D.C.'s Episcopal bishop, known for liberal causes, to retire

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

John Bryson Chane, the Episcopal bishop of Washington and one of the mainline denomination's most prominent advocates of marriage equality for gay men and lesbians, announced Saturday that he will retire next year after leading the 42,000-person diocese since 2002.

Chane, 65, made the announcement at the diocese's annual convention at Washington National Cathedral, where he received a standing ovation. He told the delegates he is not "burned out or bored," but believes it's time for someone younger to take over.

"I love what I do and I deeply love this diocese," Chane said in the annual bishop's address. "When the time actually comes to turn over the crosier to another, it will be a very emotional time for me."

Chane's exit from the diocese, which includes 89 congregations in the District and suburban Maryland, follows that of his counterpart in Northern Virginia, Peter James Lee, who retired in October as bishop of the diocese that includes eastern Virginia.

While Lee was known as a moderate on the social issues that have embroiled the Episcopal Church -- as well as mainline Protestantism -- Chane was an unabashed liberal on the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry. He allows clergy in the diocese to bless same-sex relationships and blesses such relationships himself. He made outreach to the Muslim world a priority and extended a controversial invitation in 2006 to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to speak at the cathedral. It's likely he will focus on Muslim-Christian dialogue after his retirement.

The power structure of the Episcopal Church -- the American wing of the Anglican Communion -- makes it impossible to know whom possible successors might be. Spokesman Jim Naughton said there are no obvious names. A search committee will be formed in March, and Chane said he hopes an election will be held in May or June 2011.

During Chane's time in Washington, Washingtonian magazine named him one of the 150 most influential leaders in the city, and the Sunday Telegraph in London called him one of the most prominent leaders in the Communion.

Chane has taken a public role in the fight in the Episcopal Church over gay rights , a dispute that has resulted in congregation defections around the country, although none in Chane's diocese. More than a dozen such defections in Virginia have resulted in a multimillion-dollar legal dispute over church property. Conservative congregations have left to join other, more like-minded parts of the Communion, including those in Nigeria and Uganda, where harsh anti-gay measures have been proposed. Chane has been an outspoken critic of such measures and challenged American conservatives to address the status of gay men and lesbians in those countries.

In announcing his retirement, Chane acknowledged that the diocese is struggling by the measure of its size and finances, a common subject for mainline Protestantism and religious denominations in general in the United States. When he took office in 2002, the diocese was slightly larger, with 91 congregations.

Reports "for the most part tell a story of no real measurable growth in membership within the last 12 years. Financial giving has been stagnant," he said. "Frankly speaking, using the business model of measuring success, stagnancy or failure, then collectively we have not been very successful."

However, he asked, is the diocese successful by other measures: the joy of worship, caring for needy people in the community, translating the Gospel into real life?

Under Chane, the number of Spanish-speaking members quadrupled and missionary projects were launched in Central and South America, Haiti and on American Indian reservations, among other places.

"From my perspective, I think this diocese and our congregations that I love so much, and that have fed my soul are models of success in a different way," he said.

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