BB NOTE: PBS' news show "Religion and Ethics Weekly," interviewed Bishop Peter Lee of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. He's an excerpt of the questions asked by Religion & Ethics, Bishop Lee's responses, and BB's commentary. Read the full interview here.
Q: How big of a point of contention is having US priests becoming bishops under the auspices of bishops in other parts of the world?
Bishop Lee: I think it's discouraging and confusing. I have two such bishops now in my geographical diocese. Both were formerly priests of my diocese; they are both friends of mine. But I think their consecration as bishop is very confusing for the people that they're supposed to serve, and it does not help in trying to work out these differences in a long-term way.
BB: Is it not, well, patronizing to think that the laity of Virginia are so stupid that we don’t know who are bishops are? That's not what he's saying, is it? Confusing? 7,000 laity and we're all confused? Over and over again it appears that Episcopal bishops think that the laity are a bunch of stupid sheep being led astray (I had that question put to me by another PBS documentary crew in New Orleans). Perhaps that is how some bishops operate in their own dioceses (wake up, laity) but that’s not what happens in Virginia. The laity in Virginia have a long history of making it very clear to bishops where they stand and why. George Mason and George Washington were only the first.
And what does he mean by "the people that they're supposed to serve"? Is that also not a rather condescending remark - in one fail swoop he patronizes not only the laity but also our bishops as well? What does he mean by "supposed" to serve? Is there any doubt? I think not. But one does wonder why Bishop Lee would say it this way. Again, does he think we're stupid sheep?
Now on the other hand, it's also interesting that he calls John Guernsey (and Martyn Minns as well) his friends - a rather surprising remark since Bishop Lee attempted to defrock John Guernsey two months ago. What does he mean? Could a door be slightly ajar?
Q: What about the situation over property? Are those lawsuits still going to go forward? The archbishop did mention that he is disappointed to see lawsuits happening.
Bishop Lee: Well, I'm very disappointed to see lawsuits happening. The churches that voted to leave our diocese, the next day after their vote they went to court, asking the courts to declare that the property belonged to them, so our response in the courts is a defensive measure. We didn't start that. We feel, though, that we have an obligation, to the people of the past who built those churches and to the people of the future who expect to have an Episcopal church in their community, to see that those churches belong to the Episcopal Church, so those legal proceedings are continuing.
BB: He's very disappointed to see lawsuits happening? Does he think they just "happened" - was it all on their own while he was out of town or baking bread? He's the one filing lawsuits - not us. The churches voted and registered their vote at the Courthouse, according to Commonwealth law - we registered our vote. Are we still living in a free country where lay people are allowed to vote in America or did something change while I was in New Orleans? We did not take the next step to declare anything. We did not sue anyone. Remember?
We thought we were heading to the negotiating table, following the Virginia Protocol, which outlined the steps we were following. All of the churches sent representatives to meet with him after the vote and he created his "Property Committee" (we were following the model set by All Saints Dale City) and then we were asked to send representatives from each of the churches to join his Property Committee. We did that. On the Sunday following the meeting with Bishop Lee, the Truro Vestry met and elected our representatives to join the Property Committee. Things were moving forward - it wasn't easy, but they were moving forward.
The next day, however, David Booth Beers appeared with his carpetbag and had a little chat with Bishop Lee, the Standing Committee, and the Executive Board and the next thing we know Bishop Lee has axed his Property Committee, inhibited all the clergy, cut off their health benefits (COBRA too), and then sued 200 lay volunteers. Now we learn that the Presiding Bishop is telling the Diocesan Bishops what to do and that church properties can indeed be sold as long as the property does not become a church in the Anglican Communion. It can become Billy Schananoodles Bar & Grill or McMurphy's Five & Dime, but it can't be an Anglican Church. Looks like Bishop Lee may need to modify his story - yet again. And he may want to rethink who he is calling a "Prelate."
"I'm very disappointed to see lawsuits happening," Bishop Lee tells PBS. Well, tell it to 815 - Rowan Williams ain't too happy about it either.
Q: Are there any discussions about trying to find some kind of settlement outside of court?
A: Not at this point, but I would dearly love to see if we could do that. We did that with Bishop John Guernsey's church, far prior to the initiation of law suits. We did settle a property issue, where the diocese makes no claim to their unimproved property, and they make no claim to the church where they're now worshipping, and we have leased it to them for a nominal fee until they're prepared to build their new church.
BB: All Saints Dale City was the "test" case for the Virginia Protocol. It showed us a process to follow for Bishop Lee's Property Committee. This was where we were headed. Even now, as the November trial date fast approaches, we continue to pray that we will return to the negotiating table as Virginians, but it could very well be that this is what keeps him from returning (despite his attempt to defrock them) to those he still considers friends. That's more than we can say for 815.
When I was in New Orleans Bishop Lee came up to me and said "Hello, Mary" and took my hand. He didn't have to do that. It was gracious. But he's lived in Virginia a long time. Certainly when I saw David Booth Beers he never looked up from his blasted blackberry, not even when the judge was talking. He'll go back to his hidey-hole in Washington or New York or where ever it is that he goes back to when he's not out suing churches.
But Virginia will still be here, we'll still be shopping at the same grocery stores and still stuck on the same beltways, still using the same Prayer Book. "I call you friends," Jesus said. And Bishop Lee calls Martyn Minns and John Guernsey his friends. How about that. And you know what - that is the absolute truth.
Bishop Lee has no better friends. And we might as well throw in the stupid sheep as well. You spend twenty years praying for someone, a couple of lawsuits won't end those prayers, even if sometimes those prayers are through tears.