Early tomorrow, Sheila and I will be in the U.K. to take part in Lambeth 2022, the global gathering of Anglican bishops that takes place every decade or so at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since Bishop Lee’s death on July 2, he and his wife, Kristy, who survives him, have been continually in our thoughts and our prayers. I’m grateful for the many moving remembrances of Bishop Lee that have appeared in various outlets, and I want to share a few of my memories as well in this brief statement—including one of my most meaningful encounters with Bishop Lee that occurred at Lambeth 2008.
Some lead-up: I was a junior (first-year) seminarian at Virginia Seminary in 1984, the year Peter James Lee became the Bishop of Virginia. It is somewhat ironic that before my ordination my preferred seating in a church was in the gallery, certainly not up front. The old Virginia Seminary chapel had a gallery, and I was there for chapel when the new Bishop of Virginia came into the chapel in procession. There was so much gravitas, even quiet grandeur, I felt in Bishop Lee’s presence; the power of his presence was palpable to me. Little did I know that I would come to be a priest in the Diocese of Virginia and that he would be my bishop for about fifteen years.
I’d like to relate to you the charming stories of his time at Shrine Mont in the summers while I served as chaplain to the summer camps there, and at Episcopal High School, where he came to perform the first in-school Confirmations in the living memory of the school, but this remembrance is mostly about how his courage contributed to both the continuity and the transformation of our Church.
The continuity part was about maintaining a posture of balance. The Anglican Middle Way is not so much about compromise to me, but is more about the synergy of the generative space in the middle where contraries meet and become something new and more. While I was the rector of Emmanuel Church, Middleburg, the parishioners and I began a lively annual symposium program. Our little church in a very small village (600 people) was able to attract some truly marvelous speakers each year (interestingly, including Bill Countryman, whose commentary on the Gospel of John had entranced me; little did I know I would, years later, serve as the bishop of his diocese, and that Sheila and I would come to be dear friends with Bill and John).
One year we outdid ourselves—we were able to attract Elaine Pagels to come speak with us about the Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism. We at Emmanuel were overjoyed, but not everyone in the Diocese of Virginia was equally pleased! Denunciations of our inviting a person some called a heretic into an Episcopal parish came to Bishop Lee and appeared in some publications.
To my great surprise (because I hadn’t asked him, nor did I know about the letters he had received), Bishop Lee weighed in on the matter in the Diocese of Virginia magazine. Bishop Lee wrote about the embrace of differences, the quality of inquiry without fear, the Anglican Middle Way. I was most grateful, and, in retrospect, see his letter to the diocese as a wonderful example of ministry of a bishop, taking the broad view, across the many points of view in the present, and the many opinions across time—a mountain top view of life.
The transformative part has been written about by many in the days since his death: his vote to confirm Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire. Bishop Lee voted with the majority, so why do I hold his vote as so important? That gravitas, that quiet grandeur I opened with, these were the sensible qualities of some bishops of that time in our Church. Some of those figures stepped out of their comfortable, secure places and took risky stands for justice, stands that could, and in some cases did, cost them. Bishop Lee was such a bishop.
I will refrain from chronicling some of the vitriol that I know was aimed at Bishop Lee following his vote to confirm Bishop Robinson, for to do so would be to give the perpetrators too much attention. But the embrace of the new by such a well-respected, established bishop carried tremendous weight in the Church at large. I believe his single vote was much more impactful than its contribution to the total number needed to confirm Bishop Robinson.
Which brings us to Lambeth 2008. I was in search of an excellent person I could recommend to the Board of Trustees of Grace Cathedral to serve as their interim dean. Bishop Lee came immediately to mind; and so, Sheila and I took the Lees to lunch while we were at the Lambeth Conference to talk about this possibility.
The Lambeth conference followed shortly after Bishop Lee’s retirement from the Diocese of Virginia. Initially, he resisted my invitation to consider the position, but Sheila and Kristy joined my encouragement and he finally agreed to a new adventure.
I’m glad to say that Bishop Lee not only helped Grace Cathedral and me immeasurably, but his interim time in California began a great new chapter of ministry for the Lees: General Seminary, Paris, and East Carolina all followed his tenure at Grace. The Diocese of California was blessed by Bishop Lee’s quiet competence, his calm, and his profound faith that could both embrace the middle way and courageous paths. He is sorely missed by many in our Diocese, and by me and my family. We have all been blessed to have this wonderful bishop and friend in our lives.
In faith,
Author: adiadiocal