- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

RICHMOND The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is scheduled to welcome its newest bishop Saturday, days after court proceedings began in multimillion-dollar lawsuits the church filed against 11 of its breakaway parishes.

The Very Rev. Shannon Sherwood Johnston will be consecrated as bishop co-adjutor, or the diocese’s second-in-command, at the Washington National Cathedral Saturday morning before an estimated 3,200 Episcopalians from across the country.

Despite the tumult that he is inheriting, Mr. Johnston, who eventually will succeed Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee, said he looks forward to the challenges of the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church.

“There’s no way that anyone could prepare for the scale and complexity of the diocese. That’s something you have to grow into and learn, but I’m excited about that because I enjoy complexity,” he said in an interview at diocesan headquarters in Richmond. “The role of bishop is complex as it is, but when you come to a diocese as large and complex as Virginia, that’s something you learn through your own formation rather than counting on the skills and experience that you bring.”

Mr. Johnston, 48, served as rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo, Miss., for 13 years before the Virginia diocese’s annual council, or governing body, elected him as bishop co-adjutor at its January meeting.

Though Mr. Johnston comes from a smaller diocese, the area was diverse and his congregation was involved in a broad spectrum of political and social issues.

“Whether it was politically or socially conservative or liberal, All Saints’ was in the middle of a lot of things in Tupelo and had a long history of being able to do that, to stand in the middle of things that were happening at one end of the spectrum or the other,” he said.

The experience, he said, helped prepare him for his tenure in the Virginia Diocese, which prides itself on unity despite losing one-tenth of its 90,000 members last winter. The departing churches, including two in Northern Virginia that are the diocese’s largest and most historic, have realigned with an Anglican mission under the conservative Church of Nigeria.

Officials with the Anglican District of Virginia, the new ecclesiastical body for the 11 churches, have criticized the diocese’s decision to sue, something Anglican officials say came out of left field amid out-of-court negotiations.

The lawsuits were filed in January. Proceedings began Monday in Fairfax County Circuit Court.

“We were and remain stunned that the Diocese of Virginia reversed course the way it did,” said Jim Oakes, vice president of the Anglican District of Virginia and senior warden at Truro Church in Fairfax, one of the departing congregations.

Mr. Johnston said he hopes to continue Bishop Lee’s legacy of what he described as centrist leadership.

“The emphasis on being able to hold the community and hold the center is something that Bishop Lee has been known for for a long time,” Mr. Johnston said.

Bishop Lee, in turn, commended Mr. Johnston’s humility and “deep commitment to listening and absorbing what he hears.”

“Rather than coming aboard with a fixed agenda that he’ll come in and fix whatever is wrong with the Diocese of Virginia, he seems eager to listen and find out what the reality is,” said Bishop Lee, who plans to retire in the next two or three years.

Church canon requires diocesan bishops to retire by age 72.

“It certainly makes my position much more serene,” Bishop Lee said. “I don’t feel like I have my successor looking over my shoulder wondering, ‘Why don’t you get out of here so I can do the right thing?’”

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