On January 26, 2007, during the 212th meeting of the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Virginia, the laity and clergy assembled agreed (on the 3rd ballot) that the Holy Spirit had led them to elect this relatively unknown, 48-year-old Rector in Tupelo, Mississippi, to be Bishop Coadjutor of this diocese, one of the largest and most historic in the Episcopal Church. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, I was eventually to succeed the much admired and long-serving XII diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee. That election surprised many, not only in this diocese but also across the whole of The Episcopal Church.
That surprise was due to several factors: I did not attend the Virginia Theological Seminary, I had not spent any of my ministry in the Diocese of Virginia, and I was an admittedly “High Church” devotee who had the cheek to interview for the ministry of bishop in the very birthplace of the Evangelical wing of the Church. The walkabouts you hosted across our diocese about three weeks prior to the election that January were “successful” in introducing us to each other, but (let’s be honest) “walkabouts” are indeed only an introduction.
There is a very telling illustration that I’d like to share with you of what my prospects were at the time. After my election was announced, a priest of this diocese emailed a friend of his who was then serving a congregation somewhere in California. This Virginia priest knew that his friend and I had attended Seabury-Western Theological seminary together in the mid-1980’s. His email asked the disturbingly honest question: “We know who Ellen Johnston is because of her music conferences, but who is HE?
We have come a very long way together since then! It has, to say the least, been an intense decade. As the truism goes, we have to look at our history to understand the present. From the time of my election as Bishop Coadjutor in 2007, through becoming Bishop Diocesan in 2009, then with the “Dayspring” initiative, and until all legal matters were definitively settled in 2014, we faced what in many ways was the most significant crisis the Diocese of Virginia had faced since the Civil War. Even so, not only did we win the questions in dispute, but also—in my view—we came through it and arrived, in the end, the stronger for it all.
Now, one last thing about those trying times—and this did not occur to me until I began to reflect on my episcopal ministry around the beginning of this year when I first started seriously to think about when I might retire. From the very beginning of our ministry together, it was crystal clear to me precisely what my “job” was, and that was to do all I could to be sure that our diocese was absolutely focused on keeping the “main thing the main thing!” It seems off-base to call this a “gift” but now I think that—at least in some sense—it was, because it is generally accepted in the Church that the ministry priorities of a bishop cannot truly be discerned until about three years into the job. Not so here in those days! And this diocese responded—very strongly—that the Church must never lose sight of the fact that our irrevocable priority must remain that Jesus Christ has a Church, and this Church has a mission, a mission to proclaim the Gospel, a mission to serve, a mission to be agents of God’s grace. No issue, no concern, no business can ever supersede this commitment as the “North Star” of all that we would say or do.
It was in that light, that context, that we were able to share a very broad consensus that our legal claims were faithful and true. Of course, I was surely confident that we had very fine legal representation, and other rock-solid advisors who were always at the ready. Moreover, I thank God for Bishop Suffragan David Jones for his wisdom and the heartening encouragement he offered in those early years of my ministry as the Bishop Diocesan. While it is true that on entering the episcopate I found myself in quite claustrophobic circumstances that seemed, at times, to limit our opportunities and choices for ministry, that commitment to the Church’s rightful mission and the indispensable support I enjoyed from so many, FREED ME, as soon as I succeeded Bishop Lee, to lead our Church to be the Church during those threatening and turbulent times. And it is important that you know I really couldn’t have led then as I did without the laser-like focus and perspective of our then-Chief of Staff, Henry Burt, himself a knowledgeable, unflappable, and extremely perceptive attorney.
Moreover, at the heart of what has sustained us all along has been a relationship built on trust. I never had any reason whatsoever to doubt that you trusted me—you trusted me to be the one who had to oversee and to make some very consequential decisions with respect to the legal proceedings AND you trusted me to be the bishop who was leading in a way that cared most of all for the spiritual welfare, integrity, and growth of the Diocese of Virginia, whatever was going on at any given time. I have been deeply committed to your trust as a sacred responsibility. Although there certainly have been times when I have fallen short of the mark, from my very soul I always did the best I could to live up to that trust. As I said to you in my letter of resignation, I am proud of this era in the history of the Diocese of Virginia that we have shared together.
So now, I’m led to the questions: “WHO, THEN, ARE WE today as a part of the Body of Christ? Just WHAT KIND OF CHURCH is this Diocese of Virginia as a result of all that we’ve undertaken, experienced, and accomplished together over these eleven years we’ve shared?” To begin to look at our story during my ministry as the XIII Bishop of Virginia, I want to be perfectly clear that we must all know that virtually everything we’ve done was made possible by the Spirit-led faithfulness of the recent generations of diocesan leadership. My predecessor bishops and our previous Conventions were stewards of our diocesan Church, and we remember and give thanks to God for their own vision and accomplishments. As bishop, I know that I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me.
So now, to the question about “What kind of diocese have we become over these past eleven years?” First, I believe that a hallmark of my ministry and leadership as your bishop is that EVERYTHING begins with WORSHIP. I am very happy to say that within the context of The Episcopal Church as a whole, the Diocese of Virginia is a diocese that goes to church. Year after year, we have remained—against all of the socio-cultural trends to the contrary—the Episcopal diocese with the largest “Average Sunday Attendance.” But be clear: this is definitely not about simple numbers—not at all! I am utterly convinced that this statistic is a defining and crucial one because it is worship that is the very bedrock of the Church. In my view, worship is our primary means of Christian formation—the way through which we become and remain committed disciples of Jesus Christ, the way in which our eternal souls are shaped and oriented toward the Triune God, and the way we grow and mature in the faith. Worship is therefore both the first task and the first privilege of the Church. I also think that the Diocese of Virginia has developed a much “broader” range in our style of liturgical worship, a style that better reflects generally the style across the whole Episcopal Church.
I will add, however, that it is not simply mere “attendance” at worship that counts but the personal transformation, more and more into the likeness of Jesus and the saints, that is enabled through Word and Sacrament and Community that gives the Gospel true life. And so, here in my final address to you as your Diocesan Bishop, I’ve searched for the most profound words I can offer as emblematic of my legacy: “Go to Church!”
Next, I say that the Diocese of Virginia is now a truly unified Church. But please understand that in saying this I am not asserting that we “agree” on everything (many of you may remember my motto, “agreement is overrated!”), and neither am I suggesting that we have come fully to terms with our various kinds of diversity (we’re doing much better than years ago, but we certainly still have considerable work to do). No, but I am saying that we are committed to our unity with one another in the sense that we are now a diocese that has learned (the hard way!) how to disagree well (or, at least, to disagree “better”). I ask you to consider what a huge difference this is from eleven years ago. I actually think that this quality in our diocesan life is, in fact, more important than “agreement,” a like-mindedness which I consider to be like “fool’s gold.” As a very complex community of 180 churches, encompassing some 20,000 households, and almost 80,000 communicants, we are not as “diverse” as the Church should be (whether racially, ethnically, or socio-economically), and yet we are [I would argue] a cohesive and coherent body. Yes, we do indeed have some pockets of squeamishness, timidity, and defensiveness about “diversity” here and there. I know of places that simply refuse to discuss it. But today, I honestly believe that the overwhelmingly large majority of Virginia Episcopalians would pass St. Paul’s standard that one part of the body cannot say to another part “I have no need of you.”
A really good example of this quality in our diocesan life together lies in the fact that we are now a diocese that has reached a kind of settled consensus around questions that have been disputed for decades. Instead of continuing to “kick the cans down the road,” we have made very strong progress. Certainly the most obvious example here is that there is no longer any question that the Diocese of Virginia has, over these years, moved to embrace LGBTQ Christians into the fullness of our community—and that includes access to ALL of the sacraments of the Church, not only Baptism and Communion, but (perhaps more pointedly) Holy Matrimony and Ordination. We are a diocese that can affirm “All the sacraments for ALL the baptized.” This means that the same norms and rules apply equally to everyone, and so—for example—we’ve been able to do away with the unacceptable “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to discernment for Ordination. And yet it is certainly true that there is nonetheless disagreement about this new reality. This disagreement is deeply held by faithful communicants and clergy of this diocese and it is open and honest. But now, instead of destructive arguments that can break relationships, we are able to hold to our own convictions, amicably finding a way to work through just “how” we can ensure that the Church’s ministry can be offered to everyone who seeks full inclusion in a congregation of this diocese, while honoring and preserving individual integrity. In my opinion, we are now truly an example of that classic Anglican DNA, which knows how to respect both sides of a polarity while holding together in the Center. Obviously, it takes everyone to do this. More importantly, it takes God’s grace to do this. It has been my great privilege to serve as bishop of a diocese that is, in fact, “somehow” now living into and expressing that grace over questions and quarrels that (as we have seen “up close and personal”) can tear everything apart. I would not want to be in a Church that doesn’t know that it depends on God’s grace to make room for everyone, whether Left, Right, or Center. Would you?
While it is true that I am profoundly gratified that we were able to steer our way through those controversies and embrace the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the Diocese of Virginia (this is surely one of the most important “legacies” of my episcopate), I am no less grateful that the great majority of our more conservative brothers and sisters who stayed with our diocese during and after the schism of 2007—even as they disagreed with the direction of the The Episcopal Church—continued to stand with us through all these years as the dramatic, reforming decisions came into being. I have received several personal notes from these communicants in the diocese expressing their feelings about this. In particular, one priest wrote that he could stay within our Church because he believed that I respected the conservatives’ conscience and that I “had their back.” I’ll always treasure those expressions of trust, which are representative of another “legacy” that is as important as any other, our conviction that the Church needs EVERYONE. The Church has room for EVERYONE. Our Lord Jesus draws EVERYONE into the fold. And “EVERYONE” means everyone!
Similarly, over these past eleven years, our diocese has become more willing and able to engage issues in “the Public Square” as people of faith. It cannot be denied that many so-called “political” issues have strong and deep implications for matters that are addressed directly by Jesus’ own vision of the Kingdom of God, articulated in the Gospels. Because of this, we bishops moved more and more into that Public Square, and invited anyone who felt called to use their voice and their presence in witness to the Gospel’s values within our society and in our governance. But our call has never been intended to be partisan; our only bias is Jesus and his vision for God’s will to be lived out in human life and relationships. The standard for our ministry of advocacy begins and ends with what we affirm in the Baptismal Covenant. I understand that this initiative has made a significant number of our parishioners uncomfortable and nervous that such efforts will only bring unnecessary controversy into the Church and be divisive within our congregations. In fact, I agree that there is such danger, which is why I reserve my own leadership and personal involvement for matters that are obviously beyond issues of honest political debate and disagreement, matters that all too clearly “step over the line.” I think that these issues are actually rather easy to see for what they truly are—such as Nazis and White Supremacists in our streets. From my perspective, it was a great moment for the Diocese of Virginia when so many of us, clergy and laity, showed up for a peaceful counter-presence in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. That is an easy example to cite, but there have been a number of other issues that have attracted appropriate Christian advocacy, such as the growing incidents of mass shootings, the increasing intensity and consequences of the immigration and refugee crisis, the expansion of Medicaid, and our government’s outrageous policy of separating children from their families at the border.
It’s true that for many years any form of activism that could even be interpreted as being “political” was forbidden for clergy in our diocese. But, the times have changed dramatically and I don’t think that it is right for the Church to hide its lamp under a bucket. Even so, as the bishop who has removed that prohibition against public advocacy, I also want to urge you to be extraordinarily judicious about this kind of witness. It’s not for everyone and the line separating Gospel advocacy from partisan advocacy can become quickly and confusingly blurred. That is why being able to have straightforward, calm, and “ordinary” conversations with one another, preferably in small groups, is so important. Often, trained facilitators are necessary to keep that “line” in focus.
One line, however, remains very clear indeed: the sin and experience of racism, and our own diocese’s complicity in this dreadful history. Rooted in our very beginnings over 400 years ago, being the primary means of building our economy (and our buildings) through the institution of slavery, erecting overpowering monuments to the sentimentality and half-truths of the “Lost Cause Movement,” and then exercising abusive political and socio-economic power in the “Jim Crow” era, which gave birth to the Civil Rights movement and its ongoing aftermath, racism has exerted an incalculably poisonous influence and taken a horrifying toll. But, even after many opportunities for information, study, and debate, many of our people are completely unaware that they have been “infected” and “affected.” This is why our diocese has, for the past several years, been examining racism as never before—in our lives, in our congregations, in our ministries, in our camping programs, in our diocesan schools, and in the communities surrounding us. This work is being done in many different ways in our various places, and in some examples there have been remarkable developments, even the healing of many decades of history. This has been brave, difficult work, but I know that it shall continue because while there is much going on, there is still so much to do. This is not limited to White racism toward African Americans. It is also very much a concern with respect to the Latino/Hispanic population. So, I’m announcing that just as the Race and Reconciliation Committee was the very first diocesan committee that I re-activated when I became bishop coadjutor in 2007, I have recently provided for that same committee’s re-structuring, more than tripling its size and asking them to be more directly involved with the programs and ministries of our Regions. The committee has readily and energetically accepted this new vision and mandate. Be ready to hear more about their work and to be called personally into their vital ministry throughout this diocese. And to those of this diocese who fear even having the conversation, I say . . . trust it. Trust it because it is so obviously the work of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. This means that new and life-giving horizons await!
How else are we different as a diocese after these eleven years? Maybe the most quantifiable progress we’ve experienced is that we are now more able to meet the needs of our children, youth, and adolescents than perhaps ever before. This is most certainly because of the historic “Shout It From the Mountain” campaign (the most successful fund-raising effort for ministry in the diocese that we’ve ever had), raising well over $2.5 million dollars to add new facilities, improve existing structures, establish an endowment for scholarships to make camp more affordable and thus attract a broader range of our youth, as well as to subsidize the salaries of camp staff so that more people can afford to work at our camps. Finally, the campaign also provided funding for regular maintenance and upkeep, eliminating that dreaded term “deferred maintenance” from our Shrine Mont camps vocabulary. In all respects, the numbers speak for themselves as to the growth and success of our camping ministry, which is—from my perspective—right at the top of the list of how we ensure real Christian formation of our youth in the Diocese of Virginia. In this, we are definitely going from strength to strength, and I’m here to say now that we’ve never been at a higher level for this absolutely vital ministry for our Church.
Our emphasis on youth and young adult formation is also strongly present in our re-envisioned “Triangle of Hope” ministry, which is built on a relationship among three dioceses from different Provinces of the Anglican Communion: the Diocese of Kumasi in Ghana, the Diocese of Liverpool in England and our Diocese of Virginia. The common thread among our dioceses is that we were each a primary facilitator of the horrific slave trade. The Triangle relationship was actually inaugurated before I came to the Diocese of Virginia, but over time we re-vitalized this ministry by giving it more specific goals and a new structure of leadership, so that there may be the fullest possible cooperative participation from all three dioceses who are truly EQUAL partners together. I am so grateful to my colleagues, Archbishop Daniel Sarfo of Kumasi (the Primate of West Africa) and Bishop Paul Bayes of Liverpool, for the friendship, vision, and witness we share. Our Triangle of Hope is unique in the whole of the Anglican Communion, seeking to build stronger relationships across three very different Anglican Provinces by finding first-hand, concrete, and forward-looking ways of facing and learning about our own sinful common history. The point of this is to bring healing to that history, and out of that healing to imagine new possibilities of common ministry for generations to come. This is why a key component of this shared ministry is the annual Youth Pilgrimage, allowing adolescents and young adults to visit each other in all three dioceses. Our one big challenge is how to secure adequate funding to cover the expensive cost of their international travel, but I’m confident that we can make this happen and continue for years to come.
Meanwhile, back on the “home front,” this past decade has also seen the Diocese of Virginia re-claim and firmly establish something that had been debated in our diocese over many years—the Sacred Order of Deacons. Although I would say that we’re still somewhat in our “formative” stage in the revival of this ministry for our diocese (our first ordination class was in 2011), I am very pleased to tell you that we now have some 25 deacons ministering among us, assigned to a particular congregation or area. Our School for Deacons, sponsored jointly with the Diocese of Southern Virginia, provides both the educational and the spiritual formation work. The standards are high and the results have been excellent. As future classes are presented for ordination, more congregations throughout the diocese will have the opportunity to experience the ministry of a deacon. Our experience is showing that deacons are making a real difference “on the ground”—not just in congregations but also in homes, on the streets, in prisons and jails, and in broadly-based community outreach efforts. Most importantly, the deacons are calling and empowering our parishioners to their own ministries of Christian service in daily life. We thank our deacons for re-vitalizing the ancient term “servant leadership” in the Diocese of Virginia.
“Last but not least” of the major markers in diocesan ministry we’ve seen together may not seem to reach as high a bar as the others I’ve discussed, but it is something that is very important indeed for all of our congregations to understand and live into faithfully. I strongly believe that because of the new method for scheduling the bishops’ visitations to our congregations—having only one visitation per Sunday—we are now a diocese that can establish much closer and much more knowing relationships between bishops on the one hand, and congregations on the other. It seems that a large number of our parishioners don’t really understand the ministry of “bishop” (and very often question why we have bishops in the first place), and bishops are discouraged by the fact that probably most of our parishioners think of us as a kind of CEO. Such a set up tells me that here we have an opportunity for deeper, more authentic relationships in ministry together.
As you remember, the old schedule for the bishops’ visitations was premised on every congregation having a visitation each and every year, so that each bishop almost always had two, and sometimes even three visits on a given Sunday. Consulting with both clergy and lay leadership, the feedback we received largely reported that this model was actually very frustrating because everything felt quite rushed and, as a result, impersonal and superficial. Not to be underestimated was the fact that nearly EVERYONE hated and resented being scheduled for an afternoon visitation!
After working with a number of different approaches, we came up with the system we have now: only ONE visit per bishop each Sunday, based on an every-other-year schedule for all but the largest congregations, and an option for an evening mid-week visit for those congregations that were in their “off” year.
The core principle for the “new” system is that QUALITY beats quantity. Both bishop and congregation get a “quality” visitation because we have MUCH more time to pay attention to the things that matter in all aspects of a congregation’s life. We have the time to meet with the Vestry, church groups (such as a youth group). We can take a generous period for a general forum conversation (always an opportunity for a bishop and the congregation to feel better connected personally). And, going out to lunch together is a real treat for all who might attend. Your bishops invite your creativity as to what can happen during your visitation.
No longer are we limited to just a service and a short stay at a reception. SO USE YOUR BISHOPS! And, expect that the bishop will also have some priorities (such as a Vestry meeting) for your visitation. The goal is that by the time the bishop leaves, there will be a stronger sense of connection, for both bishop and congregation. We will all know more about each other than we did the day before.
We have indeed seen that “quality beats quantity” . . . so far, the feedback is virtually unanimous that we’ve found a good and promising way to make episcopal visitations really work. We can therefore have a stronger diocese, because the importance of a knowing relationship between the bishops and the churches, a feeling of really belonging together, will have been built up over time.
We’ve spent a lot of time here considering what our diocese has experienced and accomplished over these years. It’s important to know “what kind of diocese” we are today, but it is absolutely vital that you BEGIN today to use what have become to BUILD THE FUTURE—next week through next year. It’s all about WHAT WE DO with “who we are” right now.
Ever since I made my announcement that I had decided to resign my position as Bishop of Virginia, I have heard your questions: “Why?” And “Why NOW?” In some ways, it doesn’t make sense to you, and that has made you wonder, “What is “really” going on? Fair enough. Clearly, many of you were caught by surprise. For that surprise and bewilderment, I’m sorry. But, to be completely honest with you, the decision caught ME by surprise as well. So I’ll try to put some things together to help you understand, at least inasmuch as I myself have come to understand.
There’s really no surprise as I tell you that there are a whole host of reasons why I feel it is time for me to resign—personal reasons, family reasons (both of which I have written about in previous statements), and—most importantly—insights I can attribute only to the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit in my life and ministry right now. If you believe, as I do, that the Holy Spirit was active in calling me to be the XIII Bishop of Virginia, then I think that you must allow, as I do, for the possibility that the Holy Spirit can also be involved in a decision to stand down from this ministry. And I honestly feel that in my heart and in my soul, I have heard that call. After months of reflection and consultation, I believe that I have done all I can do to fulfill my call to be the Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia. In a word, the season of my ministry as bishop here has come to fruition. It is this sense that has convinced me that new vision and fresh energy are needed now.
How can I say with such confidence that the Holy Spirit has now “called me away” from the ministry of being your bishop? The only way to explain this is that from the very beginning of my more mature spiritual awareness, I have been called to embrace the unlikely, the unexpected, and the surprising. From the time of my call to be a priest in 1973 when I was in the ninth grade and hated “church,” until the phone call I received in 2006 asking if I would allow my name to go forward in the search process to be Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Virginia, God has ALWAYS called to me through that “unlikely,” something I would not choose, do, or accept on my own. And, it was always on those occasions when I did set out my own course that things proved wrong or didn’t turn out. As my spiritual director for the last 28 years noted many years ago, because I pay so much attention to my intellectual life—and put so much store in that— it was only by means of the non-sensical that God could ever get my attention! And shortly after that diagnosis, I understood that THIS—the “unlikely,” the “unexpected,” the “surprising”—is the way God asks me to “trust” the Holy Spirit. I’m trusting now, and you can, too.
All of this is why I’ve always trusted TRANSITIONS. But, remember, “trusting” a transition is a much different—and much deeper—dynamic than “liking” transition! Liking it is not the issue and it is not important. What IS at stake is that “transition” is always a time when new realities, new opportunities can break though. We all know that a diocese as old, and as big, and as complex as ours can surely use a different perspective and rejuvenated ways of operating from time to time, especially in these days, when the Church is being constantly challenged to “re-invent” itself, and seems to be morphing not by the year but by the month. Simply from a common-sense or a pragmatic point of view, the fact that I have been diocesan bishop for almost ten years means that I’m now too embedded in all of the complex array of systems and policies, procedures and norms to be the one to lead that work. It is work that must be taken up by someone else.
So, especially during this time of transition and all of the work that must be done, I urge you to offer every prayer and lend all the support you can give to your diocesan leadership. The Standing Committee will continue to work hard in order to be able to call your new Bishop Provisional. I have been assured by the Presiding Bishop’s office that this work will indeed be ongoing as a priority, with the hope that such a call may happen in the nearer future. Bishop Goff, in assuming the responsibilities of what is canonically termed the “Ecclesiastical Authority” for the diocese (in addition to her continuing status as a Bishop Suffragan), will have a greatly expanded scope of leadership, ministry, and oversight, and thus she will be carrying quite a heavier charge, even if only temporarily. Pray for her—for her sake and the sake of the diocese—and say “yes” when she calls upon you. And our Executive Board, our Deans, and the Regional Presidents will find their deliberations and counsel to be of deeper consequence in the times ahead. You may be quite sure that they are all up to their tasks.
I know that all of this is new, and some difficult work beckons. But I think that this is truly a great opportunity for fresh insight and inspiring vision and renewed commitment throughout the diocese. Now, let’s make the most of what God the Holy Spirit is offering to us for a new era.
I’m going to be doing the same thing for my home life and marriage. Although Ellen is NOT retiring now, my resignation will mean something of a “new era” for our life together. After taking an extended period for rest and reflection, I will of course be in discernment for new, meaningful opportunities for part-time ministry, but—right now—the most exciting thing to me about what my life will be like is that I will get to spend more time with Ellen. Simply being around her—just being at home together—is nothing less than the grace of God to me. Her love and support have sustained me each and every day. It is unimaginable to me that I could have lived into the ministry as fully as I have—whether as priest or bishop—without her. And I am so proud of her own highly accomplished contributions to the Church, both here at Holy Comforter in Richmond, and from coast to coast for the whole Episcopal Church, through her position as Director of the Center for Liturgy and Music at the Virginia Theological Seminary. Ellen has always been my whole world, only now I’ll be able to live in THAT world more fully. I told you the story about Ellen being nationally known by Episcopalians while the question was asked about me “But who is HE?” OK, “Who am I?” More than anything, I’m Ellen’s husband.
All that is left is for me to say “thank you.” Thank you from the very bottom of my heart for the opportunity to serve you as the XIII Bishop of this iconic diocese. May God bless you richly, one and all.