Mississippi Rector Chosen as Next Bishop

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has picked its next leader, a 48-year-old Alabamian who says one of the most endearing qualities of his denomination, roiled by disagreements centering on homosexuality, is "our ability to 'agree to disagree' on issues, biblical and otherwise."

The Very Rev. Shannon S. Johnston will replace Bishop Peter James Lee sometime during the next three years as head of the country's largest Episcopal diocese, with 184 congregations and more than 80,000 baptized members. In recent months, majorities in 15 congregations have voted to leave the U.S. church because of disputes about the interpretation of Scripture and affiliate instead with other, more conservative branches of the global Anglican Communion.

Johnston was elected last weekend in Richmond at the diocese's 212th annual meeting, where he defeated four others in three ballots. Johnston has been rector at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Tupelo, Miss., since 1994. He will be consecrated May 26 at Washington National Cathedral.

The meeting came as the diocese appears headed for a court battle with the breakaway congregations over parish property valued in the tens of millions of dollars. The fight has great symbolic and legal weight as both sides accuse the other of abandoning the spirit of the Anglican Communion.

In a candidate questionnaire and in other comments about the role of gays and lesbians in the church, Johnston has been vague, if centrist. In a 2005 article posted on his church's Web site about the dispute, he wrote: "I insist that the answer will not come from one of the two 'sides' but rather will be found in the Center."

In the candidate questionnaire, he also said he supported -- "with some reservations" -- a 2004 report by an Anglican commission that rebuked the U.S. church for ordaining a gay bishop and blessing same-sex unions and called for both practices to stop until some consensus emerges in the Communion, the second-largest church in the world.

Clergy and lay leaders voting at the annual meeting also approved a resolution calling for the creation of a commission to look into the possibility that each parish could have its own policy about whether to bless same-sex unions. The resolution had originally sought that such a policy be adopted on a trial basis.

A resolution supporting negotiations with the breakaway congregations was withdrawn.

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