Troubled bishop search underscores dire problems in DioVA

By | August 30, 2022
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is in a dire way

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, one of the original dioceses of the Episcopal Church, is the largest domestic diocese in the denomination. As such, its fate is inextricably linked with that of the larger church and serves as a bellwether for the future. And the recent bishop search and the challenges the diocese experienced suggest a grim future for both the diocese and the entire denomination. Even worse, no one appears willing to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Continuing decline in DioVA

Continuing decline in DioVA, with only one in four Episcopalians in church on any given Sunday.

Dysfunction: The formative years

This is a mess that has been long in the making.

The mess appears to have roots going back several decades, when the Diocese of Virginia became the epicenter for neoconservative evangelicals within the denomination. A cluster of parishes, primarily in Northern VA, gradually became Episcopal in name only. Some espoused conversion therapy for LGBT persons. Some became active in the so-called right to life movement. All opposed same-sex marriage.

But the issue of same-sex marriage appears to have been a convenient scapegoat for power politics. Well-placed sources tell Anglican Watch that John Yates, then rector of Falls Church Episcopal and a leader of the neocons, decided to build a mega-church not out of any great theological conviction. Instead, it allegedly was a tit-for-tat gesture in retaliation for having been passed over as bishop. Needless to say, neither his parish, nor any of the other parishes with ties to ACNA, was going to toe the party line.

Years of conflict ensued, with the Falls Church and other parishes withholding funding from the diocese. And even as these parishes planted new churches and attempted to grow their base of support, Bishop Peter Lee tried to avoid rocking the boat. This even extended to having dissidents on his staff — surely a bad move, as it provided a window into the inner workings of the diocese that probably was helpful to the dissidents.

Things came to a head following the publication of the infamous “Sewickley Memo,” which outlined a strategy to seize Episcopal assets and topple the church’s elected hierarchy, with the ultimate goal of replacing the existing church with a new one.

Initially, Peter Lee asked the dissidents to make a financial offer to the diocese to release its interest in parish properties under church canons. But this approach was quickly squelched by Presiding Bishop Katherine, who quite rightly refused to negotiate with the dissidents.

Lee retired early, allegedly to conserve diocesan funds for litigation, and was succeeded by Bishop Coadjutor Shannon Johnston.

During Johnston’s tenure, the diocese ultimately reclaimed church property. But the litigation came at a price, which was that the internal workings of the diocese ultimately were ignored. Diocesan headquarters, Mayo House, became increasingly toxic and dysfunctional, even as Johnston waxed rhapsodic about how great things were.

Predicatbly enough, this power vacuum and lack of leadership led to conflict, both within Mayo House and elsewhere in the diocese.

Things came to a boil when the diocese called off the search for a second bishop suffragan, who was to replace the retired Ted Gulick. This was done due to concerns about the leadership and culture of Mayo House staff, and ultimately resulted in +Johnston’s resignation.

Dysfunction: The transitional years

Shortly after Johnston’s resignation, the diocese began a search for a bishop provisional (or interim bishop) who, it was planned, would serve perhaps three years as the diocese regrouped and made plans for the future.

Eventually, the search committee narrowed the field down to three candidates. But in less than three months, all three candidates ultimately withdrew from consideration, allegedly citing the need to move to Virginia for such a short period of time.

That right there is, or should be, profoundly troubling to onlookers. Bishops routinely take interim gigs of short duration, and given its size and ties to the Virginia Theological Seminary, the position of bishop should be a plum position.

Ultimately, with no one interested in cleaning up Johnston’s mess, the Standing Committee appointed Susan Goff as Ecclesiastical Authority. And while Goff’s listening sessions, which called people to “Recall and Reconnect,” at first seemed promising, they led to few tangible results except for an end to the internecine warfare with the diocesan trustees of the funds.

Dysfunction today

Coming into the recent selection of the Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson as bishop-elect of the diocese, the diocese put together a search committee that ticked all the right boxes. Geographic diversity? Check. LatinX member? Check. Openly gay African-American? Double check. Aged? Check. Insider attorney? Check.

But a closer look at the committee reveals that, while diverse, there also are some real lightweights and has-beens among the group. Not to mention several other forms of dysfunction, better left unspecified.

Compounding things was a profound lack of interest in the position. Credible sources tell Anglican Watch that only about 20 applications were received—a startlingly low number, given the visibility and pay of the position. And what emerged from the process was even more troubling: Four white, male, boring, cisgender candidates. No women, no LGBT candidates, no social justice advocates, no prophetic voices. Indeed, a slate straight out of Madmen. 

Thus, at a time when the church is becoming increasingly diverse, and is struggling to welcome newcomers, the diocese sent a clear message: Not on my watch. Indeed, this was a seeming case of “Carry Me Back to Ole’ Virginny.”

Looking ahead

Per previous posts, staff at Anglican Watch have had numerous conversations with persons connected to the diocese and its governance. Three notable themes emerge:

  • The diocese is in a dire way, on every front. Not only is the rate of decline accelerating, but we have seen a complete breakdown of clergy discipline and other indicia of good governance by the episcopacy. Things are now so bad that, as previously reported, even adultery is okay for Episcopal clergy. In other words, we’ve reached a point that can only be described as laughable.
  • Everyone and their twin brother knows what a hot mess the diocese is, as evinced by the disinterest in serving as bishop and the churn among employees at Mayo House.
  • No one wants to call a spade a spade. There’s an elephant in the living room, but maybe if we ignore him, he’ll move to the neighbor’s house. That’s consistent with the usual modus operandi for the Episcopal Church, which is the passive-aggressive approach all the way. But at the same time, everyone knows the elephant is here to stay.

Does bishop elect Stevenson have what it takes to turn things around?

As things stand, we doubt it. Yes, he’s survived the intrigue and corruption at 815. But he’s the consummate insider and presently serves a presiding bishop who’s a good talker, but not much more. Curry has no real vision for the future, no plans for a turn-around, no commitment to change. Yes, he talks about revolution, but his idea of revolution is changing the paint in his office. And while Stevenson appears to be kind, compassionate and smart, and a good program manager to boot, it’s going to take a whole lot more than that to turn things around. (May God have mercy on us all if we land another narcissist.)

What will it take to turn things around?

First, the rot and corruption has to go. That includes the purveyors of bad and unethical advice, including diocesan chancellor J.P. Causey. The latter is well-known around the diocese and has his finger in multiple dikes, but he is killing the place with his notion of protecting the institution at all costs. So have a hail and farewell ceremony, buy a sheet cake, and send him packing.

Second, there needs to be a change in culture. Culture trumps mission and strategy every time. And the diocese is profoundly narcissistic as an organization, focused far too often on its own needs and desires.

Third, the diocese needs to stop the game of ignoring current problems, waiting until they become trendy, then throwing money or transactional solutions at the problem. Far too often, the diocese goes after inchoate ancient issues like “structural racism,” even as it ignores issues like adultery and perjury by clergy in the here and now. But if the diocese can’t clean up relatively minor issues like clergy misconduct, how on earth does it think it can tackle issues like racism?

Fourth, the diocese and its churches need to stop treating critics like enemies. While the message sometimes isn’t particularly welcome, our critics are often our best friends. Indeed, the opposite of love isn’t hate—it’s indifference.

Fifth, the diocese needs to avoid its usual game of playing, “Let’s move past this.” It needs to address its failings, deal with those it has hurt, and fix its problems. The problems facing the diocese can’t be ignored away.

Sixth, it is a mistake for the diocese to think it can fix these issues on its own via a few well-placed sermons. Problems within the diocese are longstanding and deep-rooted. They didn’t happen overnight, and they won’t be fixed overnight. Outside help is needed. And no one whose job or income is tied, directly or indirectly, to outcomes can fix things. The diocese really needs someone like the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center to help. That includes establishing clear, written normative behaviors, since it is very clear that many in the diocese do not fully grasp what should be normative in any healthy faith community.

Seventh, the bishop needs to be personally involved. The challenges facing the diocese are not the sort of thing the bishop can rise above, show up in regalia, make the sign of the cross, and have them go away. As difficult as it may be, Mayo House needs an open door policy.

Eighth, all issues need to be on the table. Time to sell Mayo House, folks. Time to shutter tenuous churches. Time to hold clergy accountable. There must be no sacred cows if the church is to recover.

Ninth, the diocese would be wise to reach out to its detractors and not just listen, but act. Listening sessions are great, but if they don’t result in change, they are a waste of time and money.

Tenth, there is a pressing need for integrity in Mayo House, and at every level in the diocese. No more secret exit deals for bishops. Transparency. Accountability. Obeying church canons. Line-item budgets. And Stevenson needs to lead by example. His conduct needs to be above reproach on every front and he needs to earn respect.

In the end, we’re dubious that things can be turned around. It’s a huge task, and we are not sure that Stevenson or the diocese have the willingness to cross the Rubicon.

Quite possibly, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has already decided that it is better to die than change.


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