Truth from odd places: Shrine Mont committee proposes reconciliation efforts

By | November 20, 2022
Episcopal Diocese of Virginia

As church governance geeks, the staff here at Anglican Watch love to read really banal stuff. That includes minutes, reports, studies — all the stuff that people in the church say they read, but usually just skim. And in digging through the mountains of paper coming out of the Diocese of Virginia annual convention, much of it meaningless and all too predictable, we came across something startling, even shocking.

Specifically, the Shrine Mont Camps (a diocesan retreat center, located in the Shenandoah Mountains) ad hoc committee recognized the need for healing and reconciliation and included a discussion of this topic in its report.

Sounds simple, but considering the context, this is earth-shaking. In fact, given that everyone here at Anglican Watch has COVID right now, we rubbed our eyes, shook our heads, sent it to each other, and asked, “Did I read this right?”

The consensus is we did.


The Diocese of Virginia has a long history of ignoring conflict and misconduct.

We are not sure how far back it goes, but it extends at least to the time of the late Bishop Peter Lee. In his case, for too long he tried to ignore the burgeoning ACNA movement in the diocese. Indeed, at one point he even had an ACNA insider working in the bishop’s office. So, not only a tactically unwise move, but not a great way to deal with conflict.

Similarly, Shannon Johnston loved to say he didn’t want to get involved, even when issues of illegal activity came up. Indeed, at one point he was expressly asked by a Title IV clergy discipline intake officer, “You do know this is illegal, right?”, but he still took a pass.

And he is known to have covered up egregious cases of sexual harassment by clergy.

Nor was Susan Goff any better. Not only did she like to sidestep difficult conversations, but egged on by diocesan chancellor J.P. Causey, she tried “not to get too involved,” when issues of clergy misconduct came up.

Indeed, in one case Goff expressly reneged on a diocesan commitment to help in a situation of profound conflict.

So where does this leave the diocese today?

On a basic level, conflict ignored is conflict multiplied. And it’s been progressing geometrically over the years.

Things have now reached a point where folks feel the only thing they can do in many cases is to walk away. This includes the recent resignations from the standing committee, departures from several prominent vestries, and more.

Meanwhile, bullies in some quarters run rampant, both among clergy and laity. Nor is this petty bullying—some is really over the top. Pushing people out of church. Lying about fellow parishioners. Urging people to commit suicide. Threats. Temper tantrums by clergy. Volunteers leaving the Christian faith altogether over their experiences in the diocese.

In short, conflict has become so normative in the diocese that many have forgotten what healthy norms look like.

Compounding matters is that there are very few in the diocese who take a Christian approach to these issues. “I don’t want to rock the boat.” “I was afraid he’d kick me out.” “That happened before I got here.” Or the ever-popular passive-aggressive silence. So much for bringing light to the darkness.

Those who speak out also face consequences. These range from:

  • Shunning.
  • Being accused of harassing people.
  • Being disinvited from church activities.
  • Being told they are “absolutely out of line.”
  • Being labeled, “mentally ill, or “unbalanced,” or “domestic terrorists.”
  • Blocked on social media (Stevenson, here’s looking at you. So much for your bit about “giving ‘em heaven.”)

Thus, people not only don’t speak out, but there are powerful disincentives to do so.

Worse, Stevenson, Goff, Johnston and others set bad examples. Faced with criticism, few have actually heard them say, “I’m interested in your perspective. Tell me more,” and actually engage and work towards resolution. Yes, you might get a fauxpology, but that is about it.

Moreover, dysfunction isn’t just confined to Shrine Mont. It’s palpable at the parish level, on vestries, on committees, and at Mayo House. And it’s a prime reason the diocese, and the larger Episcopal Church, are losing members.

So, in the middle of the hot mess that is the Episcopal Diocese, kudos for the Shrine Mont ad hoc committee for speaking the truth. We’re only sorry that the committee’s wisdom is buried deep within the reams of diocesan reports.

What the Shrine Mont Committee Recommends

We provide the full Shrine Mont report at the end of this post, but what the group recommends is an ubuntu-centered approach to reconciliation.

So what does this involve? Ubuntu is the approach used by Desmond Tutu, which recognizes that persons and groups form their identities in relation to one another. In short, it aligns closely with the notion that all are made in the image of God.

That contrasts sharply with the current approach in the diocese, which the Shrine Mont Committee aptly described as:

We affirm that we are one Body of Christ struggling to resist the temptation of casting each other out.

To all of that Anglican Watch can only say: Spot on.

Indeed, the only reservations we have are that the committee’s recommendations are confined to their mission, which is to support Shrine Mont. The committee’s findings are true for the entire diocese, and indeed the entire church. And the bit about casting each other out: It happens all the time in the diocese, at every level. In fact, in some parishes it is the norm for those who criticize, disagree, or dissent. And certain priests do it.

Want proof? Just criticize your church or your diocese on Facebook and watch your Episcopal friends de-friend you. Guaranteed.

What We Recommend

For starters, Anglican Watch  recommends that members of the diocese actually read the report. Far too many will have treated the convention as a chance to catch up, hang out, and socialize. And why not? Many of the reports in the convention packet are painfully banal.

But the Shrine Mont committee gets it, and its comments are worth reading. Plus, the committee is on the “inside,” so the temptation to dismiss things out of hand may be less.

It’s also worth noting that there are actually four reactions to perceived threats:

Indeed, there are four responses to conflict, not the two of mythology. They are:

  1. Fight
  2. Flight
  3. Ignore
  4. Lean into it

Only the latter one — engagement — is going to solve the diocese’s problems. It is important to understand this.

From there, we recommend:

  1. That Stevenson and the executive board commit to diocesan reconciliation as a top priority. Bluntly put, racial reconciliation and beloved community don’t matter if, as appears increasingly likely, the diocese implodes.
  2. The use of outside experts. This is the sort of hot mess that Stevenson cannot fix, even with consultants. And so far, Stevenson is proving remarkably flat-footed.
  3. Recognizing that the diocese has pushed out many people due to sexual orientation, gender, petty conflict, or as retaliation for criticizing the diocese and its actions. Thus, the diocese has created an echo chamber for itself. It therefore follows that reconciliation requires reaching out to those who have left. Relatedly, many will decline to participate in any such effort. And all must recognize that in many cases, the harm caused is irreparable. But the effort must be made.
  4. Training all diocesan clergy and staff on Title IV, the clergy disciplinary canons. As of now, the diocese is woefully non-compliant and has caused numerous people — and parishes — grave harm. Ignoring these issues will not make them go away, and tacitly condoning adultery, perjury, and other clergy misconduct, while ignoring those hurt by these behaviors, undercuts the diocese at every level. And it is the bishop’s job to ensure that the canons are followed, J. P. Causey’s damaging advice to the contrary.
  5. Establishing written normative behaviors, as the diocese of Southern Virginia has done. It sounds simplistic, but the diocese is long past the point where people recognize appropriate behaviors in many settings.
  6. Ensuring the reconciliation happens at every level. There are numerous parishes right now that are collapsing under the weight of conflict, and the diocese is adding further stress with its push to increase giving.
  7. Creating the expectation at every level that leaders model the behavior that the diocese seeks. Far too many positions in the diocese are occupied by sycophants, rubber stamps, talking heads, and other non-entities. Better to have an open position than to simply put a warm body in it.
  8. Making clear to clergy that misconduct won’t be tolerated. That does not mean every complaint warrants a Title IV action. But it does require leading by example, genuinely caring for those hurt by the church, honoring church canons, and making clear that the bishop will come down hard on clergy who abuse their authority.

Do Stevenson, the standing committee and the executive council have what it takes? We’re not sure. Given the diocese’s track record, it’s easy to conclude the answer is no. Nor are we reassured but what we have seen so far from Stevenson. Holding his consecration in an SBC is just dumb.

Let’s hope and pray for the best.

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