The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, made a personal appearance with the exiled Falls Church congregation of “continuing Episcopalians” Sunday at their temporary digs in the fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church.
Lee brought a personal touch to his appearance, which included confirming five new members to the congregation, with an informal question-and-answer period with young people before the worship service.
Conceding that he was once a journalist and avoided the college he thought would steer him to the priesthood, with no avail, Lee described his bishop’s staff, with a shepherd’s hook on one end to pull people away from danger and distress, and a sharp poker on the other to move people and society to do the right thing.
The appearance marked the second in two weeks of nationally-prominent Episcopalian leaders at the “continuing Episcopalian” congregation. The previous Sunday, Bonnie Anderson, the president of the national House of Deputies of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church visited, engaging in a robust discussion with members of four “continuing Episcopal” congregations in the region about the challenges and opportunities presented by the current schism in the denomination.
The “continuing Episcopalians,” welcomed by the F.C. Presbyterians to worship in their fellowship hall since being banished from their historic Falls Church property by schismatic members who voted to defect from the Episcopal Church in December 2006, overlook their home church property, less than a block away, every Sunday morning.
On the eve of Bishop Lee’s arrival, an on-line dust-up in response to the News-Press report of Anderson’s visit included comments by the Rev. Michael Pipkin, the rector of the F.C. “continuing Episcopalians.”
A commenter alleged that the article’s report that “continuing Episcopalians were “denied access” by the defectors occupying the historic church property “is a bald faced lie,” and charged Lee with deposing any Episcopalian who made such requested access.
Pipkin invited the commenter to “ask Bishop Lee that question directly,” adding “I’m sure he’d be happy to tell you the truth…none of us has been threatened for sharing space.” In a second post, Pipkin said that for the allegation to be true, “You’d have to believe that any bishop of the Anglican Communion has the power to depose lay people, and this isn’t even remotely correct.”
He added, “I know Bishop Lee quite well and know without a doubt that…the bishop did not threaten any Episcopalian with deposition.”
He also reported, “I have approached John Yates (the rector of the defector congregation occupying the property) personally to ask if we could use space in the historic church and have been told ‘no,'” adding, “We have asked directly on several occasions and have been told ‘no’ on several occasions.”
Meanwhile, the buzz among F.C. “continuing Episcopalians” last weekend came from the report that Rick Warren, the controversial right-wing Southern Baptist preacher who delivered the invocation at the presidential inauguration Tuesday, had offered shelter to defectors from the Episcopal church at his Saddleback Church in California.
That offer, according to the report, resulted from the fact that a recent California Supreme Court ruling affirmed ownership of all local church properties to the national Episcopal Church, and not to local congregations of defectors.
While Warren spearheaded the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California last fall, the defectors’ schismatic efforts nationally were spurred by their opposition to the national Episcopal Church’s elevation of an openly-gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, to standing as a bishop.
But for the local “continuing Episcopalians,” the California Supreme Court ruling offers hope they may soon be re-occupying their historic Falls Church.
Bishop Lee, answering youth questions Sunday, said after two stints as a news reporter and two years in the Army, he even tried law school before having a “Damascus Road experience” to enter the priesthood in 1964.
His first assignment was as an assistant at the St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square, where every U.S. president, including Obama, has worshipped. At one scantly-attended weekday evening service, where he presided, the Secret Service showed up and then-President Lyndon Johnson appeared by surprise.
After the service, a journalist asked him how he felt preaching to the President of the U.S., and that turned out to be Helen Thomas.
Lee was named Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia in 1985.