to accept and use them. Heather Elizabeth Cook is not an outcast. She is now more than ever a broken woman in need of the healing power of God in his Holy Spirit. The Palermos are a grieving, hurting family in deep need of the same. Our role is to be instruments of reconciliation when and where and however that is possible. At the same time, the call of the many ministries around us which lead to personal and societal reconciliations in God’s great world still have their claim upon us. While remembering and offering to God our concerns for the Palermos and for Bishop Cook, we must not neglect these.
As we go about the work of the Church, if anyone needs sacramental reconciliation or spiritual counsel regarding these on-going events, please do not hesitate to contact the church office at 410.467.4793 and leave a message. May the Lord who loves us, and gave himself for us, lead us into all truth in all peace, in accordance with his will.
Jesse L. A. Parker, Rector of Saint John’s Church