The Washington Times - January 25, 2009, 01:18AM

It’s always an event covering the Virginia Episcopalians.

Delegates to the annual meeting of the country’s largest Episcopal diocese at 80,000 souls always overflow the Reston Hyatt ballroom each year at the end of January to conduct theirs and God’s business. Of all the religious conventions I cover, the Virginia diocese always has the best snacks and coffee available. There is always a southern graciousness to the gathering.


What made this weekend’s annual council - as it is called - meeting bittersweet was the announcement that the diocese’s bishop of 25 years - Peter J. Lee - steps down in 10 months. This was his last diocesan council.

Never fear, there will be plenty of opportunities to say goodbye, including a May 30 service at the Washington Cathedral. The actual handover date to his successor, Bishop Coadjutor Shannon S. Johnston, is Oct. 1. The latter is 50 years old. Bishop Lee turns 71 on May 11. He is the archtypical bishop: silver-haired, stately, always dignified, even at General Convention three years ago when I and a New York Times reporter pursued him to the mens room to try to get a quote out of him. 

We first met when I did a short profile on him around the time Virginia passed Massachusetts to become the country’s No. 1 Episcopal diocese. I think he liked the piece I wrote but he wasn’t so happy at all the articles that came out after 2003 when he and most of the Virginia delegation to General Convention voted to approve the election of the denomination’s first openly gay bishop. Things began to unravel, not the least his diocese. Because I had tons of contacts within some of his conservative parishes in northern Virginia, so was able to report a lot on how they disagreed with him while the diocese got increasingly more and more defensive and was less willing to give out quotes. I was trying to be fair and keep lines open on both sides and at one point asked Bishop Lee for his home phone number so I could find him more easily as the diocesan spokeswoman at the time was none too swift at returning my calls. If looks could kill, Bishop Lee’s glare would have withered me on the spot. 

But my predictions were correct, the conservative parishes left the denomination and now there’s a huge lawsuit headed for the Virginia Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the diocese is inching toward same-sex blessings, as I reported on today, and as the conservatives predicted would happen. Some of us get the impression this would have happened a lot sooner but that Bishop Lee had held back those forces, seeing what a nasty split resulted on his watch. Being that the diocese numbered 95,000 not too many years ago, that means 15,000 people voted with their feet. So many conservative priests warned him against voting for the gay bishop but he did not listen and he paid a steep price.

When I interviewed him for that profile, he was so looking forward to May 2007 and the celebration of the Anglican Church’s 400-year anniversary in Virginia. Instead, all the news that year was about the conservatives who had just left at the beginning of that year.

All the same, his measured, dignified way of leading the annual council meetings will be missed. “I love you, I know you,” Bishop Lee said to the delegates. I’ve come to the point when certain people come to the microphones - I won’t mention names - I can pretty much figure out what you are going to say.”

I wish I could say that his successor was also a class act. Bishop Johnston was wandering about near the press table today during a break, so I stood by him - as reporters often do when they want to ask a question - waiting for him to finish talking with someone. He turned his back. I tried to get within his line of vision but he was ignoring me. As he ended one conversation and I stepped up to pose my question, he grabbed another delegate and began talking with him. Finally I broke in to say I had a question, was on deadline and could he answer? He looked at his watch, then shot me an irritated stare. I asked him about a gay candidate to the priesthood he mentioned in a speech. Could he give me more details? 

“It’s all in my speech,” he spat out, turned around and walked away. Someone caught the incident on camera so he can’t deny the conversation took place! 

Is rudeness what this man is all about? If so, it will fast erode the traditional civility the diocese has always been known for. Bishop Lee at least makes a space for people he doesn’t like. His successor won’t be so polite. His departure will be a big loss to what has been a gracious place on the northern frontier of the Old South. The future may not be so welcoming.

- Julia Duin, religion editor