- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

When the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia was identified as the country's largest Episcopal diocese earlier this year, little mention was made of the Rt. Rev. Peter J. Lee, its bishop for the past 18 years.

More was said about a phalanx of conservative parishes on the diocese's northern rim that have planted many of the diocese's 18 new churches in some of the country's richest and fastest-growing counties.

But Bishop Lee's efforts to balance competing interests in a diocese that comprises a liberal south and a conservative north has kept 187 Episcopal churches up, running and growing.

"He runs a very tight ship, very organized," says a former priest in the diocese. "He resonates very well with the Virginia temperament: classy, low-key, private and not interested in making waves."

And so, for the first time in decades, the Diocese of Virginia's 86,527 baptized members has overtaken the Dioceses of Texas, (83,130 members), Massachusetts (77,797), Los Angeles (73,520) and Connecticut (72,510).

"Basically, I thank God for it," says Bishop Lee, 64, who oversees 302 clergy, five secondary schools, two conference centers and the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

Bishop Lee is a 1967 Virginia seminary graduate and had worked a stint in U.S. Army intelligence, was a reporter and editor for two newspapers and a law school student before considering the priesthood. His moment of truth came one February night in the basement of the Duke University law school.

"It was the closest I've ever had to a conversion experience," he says. "I was studying property law, and I realized I was not supposed to be doing that. I closed my book, went back to my apartment and wrote a letter to my bishop."

Bishop Lee rose quickly in the ranks and in 1984 was pastoring a parish in Chapel Hill, N.C., when Virginians selected him as their next bishop.

He appealed to residents of the nearly 400-year-old diocese, who pride themselves in being "broad church": light on liturgy and formality, but heavy on preaching and lay leadership.

"The Diocese of Virginia is actually cutting edge," one observer says. "It was one of the first that opened itself to women in the priesthood. But it is two dioceses in one. The southern part of the diocese is liberal Protestants. The northern part is conservative folks who go to church and work for the government."

The four largest churches in the diocese are in Northern Virginia. Three of them Falls Church Episcopal in Falls Church, Truro Church and Church of the Apostles in Fairfax are theologically conservative.

Even though parishes are leaving the liberal 2.2-million-member denomination around the country over disputes about sexuality, abortion, female priests and the role of Scripture, none of Virginia's right-of-center Episcopal parishes has jumped ship.

"All those issues are present in the Diocese of Virginia," the bishop says, "but they are not at the center stage." What is at center stage is church growth, which is where his evangelical and charismatic parishes in the north which have spawned several daughter churches have come in handy. His centrist position on many issues appealed to them, as well as to diocesan liberals. It also won him a spot on the short list of nominees for presiding bishop, the top office in the Episcopal Church.

He withdrew his name in April 1997, a week before the list was finalized.

"I didn't want to leave," he says. "I was doing a good job here."

In May 2001, he was asked to mediate at a high-level meeting in New York over an Episcopal parish in Acokeek, Md., that had called a rector who did not believe in women's ordination. Then-Bishop of Washington Jane Dixon had ordered the rector to vacate the property, and conservative bishops around the country were rushing to his defense. Five of them were at the New York meeting, as were several liberal prelates.

But no compromise was reached, and in June Bishop Dixon sued the parish. The case ended up in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, where the Virginia Diocese is also based.

"I realized that what [Acokeek and its defenders] were asserting was alien to the polity of the Episcopal Church in which the bishop is the final arbiter of qualifications for a rector," he said. His diocese then drew up an amicus brief against the Acokeek parish.

Although it was co-signed by 25 bishops, Bishop Lee's actions were criticized by conservatives who say this has been the year the bishop tossed aside his impartiality to side with church liberals.

Chuck Nalls, attorney for the Acokeek parish, says the amicus brief revealed Bishop Lee as a "corporatist" willing to sue even his own parishes if they threaten to leave his diocese.

"He works for the institution, but nothing the institution stands for," Mr. Nalls says. "Theologically, he appears to tolerate anything in his diocese. He is about property, structure and the institution."

The amicus brief may have tarnished Bishop Lee's centrist credentials, but in early March, he was on his way to another flash point. He and a team of investigators had been asked by the Episcopal General Convention the denomination's decision-making body to look into why the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, still refuses to ordain women.

The visit ended up being counterproductive, Bishop Lee says.

"We were perceived as an investigative, hostile team," he says. "I could see how that would be. Several of the lay people in one of the groups we met with said, 'Why aren't you investigating dioceses that are ordaining gay and lesbian people who are not celibate? Or why aren't you investigating places where they are performing same-sex unions?'"

Such unions are not taking place in the Diocese of Virginia, the bishop says, even though, "Dioceses are all over the map on these issues. Culturally, even in conservative Virginia, there are very few of our parishes where gay and lesbian people would not be welcomed."

Two years ago, the seminary's board decided to allow active homosexuals to study at the seminary. In March, it hired a lesbian professor, the Rev. Ruthanna Hooke, to teach homiletics (preaching) starting in the fall.

"While I have said I do not knowingly ordain people involved in sexual intimacy outside of marriage, I felt very much in a bind between our policy of the Diocese of Virginia and the role of the seminary as a national, even international institution," the bishop says. "It meant not using sexuality as a discriminatory practice to keep us from hiring the best possible scholars.

"It is not a terribly consistent position for me, but I am one of 42 board members, even though I am the chairman."

Miss Hooke will not be the only lesbian priest in the diocese. The Rev. Linda Kaufman, a Virginia seminary graduate and a diocesan priest, has been in the news for her efforts to adopt a foster child from the District. She is suing the state of Virginia, purporting discrimination by state officials who are delaying her application because of her homosexuality.

"I did ordain Linda Kaufman," the bishop says. "Although at the time of her ordination, I was not aware, nor did I think she was aware, either, of her orientation."

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