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Peter James Lee, longtime Episcopal bishop of Virginia, dies at 84

He pursued a centrist path while supporting the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in Episcopal history

The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee presides over an Episcopal Church conference in 2004. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, an Episcopal prelate who sought a centrist path through the controversies that have divided his church in recent years, supporting the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in Episcopal history while also seeking to keep more conservative believers in the fold, died July 2 in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 84.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his wife, Kristy Lee.

Bishop Lee led the Diocese of Virginia, one of the largest Episcopal dioceses in the country, from 1984 to 2009. His undertakings ranged from regional efforts to improve church schools to an international mission to reckon with the Virginia diocese’s historical role in the slave trade.

But he experienced his greatest prominence in the final years of his tenure as bishop, following his vote in 2003 to confirm V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, making Robinson the first openly gay person to attain that rank in the Episcopal Church. The vote prompted roughly three dozen parishes — including 11 in Bishop Lee’s diocese — to secede over the next three years and affiliate with more conservative international branches of the Anglican Communion.

Bishop Lee initially explained his decision as a reflection of his deference to established principles of church governance. “I am convinced of the need to respect the Diocese of New Hampshire’s decision, in spite of my personal reservations and our current diocesan policy, which would not permit Canon Robinson to be ordained in Virginia,” he wrote before the vote in a letter to members of his diocese.

Bishop Lee called on the diocese of Virginia to “unite in the mission we share, even as we acknowledge respectfully differences among us.” Unity did not materialize, however, and Bishop Lee was subjected to what one observer told the New York Times were the actions of a “theological lynch mob.” Congregations that opposed his position disinvited him from confirmation ceremonies. He reported receiving death threats.

The conflict spilled into the courts when breakaway Virginia churches sought to take with them $40 million in church real estate. Those parishes ultimately lost their legal battle in 2012 when a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the diocese and national denomination, which had claimed ownership of the property.

Bishop Lee said in a sermon in 2005 that he regretted his vote, describing it as a “unilateral” decision amid intense debate within the church. But he had also insisted, shortly after the decision on Robinson’s consecration took place, that “the Gospel is ever-increasing its power to erase the barriers that we human beings erect among ourselves.”

His own story, as he recounted it, was also one of evolution.

Peter James Lee was born in Greenville, Miss., on May 11, 1938. His father was a businessman and lay officer in the Episcopal Church, and his mother was a homemaker.

Bishop Lee grew up in Pensacola, Fla., where he witnessed the realities of racial discrimination as a White student attending segregated schools. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., in 1960, before beginning an early career in newspapering. He worked for publications including the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Richmond Times-Dispatch and served in Army intelligence before enrolling at Duke University law school.

He did not find his passion in the law, however, and left to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va. He supported the civil rights movement but did not join the White clergy members who participated in protests in the Deep South.

“Emotionally, I wasn’t there,” Bishop Lee told the Times in 2004. “I wasn’t ready to demonstrate.” He recalled with sadness an encounter he had with an African American housekeeper who had worked for his family for years.

“She said, ‘Mr. Peter, I saw all these young preachers walking with Dr. [Martin Luther] King, but I didn’t see you,’ ” Bishop Lee told the Times, adding that the remark “was a sore that went deep into my soul.”

Bishop Lee received a master of divinity degree in 1967 and was ordained as a priest the following year. He served as assistant rector of St. John’s Church at Lafayette Square in Washington before becoming rector of the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill in 1971. In Chapel Hill, where he remained until his election as bishop, he served a congregation that drew from a left-leaning university town and reconsidered what he described as his long-standing view of gay rights.

“I’m pretty conservative on these things,” he told Times, but he became persuaded that “you do real damage to gay and lesbian people by telling them that the way they are made is somehow defective.”

Bishop Lee did not ordain noncelibate gay priests and declined to preside over the blessing of same-sex marriages. But he told The Washington Post in 2007, “I’ve had more knowledge of mature, same-sex couples, and I don’t see how they are a threat to traditional marriage.”

“We live in a confusing time, and people want certainty,” he added. “But that level of certitude is something that I find alien to the breadth of our tradition.”

The Episcopal Church formally authorized full same-sex marriage rights in 2015.

Bishop Lee supported the ordination of women, another matter of debate within the Episcopal Church as well as other Christian denominations.

In addition to his duties as bishop, he served as chaplain of Washington National Cathedral — officially the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul — from 1994 to 2000.

After he stepped down as bishop of Virginia, he served as interim dean at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the American Cathedral in Paris and as interim rector of Christ Church, Georgetown, among other postings.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Kristy Knapp of Chapel Hill; a daughter, Stewart Lee of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.; a son, Peter James Lee Jr. of Burlington, N.C.; a brother; and five grandchildren.

Interviewed by a diocesan publication as he approached his retirement, Bishop Lee reflected on his career and said that the “[arc] of the Church bends toward including all people in the life of the church.” Someday, he had earlier remarked to The Post, “10 or 20 or 30 years” after the controversy subsided over his support for the consecration of the first gay bishop, he predicted that the church would emerge “with a renewed sense of inclusiveness,” and “and we’ll wonder what this was all about.”

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