Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Rt. Rev. Shannon Sherwood Johnston was consecrated as the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s new bishop yesterday during a celebratory service at the Washington National Cathedral.

Bishop Johnston, who eventually will succeed Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee, begins his post as bishop coadjutor as the diocese wages multimillion-dollar lawsuits against 11 of its breakaway parishes.

His consecration sends a positive message to the entire 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church, said the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, Bishop of Atlanta, who delivered a sermon to the roughly 3,000 Episcopalians gathered at the cathedral.

“The ordination of a new bishop is an act of faith,” Bishop Alexander said. “It is a sign of hope. It is a living reminder of the mission that … Christ has given the church.”

The ordination also sends a message to the “naysayers” — those who say the Episcopal Church is in decline: “Our faith is strong and vigorous, full of hope,” he said.

“Raising up Shannon Johnston to be a bishop in Virginia is a bold reminder to ourselves and then to the world … that we are not prepared to give up,” Bishop Alexander said.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the Episcopal Church, led the two-hour service in the cathedral’s cavernous sanctuary. The liturgy was at once joyous and solemn, its sound echoing across the vaulted ceilings and pointed arches.

Bishop Jefferts Schori and about 30 bishops from Episcopal dioceses around the country encircled a kneeling Bishop Johnston and laid their hands upon him while reading aloud from the Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church’s official worship book.

Bishop Johnston then was vested in bishops’ ecclesiastical robes and presented to the congregation, which erupted into cheers and applause.

“My spirit rejoices in God our savior,” said Bishop Johnston, 48. “My heart today is indeed very full.”

Bishop Johnston will succeed Bishop Lee, who plans to retire by May 2010, when he will turn 72 — the requisite retirement age of Episcopal bishops.

“The bishops of Virginia tend to stick around for a long time,” said Bishop Lee, the diocese’s 12th bishop since the first was consecrated in 1790.

Bishops are symbols of continuity in the church, he said at a press conference following the ceremony.

Bishop Johnston, who worked for more than 12 years as rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo, Miss., is scheduled to begin his first full day as bishop coadjutor this morningwith a visit to the Church of the Holy Comforter in Vienna.

He said his first priority is to familiarize himself with the diocese, its 95 parishes and 90,000 Episcopalians. As bishop coadjutor, he also is charged with overseeing deployment, or the placing of clergy at parishes and other ministries in the diocese.

The diocese lost one-tenth of its 90,000 members last winter when 11 of its parishes realigned with an Anglican mission under the conservative Church of Nigeria. Since the 2003 consecration of the openly homosexual New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, conservatives have been fleeing the denomination.

The Episcopal Church and its Virginia diocese filed suit against the breakaway churches in January, and court proceedings began last week.

“We’ve had some very bad times in Virginia,” Bishop Lee said, citing the War of 1812 and the Civil War as particularly difficult challenges for the diocese. “The church not only endured, but brought solace and peace and hope.”

“I have absolutely no doubt that the church will endure and flourish,” he said.

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