For years, the hot mess that is the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (DioVA) has been looking for a savior. Not the type born in Bethlehem under a star, but one wearing a funny hat, sporting a chasuble, and carrying a staff. But with time fast running out for the Episcopal Church, I gotta break it to you: Stevenson ain’t your guy.
To be sure, if I were a member of DioVA I too would be looking for a savior, ideally with a delivery date of sooner rather than later.
Why? Because Bishop Shannon Johnston leaves behind a hot mess, dysfunctional at every level, and lacking even a basic understanding of Christian love. And when I say hot mess, I mean a hot mess by Episcopal standards, which are pretty bad, even in the best of times. And while I’d prefer a star in the East and angels belting out Glorias, I’d cheerfully settle for the mitre and chasuble variant. But Stevenson is neither.
That’s bad news, because if the rate of decline continues to accelerate, Stevenson may well by the last Episcopal bishop of Virginia.
So how is it that the NSB, aka the Notorious Stinkbomb, is able to opine on the matter?
The answer is simple: I’ve worked with Stevenson in a number of roles. Color me underwhelmed.
To be sure, Stevenson is the consummate insider in the cesspool known as 815. He’s survived Stacy Sauls and any number of palace intrigues, emerging largely unscathed. How did he do that? One way is by sidestepping issues and weasel-wording others. Apropos his purported shift to supporting marriage equality, one media outlet says:
A social media post after the Virginia election stated: “When starting out in the Diocese of Louisiana, Mark Stevenson was strongly opposed to Gene Robinson’s election, very much against women’s ordination, a high church Anglo Catholic from Nashotah House and staunchly orthodox.” The post accused Stevenson of “betrayal” for changing those views.
Stevenson replied that the description of his early views was “generally accurate,” but said:
“Prayerful people are oftentimes moved to a different place by the Holy Spirit. And I would say that’s what’s happened to me over the years.”
Weasel-word alert! Either the description was accurate or not. If not, specify why not. Spare us the “generally accurate language,” a staple on the menu of politicians, narcissists and both.
As to the fact that the slate was the first all-white, cisgender slate in decades, Stevenson punts, saying:
The specifics of the nomination and selection process are not my story to tell.
Um, right. He’s the incoming bishop but has no thoughts on a lily-white slate of cisgender, straight, male candidates. Danger, pull up immediately. Danger, pull up immediately.
Meanwhile Stevenson prattles on about supporting marriage equality at a time when it is at risk, even as he holds his consecration in a place that won’t marry same-sex couples. How’s that for messaging? Or respect for LGBTQ members? Remind me: Why are funds being used to subsidize a church that opposes equality?
Look closely, and his image is well-crafted. From the innocuous ballcap with the cartoon character on it, to his calculating statements about how his wife, who suffers a memory disorder, is safe, this one is pure 24K gold, folks. Gold leaf, that is.
Beyond that, my experience is that Stevenson is an able project manager. He is generally kind to his subordinates. That said, he’s about as cuddly as an eel, and his bit about “standing in those hard places” doesn’t extend to taking a stand for same-sex marriage. Or much of anything else for that matter.
Most of all, Stevenson is not one to venture off in new and different directions. He’s a by-the-book kinda guy, unable to step back and ask, “But is that book current? Is it useful?”
That correlates with his desire for power amidst the crumbling glory and peeling paint of TEC. In other words, he’s not going to rock the boat in favor of change when he can attach, lamprey-like, to the dying remains of TEC.
Yet change is precisely what DioVA needs. Less project manager. More visionary.
It needs a written statement of normative behaviors. You know, things that Christians would otherwise not get, as they are too caught up in reading the Baptismal Covenant.
- Act with transparency.
- Act with integrity.
- Speak with kindness.
- Spend 4/5 of your time listening, 1/5 talking.
- Be on time for meetings.
- Be prepared for meetings.
- Assume good intent.
- Avoid gossip.
- Question to ensure understanding.
- Build up others, Christian and non-Christian alike.
- Pursue peace through real Christian repentance, apology, amendment of life and restitution.
- Don’t build beloved community. Be beloved community, and for all persons.
From there, he needs a truckload of Stinkbomb Brand Enema, inserted directly into the backside of the diocese. Works every time!
That means cleaning house within the inner circle:
- Goodbye J.P. Causey. No gold watch for you—way too big an expense for someone who’s caused so much trouble.
- Adios sycophants.
- Ta-ta folks who say, “Well that happened before I got here.”
- Au revoir to folks who think clergy adultery is okay.
- Catch you on the rebound, feckless, dishonest priests. If you need a month on the beach ever summer for self-care, get a job as a lifeguard.
- Later days to idiots who say you are absolutely out of line for complaining about abuse in the diocese.
- See you later, alligator to folks who think complaining about church abuse is harassment.
- Hit the road to priests who think their parishes are there to serve them, versus the other way around.
- Scram Svan vanBaars and other incompetent and dishonest intake officers.
In other words, if you lack faith, you are not ready to be a leader. And you shouldn’t be a leader. The church simply cannot afford to waste time and money on you.
And while he’s at it, Stevenson can show integrity by bringing diocesan safe policies up the the standards mandated by GC79. Need help? Our staff will gladly do it for you. And while you’re at it, include all the stuff besides sex. Like bullying and harassment and an assurance that victims will be afforded care and respect as required by the canons, versus a dismissal letter and nothing more.
Of course, part of that requires a meaningful clergy discipline program. And maybe Stevenson is taking steps to have such a program. He’s bringing in a new canon to the ordinary—and he’s served as a canon to the ordinary himself. Usually, that’s not a good sign, but let’s hope in this case it is. But if it is, it needs to start with actually honoring the canons and providing a pastoral response in every case in which a complaint is made to the intake officer. So, farewell Sven vanBaars and J.P. Causey. See ya, wouldn’t wanna be you. Let’s not catch ya on the rebound.
And a number of cases those two dolts and the knuckleheaded and spiritually ugly Caroline Parkinson bollixed need to be revisited. It’s not enough to shrug and say, “Happened before I got here. Too bad, so sad, catch you on the rebound.” At the end of the day, the canons are the rules of the road, that promises that form our common life together. When jackasses like J.P. Causey, Sven vanBaars, Caroline Parkinson, Leslie Steffensen, Melissa Hollerith and the other imbeciles involved in the disciplinary committee break those promises, they tear the fabric that underpins the diocese.
Nor is Stevenson going to succeed if he ignores DioVA’s outcasts.
Years of Shannon Johnston and Susan Goff have resulted in legions of Episcopalians now either unchurched, lurking along the edges, or blasting away from cyberspace. In fact, things have gotten so bad that a surprising number of referrals to this publication come from members of the standing committee itself. Tell you anything?
In every instance, these people, at one time some of the diocese’s most devoted members, need to be heard. They need an apology (spare us the “mistakes were made” routine or “I’m sorry you were upset,” bit), they need a real effort at restitution, and they need repentance on the part of the diocese. In other words, there is a wide swath of behavior in the diocese that needs to stop, cold turkey.
To be clear, this isn’t likely to happen.
Yet the church cannot play its old game of sitting in splendid silence. In this day and age where church attendance is no longer normative, social media rules the roost. And sappers at every level are undermining the ramparts, undercutting the church, tearing chunks of mortar from the walls, and encouraging others to seek higher moral ground. In short, social media is killing the diocese and the Episcopal Church, and it is only getting worse. It’s because the church behaves badly and doesn’t think anyone is going to say or do anything about it. Newsflash: That hasn’t worked in 30 years.
Stevenson is a man who lacks vision and courage. As a result, he’s not going to rock the boat. He’s not going to stand in
hard places or have hard conversations. In fact, he’s already hitting the ignore button when people email him about these topics. So don’t believe for a minute Stevenson’s portrayal of himself as a modern-day Washington crossing the Delaware.
But there is a glimmer of hope. My experience is that Stevenson is a good judge of character. My recommendation therefore is that he not only hold listening sessions, but that he specifically invites the disaffected, the scorned, the outcast to separate sessions. There, messaging is vital: He can’t make a blanket promise to fix things, but he can listen; identify situations where he can fix things; let all know that they are welcome, regardless of the past; and actually take steps to fix things. And if he’s really smart, invite those willing to be part of a diocesan council on reform. With meetings held monthly by Zoom, the group could offer carefully moderated information on issues in the diocese that need change. And trust me — there’s lots to talk about. And it would be a chance for Stevenson to get real feedback, versus listening to his echo chamber.
It’s also worth noting that this is a strategy that has been used successfully by a number of bishops. And in some cases, the results have been remarkable. What has been learned is very different, and far more useful, than the mixture of conventional wisdom, twaddle, and stupid stereotypes that circulate through most standing committees.
I can say this: Having facilitated several such sessions, they are not for the faint of heart. Following several, I had three stiff drinks, pulled the covers over my head, and didn’t come out for about 24 hours. But paradoxically, several participants wound up close friends. Stockholm syndrome, I guess.
So, I’m not prepared to declare that all is lost. But as things stand, and with Stevenson already ignoring critics, things are not looking good, either for Stevenson or the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia as the latter moves into the winter of its life. And if Stevenson doesn’t take drastic action, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia as we know it is doomed to the trashdump of history.
I’m ready to to sign up for the diocesan council on reform. But don’t hold my breath. Also waiting for an email response from Stevenson.