Signs suggest Mark Stevenson may be bringing positive change to the Diocese of Virginia

Canon Mark Stevenson

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?

Susan Goff

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.

Looking forward

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.


  1. I’m surprised you are not aware of the improper machinations undertaken in regards to the election of Stevenson. Basic bishop selection procedures were subverted to clear the way for him to be elected. A member of the Search Committee was disciplined for trying to improperly sabotage one the other candidates, after the committee had put that person on the slate. A member of the Standing Committee resigned over the improper way the petition process was handled, which also resulted in a protest letter to the Standing Committee signed by a large number of people representing a significant cross-section of the diocese. It seems entirely possible that 815 had a role in this, given Stevenson’s position prior to being elected bishop.

    As Stevenson himself has said, things that begin badly rarely end well.

    1. Hi Jill. Thank you for your comment.

      We’re aware of the controversy over Stevenson’s consecration. That said, at this point nothing would surprise us.

      We also were very unhappy about the decision to consecrate Stevenson in an SBC church—especially since, just weeks before, we’d had another wave of scandal emerge from the SBC. Similarly, we object to the decision to use a venue that actively opposes marriage equality, which is true for the SBC generally. Why should diocesan funds subsidize an organization that actively works against the Episcopal church and its values? And we can think of many, many venues that would have been more than willing to host the event, and where there would have been no issue over inclusion.

      You likely are right about 815. Time and again, we see insiders like Chilton Knudsen get a pass, even when their behavior is questionable, at best. Nor do the machinations ever end at 815.

      Similarly, we object to the lack of transparency around these issues. The days are over when people are willing to sit in the pews, do as they are told, and send money, no questions asked.

      Meanwhile, the church seems trapped in a 1970’s time warp, where women are still second-class citizens, sexual harassment and bullying are okay, and folks like the Holleriths call the shots because they have money.

      1. Open Letter to the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Virginia, copy to
        Bishop Susan Goff
        On Friday, May 6, 2022, three members of our Petition Group wrote to you
        following the announcement that you were not going to advance any further
        candidates to the slate. That message stated, in part:
        Twenty-nine nomination forms were submitted for Bishop Jennifer Brooke-
        Davidson. More than sixty were received, but some were from the members
        of the same congregation and therefore could not be counted. As three of
        those who signed a nomination form for Bishop Brooke-Davidson, we are
        stunned at this outcome.
        Our concern is that there is something in Bishop Brooke-Davidson’s
        background that renders her unfit to be called as the next Bishop Diocesan
        in Virginia. Having worked closely with her, we cannot imagine that this is
        the case. After all, if it were so, why would she then be eligible to serve as
        the Assisting Bishop in the Diocese? But honestly, there can be no other
        reason for failing to advance her to the final slate.
        We have never known a Standing Committee that has failed to put forward a
        petition candidate who was qualified for the office of Bishop and whose
        background checks were clear. We believe that your actions have broken
        trust with this Diocese.
        … We would remind you that this process was (intended to be) both
        invitational and encouraging. You encouraged our Diocese “to use the
        petition process to graciously invite members of the Diocese to nominate
        additional candidates for consideration for the slate, to open the aperture to
        diverse qualified candidates, and to engage the power of the Holy Spirit to
        lead the hearts and minds of those who may feel called for consideration.”
        We did just that. Your decision to vote not to advance a qualified candidate
        who at least sixty people in the Diocese believe would be a strong Bishop
        Diocesan in Virginia, and who would, indeed, diversify the gender imbalance
        of this slate, is untenable.
        We demand an explanation of what canon(s) guided your decision to take
        this vote and why you have made this decision that seems to run completely
        counter to this invitational petition process.
        Sadly, your response, dated May 9, 2022, did not address our concern that Bishop
        Jennifer Brooke-Davidson, a fully qualified and vetted petition candidate, was not
        allowed to be on the ballot for the next Bishop Diocesan of Virginia. We are deeply
        concerned about what this means for Bishop Brooke-Davidson personally, and for
        our Diocese as whole.
        Our petitions were in order; the Oxford Background Check was clear; there were no
        issues with the Diocesan Chancellor’s “hard questions.” There is no indication of
        any issues relating to criminal, behavioral, employment, or financial matters. Bishop
        Brooke-Davidson has never been the subject of a disciplinary complaint. We have
        inquired of her, and you raised no such concerns with her in your interview of her
        on May 5, nor did you raise any lesser concerns, which might have clarified and
        In fact, one Standing Committee member tendered her resignation because she felt
        the decision for rejecting the petition candidate was wrongly determined and that
        the process that led to that decision was incorrect.
        In the absence of a full explanation, we are left to conclude that Canon III.1.2 was
        violated, prohibiting discrimination based on sex.
        In a 2019 article in The Living Church, found here, by Bishop Todd Ousley, who
        serves the Presiding Bishop as the church’s Bishop for Pastoral
        Development, states:
        “The petition process is the church’s contemporary way to handle
        nominations from the floor responsibly. In the old days, back before we did
        more comprehensive background checks — criminal, behavioral,
        employment, and financial background checks — you could arrive at the day
        of convention and someone could get nominated, and there had been no
        vetting. People would say, well, we’ve known this person for years. Well, it
        doesn’t mean we truly know them.
        In the petition process, there is a résumé that gives us some sense of who the
        person is, and then background checks are done that deal with those
        criminal, employment, and financial aspects, so that we can find out if there’s
        a challenge in this person’s background that would mean they’ve either
        behaved in a way that or they’ve got some particular personal or financial
        challenges that would mean that they don’t really qualify as a bishop
        nominee at this time. What they will not have as a petition nominee is an
        opportunity to go through a more thorough discernment process with a
        group of people in the diocese — either a search and nominating
        committee, or a discernment retreat, which is a standard part of
        recommended practices in dioceses now.”
        Bishop Brooke-Davidson, a duly consecrated bishop in the Episcopal Church, is
        clearly “qualified;” she was approved by the Standing Committee to serve in this
        diocese in 2019, and she has been serving here as a bishop since that time. We
        do know who she is. The discernment of whether she is called to be the next
        bishop diocesan properly belongs to the Electing Convention. She should have
        been added to the ballot for the election of our next Diocesan Bishop. We are
        therefore writing to ask you to reverse your decision, so as to resolve this
        matter prior to the election, thus avoiding further action at the Electing
        Out of our great love for the Diocese of Virginia, and out of our belief that wise
        leadership means occasionally reversing decisions that can cause harm to the Body
        of Christ, we urge you to reconsider your decision. That decision has already begun
        to cause confusion, anger, and division in the life of our diocese. It has the potential
        to cause even greater harm both to our common life and to the potential ministry
        of whichever candidate is ultimately elected Bishop Diocesan.
        In Christ,
        The Rev. Leonard F. (Lee) Gandiya, Lead Nominator, Rector, St. Paul’s, Owens
        The Very Rev. Kim L. Coleman, Trinity Episcopal Church, Arlington; Archdean,
        Diocese of Virginia; Dean of the Arlington Region
        The Very Rev. Fran Gardner-Smith, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, McLean, and Dean
        of the North Fairfax Region
        The Very Rev. Dr. John F. Maher, Jr., St. Francis Church, Manakin Sabot; Dean of the
        West Richmond Region
        The Rev. Jacqueline C. Thomson, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        The Rev. Dr. Candine Johnson, St. John’s Church, Tappahanock
        The Rev Dr Mary Brennan Thorpe, Intentional Interim and Consultant; Former
        Canon to the Ordinary; Currently serving Christ and Grace Episcopal Church,
        The Rev. Katherine (Kate) S. Bryant, The Episcopal Church of Leeds Parish, Markham
        The Rev. William Queen, Jr., Richmond, VA
        The Rev. Dr. Christopher M. Agnew, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Nomini Grove,
        and Saint James’ Episcopal Church, Montross
        The Ven Jennifer McKenzie, Virginia Theological Seminary
        The Rev. Jon Strand, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        The Very Rev. Cornelia M. Weierbach, Church of the Spirit, Alexandria; Dean of the
        Potomac Region
        The Rev. Cynthia McKenna, Trinity, Fredericksburg
        The Rev. Stuart E. Schadt, Trinity, Manassas
        The Very Rev. Rodney E. Gordon, St. Peter’s, Oak Grove; Dean of the Northern Neck
        The Rev. Linnea Summers Turner, Grace Episcopal Church, The Plains
        The Rev. Deacon Steven Busch, St. John’s, Centreville
        The Rev. Ann Gillespie, Holy Comforter, Vienna
        The Rev. Dr. Hilary Borbón Smith, Holy Comforter, Richmond
        The Rev. Dr. Jenny Montgomery, Retired, Diocese of Virginia
        The Rev. Dr. Susan Ackley Lukens Mason, Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria
        The Rev. Dorota Wright-Pruski, St. Andrew’s, Arlington
        The Rev. Nina Bacas, Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria
        The Rev. Carla Thompson, Christ Church, Alexandria
        The Rev. Vinnie Lainson, Trinity Episcopal Church, Manassas
        The Rev. John Bolin Shellito, St. Barnabas’, Annandale
        The Rev. Grace Cangialosi, Christ Church, Brandy Station
        The Rev. Deacon Salli Hartman, St. Mary’s, Colonial Beach
        Ms. Ashley Boam, Delegate, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        Ms. Agnes Virginia Toone, Delegate, St. James Episcopal Church, Montross
        Ms. Kathleen O’Neill, Delegate, St. Peter’s, Arlington
        Ms. Joy Y. Warburton, Delegate, Trinity Episcopal Church, Arlington
        Mr. Stephen Wickman, Delegate, St. Thomas, McLean; Treasurer, North Fairfax
        Ms. Joni Langevoort, Delegate, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        Ms. Virginia Barazia, Alternate Delegate, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        Mr. Jack Schick, Delegate, St. Peter’s, Arlington
        Ms. Lucinda McLaughlin, St. Barnabas’, Annandale; President, South Fairfax Region
        Ms. Ana White, Delegate, St. Andrews, Arlington
        Ms. Linda Hutt, Delegate, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Nomini Grove
        Dr. Elizabeth O. Harper, Alternate Delegate, St. Barnabas Episcopal Church,
        Mr. Karl Baetcke, Alternate Delegate, Trinity Church, Manassas
        Ms. Rebecca Ventorini, Alternate Delegate, St. Thomas, McLean
        Mr. Peter Brownrigg, Alternate Delegate, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        Mr. Jeffrey W Schneider, Delegate, Trinity Episcopal Church, Manassas
        Mr. Chuck Mitchell, Delegate, St. Gabriel’s~San Gabriel, Leesburg
        Ms. Barbara Ritter, Delegate, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, King George
        Ms. Colleen McGuire, Delegate (Youth), Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        Mr. George P. Garlick, Delegate, St. James’, Leesburg; Treasurer, Northern Piedmont
        Mr. Donald “Don” Brill, Delegate, Church of the Epiphany, Oak Hill/Herndon
        Mx. Hamilton Lillian Norwich, Delegate and Vestry member, St. David’s, Ashburn
        Mr. George Omohundro, Alternate Delegate, St. Luke’s, Alexandria
        Carol Walker, PhD, Vestry Member, Trinity Episcopal Church, Fredericksburg
        Ms. Margaret Pullen, Member, Trinity, Fredericksburg
        Ms. Margaret C. “Peggy” Miller, Member, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        Mr. Kenneth W. Gay, Vestry Member; Trustee; Treasurer, Church of the
        Resurrection, Alexandria
        Ms. Lisa Lettau, Member, Church of the Holy Comforter, Richmond
        Ms. Susan Weber, Member, Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria
        Ms. Sharon Boivin, Member, St. James, Louisa
        Ms. Phyllis Rundman, Member, Trinity Episcopal Church, Fredericksburg
        Mr. Harold Blackford, Member, Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria
        Mr. Reginald L. Hayes, Member, Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria
        Mr. David S. Grove, Member, Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna
        Ms. Paddy Link, Member, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington
        Ms. Barbara Bancroft, Member, Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria
        Mr. Larry Clark, Member, St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, Richmond
        Ms. Joan G. Beck, Member, Trinity Episcopal Church, Fredericksburg
        Ms. Katie Haywood, Member, St. Paul’s, King George
        Robert J. Chapman, PhD, Member, St. James, Montross
        Ms. Jo Brett, Vestry Member, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, King George
        Mr. Robert W. Steventon, Member, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria
        Ms. Lois “Sug” Clingenpeel, Member, Trinity, Fredericksburg
        Mr. Randall R. Clingenpeel, Member, Trinity, Fredericksburg
        Jayne Osgood, PhD, Member, Christ Church, Alexandria
        Ray C. Isaacs II, Member, Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria
        Ms. Janet S. Taczak, Member, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Owens
        Ms. Judy Isaacs, Member, Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria
        Mr. Brent Jones, Member, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Oak Grove
        Ms. Cathy Jones, Member, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Oak Grove

        1. We are so very sorry. We can only say with sadness that bad behavior became normative under Shannon Johnston, and the fallout continues.

          There is zero excuse for shrugging off the petition. Or sandbagging it.

          And we still see both a stunning gender-related compensation gap. Not to mention far too many situations where an overpaid male priest creates havoc, while the lesser-paid female successor gets charged with cleaning up the resulting mess.

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