Anglican Watch frequent fliers club members know we are not fans of the Diocese of Virginia. Indeed, from where we sit, the diocese has been poorly governed for years, and things only got worse during the litigation and Shannon Johnston’s tenure.
Neither is it a secret that we’ve been dubious about Mark Stevenson. But our view is starting to soften, and we are cautiously — very cautiously — becoming more optimistic. And because we’ve been so vigorous in our criticisms, we think it’s only fair to update readers on our mildly shifting position.
Here are the deets.
Several of us on the Anglican Watch (AW) team have been around the diocese, in one capacity or another, for a long time. Our concerns about the diocese extend back to the 1970s and cover myriad fronts.
Among our most significant concerns over the years:
- Diocesan culture rarely established normative behaviors or a sense of shared purpose for the diocese.
- A tendency towards secrecy, governance via good old boys, sloppy recordkeeping, and a lack of transparency.
- A milquetoast episcopacy that tended to ignore problems versus addressing them.
Consider: even the amount of +Lee’s compensation was not public until it emerged during the property recovery litigation. That may have been okay in the 1970s, but it’s just not going to fly today,
Flash forward to the +Johnston years. Johnston’s primary focus was winning the property recovery litigation and telling people what they wanted to hear. Unfortunately, while the former swallowed significant amounts of cash, time, and attention, the latter allowed Johnston to sing a siren’s song that lured many into complacency.
Unfortunately, with the focus on the litigation, Johnston largely ignored everything else. As a result, we observed within the diocese:
- A lack of direction.
- A broken transition system.
- A lack of formation, both for clergy and laity.
- Staggering levels of churn among Mayo House staff.
- A dysfunctional committee on ministry, marked by the ordination of numerous persons unsuited to ministry.
- A breakdown in leadership by example, with Johnston and other insiders making decisions without reference to the ethical implications.
- A lack of support for parishes, including a lack of templated stewardship resources. That’s a huge gap, as it would be in the diocese’s best interest to see financially healthy parishes.
- Lack of meaningful discernment when filling slots on the standing committee and other leadership positions. As a result, to this day we see persons in these roles who lack spiritual maturity.
Meanwhile, even as multiple Mayo House employees left diocesan employment — and in many cases, the Christian faith altogether, due to their experiences working with Johnston — Johnston was falsely telling diocese members what they wanted to hear: things were going great at Mayo House.
AW staff also had personal experience with duplicity on Johnston’s part. For example, in one case, it quickly became apparent that Johnston was telling one group one thing while telling another the opposite. Predictably, this led to conflict, as people concluded that others were providing false information.
Indeed, AW editor Eric Bonetti’s mother, then dying of COPD, referred to Johnston as “Janus, the two-faced God.”
Johnston’s propensity for manipulating public perception came into sharp focus on his way out the door. Initially, he stated he was retiring due to issues with staff. And while he didn’t say what those issues were, he did say they didn’t involve sexual misconduct. As a result, people wondered, “Okay, so what IS going on? If it doesn’t include sexual misconduct, why can’t you say what is happening?”
Later, Johnston tried to finesse things to make it sound like he was going out on a high note versus a meltdown. As a result, people were even more confused.
Also eroding confidence was the collapse of the search for a bishop suffragan. An outcome that was entirely expected by many, the diocese tried to weasel-word its way out of the mess.
And once Johnston was gone and the search began for a bishop transitional, no one believed the diocese’s claim that no one wanted to move to the area for three years. That’s particularly the case with all sorts of retired bishops floating loose in the DC area and around Virginia theological seminary. The reality is no one wanted to deal with the hot mess that is the Diocese of Virginia — and who could blame them?
When Susan Goff agreed to serve as ecclesiastical authority for the diocese, many viewed the situation with hope.
Goff started with her listening tours and the stated purpose of working to heal conflict and division in the diocese. But soon after, she was diagnosed with cancer, and nothing came of this other than a ceasefire with the Trustees of the Funds–a little bit of internecine warfare that was obvious even within parishes. And one of the issues was rightly the subject of dispute: drawing down investments to fund diocesan operations was a recipe for disaster.
Then the pandemic hit, and many viewed Goff’s primary role in the diocese as avoiding catching COVID herself, as she largely disappeared from view, occasionally surfacing to offer some message related to the liturgical calendar.
The election of Mark Stevenson
Unsurprisingly, the election of Mark Stevenson was a bumpy affair. Many objected to the fact that all four candidates were cisgender, straight, white men.
In response, Goff and some of her loyalists tried to get assistant bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson added to the slate from the convention floor, but the effort failed when put to a vote.
Soon after the first round of voting, one candidate withdrew from consideration. As a result, the convention quickly elected Mark Stevenson as bishop.
But the controversy didn’t stop there. Soon after, the diocese announced that the consecration would happen at an SBC church. Between the announcement, not long before, that the SBC was under FBI investigation for concealing child sexual abuse and the SBC’s lobbying to undercut same-sex marriage/LGBTQ+ rights nationwide, this publication vehemently objected to the decision.
And while the diocese initially was projecting standing room only at the event, it was not long before the diocese reversed course in an effort to “get out the vote.”
Similarly, while we laud efforts to increase diversity among diocesan leadership, we were and are concerned about the choice of Gayle Harris as assistant bishop.
Specifically, while her worldview is generally very close to ours, we are still appalled by the handling of her comments about Israeli behavior during her visit to the Middle East. Yes, we recognize that it’s possible to overstate an issue in a moment of enthusiasm. But having made a mistake, own up to it. Don’t erode our respect by saying, “I unintentionally framed it,” and otherwise trying to weasel-word things.
Subsequently, a team member met with Stevenson a couple of months ago. While we treat the conversation as confidential, those present report that they found Stevenson credible and believe him to be sincere and honest.
And while Stevenson has our editor, Eric Bonetti, blocked on Facebook, the rest of us enjoy reading his posts. We deeply respect Stevenson’s commitment to his wife, who has a memory disorder, especially since we see so many Episcopal clergy who play fast and loose with their marriage vows. Or treat their spouse with contempt and disrespect.
We also see that Stevenson appears to be serious about improving things within the diocese. These improvements include:
- Focusing on leading by example. This approach has been sorely lacking in the past, with the worst role models often diocesan leaders.
- Strengthening formation versus doing church.
- Improving diocesan communication, which in the past often has been haphazard, lacking in overall messaging and strategy, and sometimes downright disingenuous.
- Strengthening requirements for postulants. We’re all for it, as we believe too many candidates wind up ordained because no one wants to give them a hard no.
- Something we ardently support: reinforcing the importance of personal and professional integrity. As we have often said, the Episcopal Church can only survive if it operates with integrity. And that is not the same as being politically correct; we’re pretty crunchy, but being crunchy is not the same as having integrity.
Will Stevenson turn around the flagging fortunes of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia?
We’re not sure. If nothing else, it’s a big diocese. Its priorities have been out of kilter for a long time. And clergy discipline has been a hot mess–ignore the bishop, and you get fried, but engage in criminal conduct or sexually harass someone, and you get a pass. Moreover, we remain unimpressed by the diocesan standing committee. And things like the diocesan convention remain hugely bloated at a time when the church needs to spend more time evangelizing and less time in meetings.
Those are significant challenges, and turning those issues around is difficult.
But our fingers are crossed that Stevenson will be successful. Virginia is a large, diverse diocese with many positive attributes, and we hope it will survive. And while we’re not ready to retract our dubious assessment of the state of the diocese, we are officially tempering those comments.