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Mark Bourlakas elected bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia
Bourlakas, who resides in Kentucky, will replace Bishop Neff Powell, who has served the diocese for 17 years.
Saturday, March 9, 2013
The Very Rev. Mark Bourlakas of Kentucky was elected the sixth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia on Saturday in Roanoke.
Bourlakas will replace Bishop Neff Powell , who served the diocese for 17 years during a time of sometimes contentious debate over religion and sexuality. Powell will step down in July and return with his wife, Dorothy , to the couple’s native state of Oregon.
“I’m just overwhelmed,” Bourlakas said in a phone call that was broadcast to the sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, where the special council of clergy and lay people from the diocese’s more than 50 parishes gathered for the voting.
“I’m so excited by your faith,” he said.
Bourlakas, who along with the five other candidates for bishop visited the diocese last weekend for a string of interviews at various parishes, praised the hospitality of his new flock, and the faithful and diligent way they carried out the sacred duty of electing a leader. The selection process took more than a year, and included input from more than 600 clergy and lay people from across the diocese.
But it’s not over yet, said Jenny Fife , who was chairwoman of the transition committee. Next comes the consecration of Bourlakas in July, an elaborate ceremony to be held in the Roanoke Civic Center that will include the presiding bishop of the U.S. church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori . In 2006, Schori became the first woman elected primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Bourlakas has in the past served parishes in Tennessee, and North and South Carolina. He has Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Ministry degrees from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. , and a Master of Divinity degree from Seabury Western Theological Seminary in Chicago. He currently serves as dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, Ky., where his efforts to use art to reach out to marginalized communities gained notice. That same kind of creativity will be needed to increase the flock in Southwest Virginia, said the Rev. Deborah Hunley of Christ Episcopal Church in Roanoke .
When she took her vows in Roanoke in 1977, Hunley was among the first wave of women ordained in the Episcopal Church. She has ministered under three of Southwest Virginia’s bishops, and seen the church argue and change and grow with the society around it. If anything, change is coming faster now.
“Things are changing so significantly in the culture,” Hunley said. The next bishop “will need to find ways for us to engage people, not wait for them to come to us.”
The “mission mind-set” is the next challenge for the church, she said.
Having a bishop with an art degree who professes to love NASCAR is a rare combination, Fife said. It bodes well for Bourlakas’ tenure as bishop of a diocese that includes urbanized areas such as Blacksburg and Roanoke, as well as small, traditional Appalachian towns such as Big Stone Gap, she said.
After the election, Powell led the assembly in singing “Now Thank We All Our God,” a choice that the Rev. Jonathan Harris , rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Buchanan, praised as inspired.
The election process has “been very unifying,” Harris said. “Everyone coming together and working together.”
But “it’s bittersweet for me,” Harris said. Powell ordained Harris in 2004, and is the first bishop for whom he has worked.
It was also the beginning of a bittersweet time for the Powells.
Powell came to Virginia from Oregon and was consecrated to the office of bishop of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia during a ceremony at Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech on Oct. 26, 1996. Powell was bishop during a fairly tumultuous period for the Episcopal Church, which, like other denominations, found congregations shrinking. The church also dealt with the controversies surrounding the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.
During the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in the summer of 2003, the church endorsed the ordination of Gene Robinson, a noncelibate gay man, as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, and effectively condoned the blessing of same-sex unions. Powell voted to confirm Robinson, who retired earlier this year. Despite the controversies that split Episcopal parishes, the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia stayed intact.
“I didn’t sleep much last night,” Powell said during the voting Saturday. “It’s a very emotional day, but there’s a real sense of ‘all is well.’ ”
Powell’s wife, Dorothy, read a Facebook posting from the couple’s youngest son, Bingham Powell , who serves as rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Eugene, Ore. Bingham Powell wrote about the nervous anticipation he felt 17 years ago as the family waited to hear if his father would be elected Southwest Virginia’s bishop.
Of Saturday, Dorothy Powell said it was “tender and exciting, both. We’re surrounded by friends. It’s very dear.”
For his part, the outgoing bishop said he will continue tending his flock of more than 50 parishes stretching from Abingdon to Lynchburg to Roanoke. After retirement, Powell said he and Dorothy will move to Eugene to be with their children and grandchildren.
Powell said he also expects to “pitch in” wherever needed to help the bishop in Eugene.
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