Bishop Shannon (as he likes to be called) was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1958. He attended public schools there, growing up in the toxic climate of Gov. George Wallace’s violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Shortly before he turned 10 years old, he saw his two greatest heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, fall to assassins’ bullets within two months of each other. Even for such a youngster, those tragic events spelled the end of innocence for our society. The hard truth is that we cannot count on being “safe” in routine daily life and even inwardly in our hearts.
How ironic, how providential, the time when, in 1988, following his seminary master’s degree, Bishop Shannon was called to Selma, Alabama, to serve his first congregation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, as an assistant priest. Many of the leaders, participants, and witnesses in the horrific events of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, were still dominant personalities in the city of Selma when then-“Father” Shannon arrived. Living in such an iconic place, it was just a matter of days before he realized that he had a calling and conviction to understand the nature of conflict and the ways of peacebuilding. Over the next two and a half years, he learned from hundreds of conversations with those who were there in 1965 on both sides of the tragic divide. In more than a few situations, he had to learn his lessons the hard way, having made assumptions and judgements that proved either wrong or hurtful – or both. Even so, this proved to be a fruitful, gratifying, and auspicious beginning in ministry. In 1990, he received a call to serve as Rector of the Church of the Advent in Sumner, Mississippi, a small but very dynamic congregation located in the sociologically complex Delta region. There, he founded a chapter of the national “Kairos” prison ministry at the nearby Parchman State Penitentiary. Fr. Shannon was firmly set on the course that the wider Christian Church simply must be a positive force for understanding conflict and a prime mover in justice and peacebuilding.
In 1994, he moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, to serve as Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church. At that time, All Saints’ had experienced extended periods of conflict but was nonetheless situated with quite promising potential. This was a captivating and exciting challenge for Fr. Shannon. Over the next thirteen years, the congregation found its way into powerful healing and experienced unprecedented numerical growth. A multi-million-dollar capital campaign to enlarge the church’s facilities and campus was concluded in 2007, just as Fr. Shannon was elected to become Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. He was ordained and consecrated as a bishop at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on May 26, 2007.
As the leader of the largest diocese of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Shannon found himself responsible for the oversight of 180 congregations, comprising some 20,000 households served by 470 priests and deacons. He was also charged with the vision, policies, and operations for the administrative and programmatic functions of the various diocesan staff offices. First of all, however, he had to take control of a historic and profoundly consequential crisis that he inherited upon becoming bishop. Fifteen congregations, opposing the ordination of gay and lesbian people to be clergy, had left the Episcopal Church, and contrary to Church law, these congregations sought to retain their church property. Over the next seven years, Bishop Johnston steered negotiations and – sadly but necessarily – bitter litigation. In the end, the Diocese of Virginia was able to settle out of court with all but four of the dissident congregations, and surprisingly (or shockingly) Bishop Johnston formed a very close friendship with the rector of the largest of the schismatic congregations, a personal and professional relationship that began in 2011 and is still strong today.
Given the breadth and scale of such responsibilities, it was not surprising to Bishop Shannon that all of the elements and dynamics of conflict – analysis, mediation, resolution, and peacebuilding – were “baked in” to his work, day by day, week after week. Furthermore, it was not simply a matter of conflicts within the local churches in the Diocese of Virginia, but also conflicts that were created whenever the Church as a whole engaged the larger society, reaching every continent around the world. Conflicts that are personal or organizational are one thing, but problems and struggles that are imbedded in entire societies or cultures present incomparably different scales for the hard issues of racism, social justice, culture wars, gun violence, poverty and hunger, and political polarization.
Reflecting on these experiences, Bishop Shannon has become convinced that every conflict, whether individual, ideological, or societal, has something in common. That “something” is rooted in many concerns – power, safety, dignity, prosperity, and so on. But it is deeper than even those existential insecurities. It is about our sense of self and whether or not we are prepared and able to grant to others what we insist upon for ourselves. And that is always about something we all have but don’t readily understand or think about, or even accept about ourselves. This “something” is a personal spirituality. This is unique to us. It is what makes us fully human. The crux of the matter is that if “spirituality” is always fundamental to any conflict, it must also be fundamental to resolution and peacebuilding.
Spirituality is not limited to any single creed or particular faith. Of course, it is profoundly the root and expression of religious belief, but it is more broadly about how we are attuned to the world around us and to one another. Therefore, personal spirituality can also be the manifestation of a secular code of values. This means that whether religious or secular, spirituality is about our sensitivities and sensibilities. This is perhaps most often the first way we encounter and understand God. One of the Hebraic ways of referring to God is “Emmanuel,” which means “God With Us.” This directly implies “We With God.” Even so, God gives us a choice about this. We have the choice to live intentionally with “God With Us” or to ignore that premise as irrelevant. Both choices are valid, but which one we choose makes all the difference in how and why we live with others the way we do. Groups also can and do develop their own particular spirituality, as each member’s interactions contribute to a collective dynamic that is spiritual in nature, if only because it works according to a set of values.
Bishop Shannon retired from his ministry as Bishop of Virginia in November 2018, although he remains an Episcopal bishop to serve his Church, as needed. He is still a passionate advocate for social justice and equality, noted particularly for being one of the organizers and leaders of the clergy counter-demonstration during the white supremacist/neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville in August 2017. He is committed to inclusive peacebuilding through spirituality – no exceptions. Looking back on his active ministry as Bishop of Virginia, he is especially gratified by the success of four accomplishments as part of his legacy: full inclusion in the life and ministry of the Church for LGBT+ persons; strongly addressing racism (individual and societal) while pursuing mutual understanding and reconciliation; his “Faith and the Public Square” initiative to bring a mainstream, progressive tradition’s voice to our public and political discourse; and deepening personal spirituality through ministries of spiritual direction for both individuals and groups.
A Highly Personal Anecdote and Comment
A most striking moment in my ministry from many years ago is still defining for me. After the 9/11 attacks, a teenaged parishioner tearfully challenged me, screaming, “God ought to go away so that all of this killing could stop.” My answer was to affirm that reaction, but then to make the point that the answers must be built from spiritual peacebuilding precisely because “religion” is so often the cause of the most difficult and ungodly conflicts. I seek to empower people to discover this, prompting them to embrace their spirituality even if they deny it as a given premise or don’t even know that they have a “spirituality.” Our Spiritual Peacebuilding Program must be about helping students and adults from all positions to shed old biases and heal deep wounds. Only then may we learn to listen respectfully to differing points of view. We seek to free ourselves from ill-formed ideas about God without any connotations of being pushed to change one’s mind. All of this is what I look forward to the most in my work with CRDC.
One more thing: My motto is “Agreement is overrated. Learn to disagree well.”
B.A. magna cum laude, Sewanee: The University of the South, Sewanee, TN 1981
Philosophy, Music (Departmental Honors)
Phi Beta Kappa
M.Div. (With Highest Honors), Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL 1988
D.D. honoris causa, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA 2007