By Kirk Petersen
The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, who for a quarter century led what was then the largest domestic diocese in the Episcopal Church, died July 2 in North Carolina, the Diocese of Virginia announced. He was 84.
Lee was Bishop of Virginia from 1985 to 2009, after first being elected bishop coadjutor in 1984. After stepping down as bishop diocesan, his career continued in a whirlwind of high-profile interim appointments. These included:
- Interim dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco
- Interim dean of General Theological Seminary
- Interim dean and rector at Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris
- Chair of the board of the Church Pension Fund
- Bishop provisional of East Carolina
- Assisting bishop in North Carolina
“If ever there was a bishop who failed at retirement, it was Bishop Lee,” said the Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, bishop suffragan of North Carolina. She recruited Lee in 2015 to serve with her in North Carolina while the diocese searched for its next bishop diocesan — after Bishop Michael B. Curry left the position to take another job. Lee served until 2017, when the Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman became the 12th Bishop of North Carolina.
Lee’s episcopacy in Virginia spanned a tumultuous era, starting at a time when conservative congregations were continuing to resist the ordination of women as priests, which had been authorized by the 1976 General Convention.
His efforts to thread the needle on issues related to homosexuality drew criticism from partisans on both sides. “Although he wouldn’t approve same-sex commitment ceremonies in Virginia, he encouraged clergy to bless couples’ homes instead,” the Washington Post reported in 2007, when Lee announced his retirement plans. He refused to ordain non-celibate gay priests, but then shocked many people by voting in 2003 to approve the consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.
“In the months that followed, some churches told him he was not welcome to visit. Parents asked him not to lay hands on their children at confirmation. He received death threats,” according to the article. In a 2005 sermon, he said he regretted his vote.
Lee initiated some of the first high-profile property lawsuits against congregations that left the Episcopal Church, while keeping control of the buildings where they worshipped. In 2007 he sued 15 congregations and inhibited their clergy after the congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church. The departures included The Falls Church Episcopal in the Washington suburbs, one of the oldest and largest Episcopal churches, where George Washington once served as warden.
The conflict foreshadowed decisions by five bishops to leave the Episcopal Church along with a majority of their congregations, beginning in late 2007. The Diocese of Virginia won its litigation in 2012 under Lee’s successor, the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnson, but there were mixed results in the other dioceses, and some litigation continues to this day.
While serving as Bishop of Virginia, Lee actively participated in initiatives throughout the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. At various times he served as:
- President of the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief (now Episcopal Relief & Development)
- Founding president of American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem
- Chairman of the board of trustees of Virginia Theological Seminary
Lee was born May 11, 1938, and after serving as an Army intelligence officer and a newspaper reporter, felt a call to ministry while in his first year of law school. He graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1967 and was ordained a deacon the same year, followed by ordination as a priest in 1968. He served as assistant rector at St. John’s Lafayette Square in Washington, then for 13 years as rector of Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the position from which he was elected bishop.
He is survived by his wife of nearly 57 years, Kristina Knapp Lee, and by his daughter Stewart, son James, and several grandchildren. Funeral details have not been announced.