Emma, a lemon beagle mix, often accompanies Bishop Johnston to the office at the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. "She's endearingly sweet and connected," Johnston says of Emma. "Sometimes things can get tense and stressful, and she will actually connect with that." If someone is upset," she'll come up and lean against them." Photo from Emily Cherry, Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
On Oct. 1, more than two years after he joined the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia as bishop coadjutor (a bishop elected with the right of succession), the Rt. Rev. Shannon Sherwood Johnston becomes its 13th diocesan bishop. The Alabama native follows the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, who has been in that role for 25 years. Bishop Johnston acknowledges that he faces challenges, including economic difficulties, differences of opinion about the role of gays and lesbians in the church, and a lingering court dispute over property occupied by some Northern Virginia congregations whose members voted to leave the diocese in late 2006. But those who have come to know him in the past two-plus years have been impressed by his eagerness to travel throughout the diocese and to talk and listen. "It's an exciting time in the life of the diocese," says the Rev. Anne R. Kirchmier, rector of The Fork Church in Doswell and a member of the diocese's governing board. "We're looking forward to developing our own relationships with him. Not just watching, but walking with him as we try to figure out the way forward."
Q: You were consecrated bishop coadjutor in May 2007, so you've had some time to get to know the Diocese of Virginia. What are some of the most important things that have happened since then?
A: Unquestionably, it was being able to listen, to travel across the entirety of the diocese and meet the leadership of the congregations, meet the leadership of the regions that we have — we are divided into 15 regions — meet with the clergy, with the vestries and wardens of congregations and listen. That was very important for me because I was elected from outside of this diocese. I had not served in Virginia, and I needed to know what the realities on the front lines are. And I found, in every case, the listening to be extremely productive. Everybody was very gracious in receiving me and helping to bring me on board, and it was a great way to begin to form relationships.
Q: Were you surprised by anything you learned about the diocese?
A: Not particularly, because Virginia is so well known a diocese in the Episcopal Church that clergy and laypeople all over the United States follow even rather closely what happens in Virginia. Virginia is iconic in that sense. So I didn't find things that surprised me in particular ways that I couldn't have connected the dots and found my answers. But I was certainly enriched by the things that I did not know. There's a tremendous [amount] of that when you're talking about 400 years of history. And not only that, but a very diverse and very complex present life and ministry, and there was a great deal about that I did not know, and that was no surprise.
Q: Were there challenges you saw that you didn't anticipate or strengths that you might not have expected?
A: The nominating committee that screened the candidates for bishop in order to present nominees to the diocese did an extraordinarily good job of informing us about the strengths and challenges of the diocese [and it was] a good chance for us to push on our own to explore those strengths and challenges. I think if there was something of any surprise in any of that, it would be to the extent that these things were true: When they told me that Virginia is a diocese that has a particularly strong and venerable tradition of leadership from the laity of the diocese, I could understand what that means, but I had no idea what it would look like as it does in Virginia, when you have some 82,000 communicants and 180 churches. The leadership is so dedicated and sacrificial for everything — and not just big things that carry a lot of recognition, but the everyday tasks of the church. And when the nominating committee told us about how diverse and large and complex this diocese is — well, again, I can understand that. But coming from a diocese that is rural and small — Mississippi has only about 80 congregations and 20,000 communicants — I was unprepared and delighted and somewhat awed by what I saw the clergy in the diocese facing and addressing every single day. Yes, they have a lot of resources in lay leadership, and some have a lot of resources financially. But the clergy here have to work very long and hard hours by and large. And they're doing that in the context, so often, of families and circumstances that have roots over centuries of time. That's not something that I had experienced as a parish priest, even though I'd been one for 20 years. It was energizing for me to see how the clergy of this diocese take that on and are out there and up front in every situation, whether it's the complexities and the modernities of Northern Virginia or in small rural situations that go back to Colonial times.
Q: Are there any particular challenges you have been thinking about in the last couple of years?
A: All of us now are concerned about the economic downturn, and Virginia has a lot of congregations that do not have a great deal of financial resources or may be themselves very small. And so there are challenges with congregations that seek to find the ways to live into their ministries when they are few in number and very under-resourced in terms of money or even leadership or full-time clergy. Then you add this economic downturn onto that, and that's something that does concern me as bishop. I want to be very hands-on in how those things are addressed wherever they're occurring. How churches deal with the realities of money, how congregations receive gifts from their households, how the diocese receives financial support from the congregations — all of those are things that are wrestled with in every place in the church, in churches of all denominations. You have to figure out how you decide what's the best way to marshal the moneys that you have to render a faithful ministry and to serve the churches of this diocese. And that's the first challenge I feel as a bishop: How will I best serve the churches of the diocese?
Q: What is it like following a bishop who's been in place for a quarter-century?
A: He has such a national and international reputation, that it was easy to feel some intimidation. I'm very happy to say that at our second meeting, when Bishop Lee and I sat down to plan how this transition would go, I was able to tell him that he was something of a hero to me and that I felt very daunted to be following in his footsteps. I was very pleased that he took that seriously. He knew what that meant. He was able to, at the same time, live up to what I would have expected from him, but to come down off of the pedestal that I had put him on.
Q: What do you think it is that convinced the nominating committee that you were the right person?
A: I was one of five nominees. I don't think I'm in a position to say why the nominating committee felt I would be a good name to put forward. I can say that I felt it was an unlikely nomination. I think it's fair to say that most people, whether they knew me or not, were somewhat surprised to see me as a nominee, because I came from a very different sort of diocese. I served a medium-sized church. I was only at the time 48 years old [making him the youngest of the nominees]. I did not go to Virginia seminary. I had never served a church in this diocese.
Q: What about you appealed to the committee?
A: I've heard things like youthfulness and energy, and in that regard, that has some depth to it because Virginia has a long history of electing its bishops rather young. Bishop Lee was only 46 when he was elected. And Virginia likes bishops to serve a long time. If we're not at the top, we're very near the top of the average length of a bishop's service to a diocese, at almost 19 years per bishop. Since 1785, we've had only 12. That's really quite remarkable. It's twice the average time of most people serving as bishop. I heard some people say that I reminded them of a young Peter Lee, and at the same time I heard people say that they found me to be very different from Bishop Lee, and that sort of sparked their imagination.
Q: In what ways are you different from Bishop Lee?
A: We have some different traditions of churchmanship, meaning the traditions of how the liturgy is done. But those things are really not so important. My personality would probably be seen as more outgoing and expressive than Bishop Lee, but I would add quickly that over these two years or so, I've tried to learn how to be a little bit more like Bishop Lee in being more circumspect. He's one of those still-waters-run-deep types, and he's extraordinarily gracious, and I would like to think of myself more in those terms, but I know that I'm not anywhere near what I want to be, and it was nice to be able to have two years of working with somebody who is like that.
Q: I noticed that you had studied philosophy and music at the University of the South in Tennessee. What attracted you to those fields of study?
A: I studied philosophy for the mental discipline and music for the love. I double-majored and they released very different energies and abilities and nurtured different energies and abilities. I was an oboe student and drove to Nashville once a week to study with the oboist of the National Symphony Orchestra, who is still playing and making recordings, and I'm very, very proud of those days. I still wonder about what might have been if I had gone on to do what I had planned to do, which was to be an oboist in an orchestra and a teacher. But I tell people it's obvious that God didn't like my oboe playing as much as I did.
Q: What made you change your mind and decide to go to seminary?
A: I had received a call to the priesthood in the ninth grade, when I was 14 years old, so I had always known I had this undercurrent in my life that was very, very powerful. That, in fact, is a large part of what led me to study philosophy in college, to explore the great questions of life and society. I concentrated on the philosophical traditions that came out of the great Christian thinkers like Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo, who wrote the Confessions. And I love St. Bonaventure. I don't know of any thinker that convinces me of a beautiful heart more than Bonaventure and his writings. And then Kierkegaard was very influential to me — the first Christian existentialist in modern times, and a great critic of the church.
That was kind of refreshing, to read somebody so venerated who was also so excoriating of the church and the church's failings. That led me into a whole new awareness of the call to the priesthood and what the church is and what I might be in that call. And I still refer to Kierkegaard a great deal. I find that Kierkegaard has a lot in common with the ancients. In fact, that's something I'm still working on is an idea of how Kierkegaard, although called the first modern existentialist, in fact is picking up a lot of themes and thoughts from figures who lived in the third century. So I still try to keep that intellectual life alive, because I do not find them to be dusty questions. They are very, very important ways of guiding us in our thinking today.
Q: Do you draw on that background?
A: I do. It affects the way I read things. I read quite analytically and critically. I read a lot of source material, so that when I read something new, it's bouncing off all that I read before, and I can use that as a way of interfacing new ideas with old wisdom or the representation of old ideas in ways that may be more helpful for the modern world. If you want to do that, you really do have to keep your reading up. It lifts my spirits to feel like I am doing both reading that is centuries and even thousands of years old and at the same time staying as current as I can. Because I think a bishop should be able to be in both of those worlds.
Q: Was pursuing the priesthood in your mind in college?
A: Yes. Once that call happened in the ninth grade, it was never out of my mind. It was so unlikely and so haunting, but at the same time very comforting. So it was very much on my mind in college, and I had to be very aware of not tunnel-visioning myself, because in college, you're supposed to go to just expand and explore everything, and I didn't want to just go and focus on one thing. So I had to be very aware of broadening myself, but at the same time being faithful to what I knew was speaking to me every day.
Q: What happened when you were in ninth grade?
A: I've told this story a hundred times to people, and I never get tired of it. I was leaving one class in school, leaving a biology class, and going to another class in the crowded hallway and thinking about my next class, which was a math class. I'm not very good at math, and I was worried about being there, and was I going to get called to the board and that sort of thing, and all of a sudden this sort of interior voice — which felt like me but I could tell was other than my own voice, but it felt very natural — said very casually and in a very settled way, "You're going to be a priest." And it felt so personal and comfortable and casual that my emotional reaction as I walked on the hallway down toward class was, "Yes, of course." I just went on and didn't think about it for the rest of the school day and it wasn't until 4:30 — actually I remember it was 10 [minutes] after four in my den when I was rolling papers for my paper route watching Gilligan's Island, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that that was strange. "What in the world just happened to you? What do you mean you're going to be a priest? You don't even like church." I didn't go if I could get away with it. My mother made me go, and I would find ways to skip out and go to the drugstore and eat ice cream. And [now] as a bishop of one of the most iconic dioceses of the whole Anglican world, it's just flabbergasting to me.
Q: Do you think there was anything significant about the setting?
A: That's how God works with me is in the unlikely. I've told people that God works with me in the unlikely so God can get my attention. My call to the priesthood was very, very unlikely, and my parish ministries — one of the most important experiences in ministry was the Kairos Prison Ministry at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. That was an unlikely ministry for me to undertake because it was not something I felt called to, but it was something I found myself put in. That was unlikely, and that changed my whole life. The parish that I went to after that was a very unlikely placement because this parish was known to be very conflicted, and I told myself there's no way I'd ever go to that church. When I was called by the Virginia nominating committee, I said, "Virginia? The biggest diocese in the country? Forget it." But my spiritual director — I've been in spiritual direction with the same person for 15 years now — said, "Uh-uh. This is one of those times, when God is [calling]: If it's unlikely, you'd better pay attention." So I said, "OK, I'll be in the process, but I'll never get nominated." Well, I was nominated. "But I'll never get elected because it's just too unlikely." It seems to work for me.
Q: You've been involved in prison ministry and in AIDS and HIV outreach. Are those areas you would like to continue working in?
A: Jesus himself mentioned being questioned, "Did you visit us in prison?" — speaking of the least of our brothers and sisters. So I think prison is a very special ministry. And welfare and access to health care for people who have HIV and AIDS: To me, you can take the highly stigmatized word "leprosy" used in the New Testament or even in the Old Testament, and you can replace that with "HIV/AIDS." And Jesus is very clear that when you're dealing with people that society has rejected and people who have tremendous difficulty just getting through a day and people who experience tremendous physical pain and mental anguish and spiritual disorientation, that's where the church needs to be.
Q: Are there needs or areas that you are particularly passionate about?
A: Yes, I have several things. One is adolescents. It's such an unsettled period for them that we tend to sort of let them do what they want to do, and we just try to control it and keep it within certain bounds. I think we should take advantage of that unsettled time and that very energetic time and that very questioning time, and that's exactly the time when the church ought to be encouraging their questioning and their exploring. I'd like to see adolescents in spiritual direction. I'm going to emphasize spiritual direction for the whole diocese, not just for clergy, not just for adults, but also for adolescents. Spiritual direction can be the most up-building, confidence-bolstering aspect of Christian life that I know. So that's one thing certainly.
I want to take advantage of our diversity in this diocese. Diversity sometimes can strain you at the seams, but in Virginia, our history is that our diversity is the very thing that holds us together. So I'm sad to see that sometimes it can strain us and pull us apart. I want to find a way that it becomes what holds us together again and that we can grow stronger out of that. I think that's exactly the way the world going forward is going to understand when they see us with not only Latino congregations but Korean and Vietnamese and any number of ethnicities that we have. I think people will understand what that means.
And I am frankly interested in reclaiming the word "Christian." Because I'm very distressed that in political reporting and in television shows, when the word "Christian" is used, it is often used in such a small and constraining way and it has very little to do with what is the overwhelming majority of the Christian church across the world. The word "Christian" is often used in a way that talks about what people are against, and I want the word to be seen more in terms of what Christians are for. That it's not seen in the negative but is seen in something that is very open.
Another thing I'm very interested in is in revitalizing our worship — traditional worship, blended worship and what is an alternative or contemporary worship. I want to strengthen that, because that's where the Episcopal Church stands best. Our worship has always been our best evangelism.
Q: There has been a lot of public attention on the disagreements and controversy in the church related to homosexuality — whether there should be gay bishops and how the church should relate to same-sex couples. What are your thoughts about that?
A: Personally, I'm to the left of that issue. [Supporting] the full inclusion of gay persons in the life of the church is something I said when I was a nominee. But as a leader of the church, I'm a centrist. I think we need to lead from the center, and we need to rebuild the center. I think this issue, the place of gay persons in church — in the United States, anyway — is not an either-or question. There are parts of our church that remain thoroughly traditional in that respect and they will not be required to change. But there are parts of our church — indeed, it's pretty clear, the majority of our church — that are moving toward and indeed already fully include gays and lesbians in the church. I hope that the rest of the Anglican world can accept that reality.
Q: It's been three years since a majority of members in some Northern Virginia congregations voted to leave the diocese. Has the turmoil from that settled?
A: It's in a kind of limbo right now. I just know that we're waiting for the Virginia Supreme Court to hear our petition to take the appeal. I really look forward to the time when the litigation is behind us all.
Q: Can you explain why the Diocese of Virginia decided to go forward with the appeal?
A: It is following our vows to exercise care and concern and indeed ownership of our property, and if we don't do that through whatever means are possible to us, you can make the strong case that the bishop is not living up to the ordination vows. That opens up an entirely new question with very serious ramifications.
Q: Looking ahead, how would you like for the Episcopal Church to be known? Do you think that people see it as very traditional?
A: That would depend on where you are in the diocese. But overall, I'd say no. Most people know that the Episcopal Church is just as modern as it is ancient. There are not many churches that can say that they are both ancient and modern at the same time. And I think that's intriguing. And there is no other church that can point to a history and a theology and a life that is both Catholic and Protestant. We're often confused with Catholics. Our history is very close, and our present life and governance is very close to the Roman Catholic Church, and yet we are a church of the Reformation. So people know that we carry a tremendous range, and the modernity of the church, I think, is one of our great strengths and challenges.
In some places, such as over on the Northern Neck, which is so Colonial, the church is a place that is very much nurtured with years of history. The same seats — the same plumbing [laughs] — and that's a place that's very attractive. People want to be there because it's like that. But you go into Northern Virginia with its modern complexities, and people know that the Episcopal Church is very much part of the vanguard, pushing the envelope — very edgy. Here in Richmond, you have both side by side. Richmond is a very exciting place for the Episcopal Church because we have places that are very traditional and places that are very much on the leading edge of things and a lot of places that are in between. It is exciting to be able to offer that sort of breadth in terms of relationship with God and ministry in the Holy Spirit — being able to be a part of communities that can offer that wide a range of experience to our spiritual life. I'd say that it would certainly be my hope, and it is my confidence that most people and particularly the generations coming up — the 20-somethings and 30-somethings and absolutely the adolescents — would say that the Episcopal Church has something to offer that you just don't find in every place.