Voices of Episcopal Split

Moderate Bishop Takes Unexpected Turn

Episcopal Bishop Peter Lee, at the Virginia diocese offices in Richmond, is preparing to retire after nearly four decades of service.
Episcopal Bishop Peter Lee, at the Virginia diocese offices in Richmond, is preparing to retire after nearly four decades of service. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

If the Episcopal Church has been a rocky boat in recent decades, Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee has been one of its anchors.

Liberals and conservatives alike have described the white-coiffed Southerner -- one of the most senior bishops in the U.S. church -- as a moderate statesman. When a conservative group of parishioners split from his North Carolina church in the 1970s over women's ordination, he was in the front pew when members opened their new church. Although he wouldn't approve same-sex commitment ceremonies in Virginia, he encouraged clergy to bless couples' homes instead.

But as the genteel bishop prepares to retire after almost 40 years, he has become a national lighting rod while leading the diocese in a bitter property dispute with a handful of breakaway conservative congregations. Suddenly a foe of traditionalists and the commander of an unsightly legal battle, Lee, a 68-year-old former newspaper reporter, is facing an unexpected closing chapter to his legacy.

Although Virginia is hardly the only Episcopal diocese with divisions over issues of sexuality and Scripture -- issues that are roiling other Christian denominations -- how Lee handles the dispute is high-profile because it involves some of the largest, oldest Episcopal congregations in the country. The churches are also led by nationally well-known conservatives, including Bishop Martyn Minns.

"Virginia is the largest diocese in the country, and we are a microcosm of theological viewpoints, so I think people are looking to see what happens here," said the Rev. Martha J. Horne, dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, the largest Anglican seminary in the world.

The breach is the culmination of years of brewing displeasure among conservatives who feel the U.S. church has watered down the literal meaning Scripture. Things came to a head in recent weeks when 11 Virginia congregations voted to leave the U.S. church and join the Church of Nigeria -- and to keep their valuable properties. Lee moved swiftly to remove credentials of the conservative priests, declare their churches abandoned property and file lawsuits asking courts to declare the churches property of the diocese, which comprises 182 congregations.

Since then, he has been vilified by conservatives who say he led them to believe before the vote that it would be possible for them to keep their properties under a settlement. Conservative blogs accuse him of caving to national Episcopal leaders. He has been called a traitor, a weakling.

Lee "feels that he has a franchise right to Anglicanism . . . much as a medieval lord might have rights to his domain, his serfs," the Rev. David Anderson, head of the American Anglican Council, a group of traditionalist U.S. parishes, wrote on the council's Web site last month.

And Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, a national conservative leader who worked with Lee in the late 1970s when they were based in Chapel Hill, N.C., said: "Bishop Lee's episcopate would have been recorded as one of the great ministries. He was always in the middle, always tried to be fair to both sides, and in this one he winds up, as many see it, as the oppressor. What a sad, sad end."

Once close friends, Duncan and Lee skipped the dinner last summer that they have shared every year at the denomination's annual meeting, Duncan said. "Some day we'll sit in rocking chairs and talk about it. For now, I know we still pray for each other."

Conversely, Lee has become something of a hero for some moderates.

"We have been in the presence of greatness, and I don't say that lightly," said Henry D.W. Burt, a Richmond lawyer who has worked for the diocese off and on since the 1980s. "He has tried and tried and tried to keep all the players at the table. This isn't his fault."

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