Bishop-Elect Speaks on Theological Shifts & Mental Affliction

E. Mark Stevenson of the presiding bishop's staff has been elected Bishop of Virginia | Diocese of Virginia photo

By Kirk Petersen

Before he became a priest, he worked in movie theater construction. He carried the Olympic torch for a kilometer in 1996. He has spent much of his ministry focused on people in need — which has contributed to some significant theological evolution. He speaks openly about a serious health issue afflicting the woman he loves.

And on June 4, he was elected the 14th Bishop of Virginia, one of the church’s oldest and largest dioceses.

The Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson has a lot of experience watching bishops at work, having served on the staff of three bishops. He was canon to the ordinary for the current and former Bishops of Louisiana, and in 2018 Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry named him canon to the presiding bishop for ministry within the Episcopal Church, one of three senior executives responsible for pursuing Curry’s primatial vision.

Stevenson is the second person in a row to be elected a bishop while holding the “ministry-within” portfolio. His predecessor, the Rt. Rev. Michael Hunn, was elected Bishop of the Rio Grande in 2018.

Assuming he receives the necessary consents from more than half of the diocesan Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction, Stevenson will be consecrated by his current boss on December 3. He will succeed the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, who retired in 2018. Bishop Suffragan Susan E. Goff, who has served as ecclesiastical authority since Johnston’s retirement, is retiring herself at the end of this year and was not a candidate.

Stevenson was elected on the second ballot from a slate of four candidates. It was the first all-white-male slate in any diocese in recent memory, and that generated some consternation. Goff subsequently issued a message about the “800-pound gorilla in the room.”

“This slate as currently composed has become a lightning rod for deep issues facing both the Diocese of Virginia and the entire Church,” she wrote. “Our anxieties about diversity, race, sex, gender, Covid losses, economic uncertainty, changes in church attendance and other issues have latched on to this slate, making it the latest repository of our fears.”

TLC asked Stevenson if the homogeneity of the slate might reflect a belief by priests who are people of color that they would not feel comfortable in the diocese. “The specifics of the nomination and selection process are not my story to tell,” he replied.

He praised the steps the diocese has taken in pursuit of racial reconciliation. At its annual convention in November, the diocese committed to creating an endowment of $10 million over the next five years to provide reparations to people and institutions who “still carry the burden of theological, social, cultural, economic, and legal injustices, exclusions, and biases born out of white supremacy and the legacy of slavery.”

“It is good and holy work that they’re about. It’s difficult work, and we’re going to have to stand in hard places, as individuals and as a group,” Stevenson said, identifying racial reconciliation as one of the top priorities for his episcopacy. “I’m willing to stand in those hard and difficult places myself.”

Conservative theological views have been in the spotlight since objections were filed in May to the election of the Rev. Charlie Holt as bishop coadjutor in the Diocese of Florida. Holt, who believes marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, nevertheless pledged to uphold Resolution B012, which provides a path for same-sex marriages to take place even in dioceses where the bishop objects to the practice.

A social media post after the Virginia election stated: “When starting out in the Diocese of Louisiana, Mark Stevenson was strongly opposed to Gene Robinson’s election, very much against women’s ordination, a high church Anglo Catholic from Nashotah House and staunchly orthodox.” The post accused Stevenson of “betrayal” for changing those views.

Stevenson acknowledged that the description of his early views was generally accurate, but said “Prayerful people are oftentimes moved to a different place by the Holy Spirit. And I would say that’s what’s happened to me over the years.”

Addressing the specifics, he said: “Where I sit today, I’m supportive of women’s ordination, I’m supportive of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the church, fully supporting of their access to all the sacraments.” He added, “my theology is catholic, in the broadest sense of the word,” but “I can be equally at home in a low-church setting as I can in a high-church setting.”

He cited Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 while he was canon to the ordinary, as contributing to the evolution of his views. The recovery exposed racial injustices in housing and the economy, and he was sensitized to the importance of relationships by “seeing how people treated each other, and how we came together as a church and how we sometimes didn’t come together as a church.”

When he joined the presiding bishop’s staff in 2013, “My first bit of work was dealing with domestic poverty issues. Really digging into some of the difficulties around the drivers of poverty – food insecurity, healthcare, housing – and how people who look like me tend not to have those kinds of problems. And how society and the church treats people,” he said. “I had some lightbulb moments.”

He subsequently served for two years as director of Episcopal Migration Ministries, and “working with refugees really focused me” on social justice issues. He added, “no one need be concerned in my episcopate about having access to the sacraments, or full inclusion in the church.”

He spoke at length about his experience with his wife of 27 years, who suffers from dementia.

“Joy was diagnosed in 2016 with mild cognitive impairment, and progressed over the years. The lockdown year of 2020 was a gift to me, because I got to spend a year with her that I wouldn’t have otherwise had, but by the end of 2020, going into 2021, I knew that it was no longer safe for me to keep her at home. She’s been in a memory care facility since January of ’21. She has progressed far enough in her disease that she’s no longer aware of her disease. I have her in a place where she’s safe and taken care of, and fortunately, the blessing is that most of the time she still knows who I am. When she sees me, she recognizes me, and that’s a real blessing,” he told TLC.

The couple currently live in Kentucky, and Stevenson has begun looking for a memory-care facility in Richmond.

Stevenson said a 90-second portion of a video from a pre-election meet-and-greet event does a good job of describing how he incorporates his experience with his wife into his ministry. The video below should begin at 2:26:40 when the play button is clicked.

“What I’ve learned from her is that I need to check myself at the door in a pastoral situation, and simply love her for the child of God that she is,” he said in the video. “It’s not my responsibility to fix her. It’s my responsibility to love her, and that is the heart of being a pastor.”

The Diocese of Virginia is based in Richmond and encompasses the northeast part of the state, including suburbs of Washington, DC. It originally included all of Virginia, and now shares the state with Norfolk-based Southern Virginia, and Roanoke-based Southwestern Virginia. It is one of the nine original dioceses of the Episcopal Church, and has 179 congregations. With 66,455 members in 2020, it is the third-largest diocese in the church, behind Haiti and Texas.

The other candidates in the election were:

  • The Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., Rector, St. George’s Church, Fredericksburg, Virginia
  • The Rev. Canon Alan C. James, Interim Canon Missioner, Diocese of Western Michigan
  • The Very Rev. Gideon L. K. Pollach, Rector, St. John’s Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York

Stevenson is a member of the Living Church Foundation.

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