Give Light: A Memoir – Four Episcopal Bishops

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This is a chapter in a Memoir, “Give Light…” of the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.

It was not long after Charlie, and I took up our duties in the newsroom on the top floor of the Roanoke Times Building at Second and Campbell SW that I was alerted to an upcoming election for the third bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.

A long-time member of the staff at the diocesan offices in Old Southwest told me bishops leave their imprint on the administrative area to which they have been called. And now that I have been active in the church of my paternal ancestors during the tenures of four of these men – there are women bishops now as well – the words of Tom Scott return.

The centennial of the establishment of the diocese comes up next year; it was carved in 1919 from parts of the other administrative units that cover the urban north and the vast rural stretch along the James River.

William Henry Marmion was the third bishop of the diocese who assumed office the month the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the historic decision to end racial segregation in the South. He was from Texas. In 1954 he was scheduled to follow previous clergy from Virginia and South Carolina in the role. Married to a teacher of Latin and the father of two young boys, he had served parishes in Birmingham, Ala. and Wilmington, Del. He was one of two brothers chosen as bishops about the same time.

That Marmion, handsome and under 50, had been chosen from an area far from Virginia would be an indication of things to come. Colliding almost immediately with a group of laymen from the conservative Southside area of the diocese, the new leader sought to bring racial mingling of teens at the new camp and conference center, Hemlock Haven, at Marion.

Gone now for nearly 20 years, the third diocesan bishop eventually achieved his goal and closed three out of the four small congregations that formerly served black Episcopalians. Today only a separate group still exists in Martinsville, but its representatives have long been fully accepted into integrated church life. In Roanoke, Lynchburg and Bedford in the 1960s, the relatively few African-Americans from those congregations gradually moved into the mainstream.

Marmion involved himself in ecumenical and civic life in Roanoke encouraging such human service efforts as Habitat for Humanity and spiritual growth through the Cursillo Movement in the 1980s.

Retiring at 72 in 1979, he remained an active presence until past 90. His wife, Mable Nall Marmion, a spirited teacher known as “Blossom” for her yellow hair that someone in childhood said, “looked like a squash blossom,” is remembered by countless students as a high school Latin teacher. Like her husband, she was a liberal activist representative of new womanhood.

Arthur Heath Light, elected from a large Norfolk parish and a more typical Virginian in his lack of “high church” ritualism – he wore no conical hat which characterizes the office and relied on his laity rather than ordained deacons – did not falter in his support of full racial equality.

Marmion’s long episcopate had left the diocese in a good financial position; a major stewardship drive had allowed for adding staff to support youth work and social activism. Though the controversial Hemlock Haven Center was later sold, an old Franklin County school, which women home missionaries had started 100 years ago, was upgraded and expanded and still serves the community year around. Known as the Phoebe Needles Center, it is between Callaway and Ferrum.

When Light’s colorful consecration was held at the Salem Civic Center in 1979 both he and I were soon to turn 50. As the chief lay leader in my church that year I got to march in the procession. Today Light and his wife are still active and live in the Brandon Oaks retirement center.

He too survived painful decisions. Several congregations left his diocese over the ordination of women and a revised worship book. The establishment of the evangelical Anglican parish, Church of the Holy Spirit, weakened St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal in residential Southwest Roanoke.

When the fifth bishop of the diocese, F. Neff Powell was elected in 1996, many changes in the nation and organized religion had taken place; again, a westerner – from Oregon – came to Roanoke. This time Burress Auditorium at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg was filled for the consecration event, but it was marked by Charlie’s and my employer at the daily newspapers with considerably less fanfare. We were, in, fact, about to be relieved of our jobs as religion news assumed less importance.

Powell, a genial man who appeared to enjoy the annual three-day winter convention which brought clergy and laity together at Hotel Roanoke, saw a less influential church with more small congregations too weak financially to afford fulltime priests. He encouraged ordained deacons to help him in pastoral care, but the Roanoke office staff was shrinking. After their 17 years in Roanoke, Powell and his sociable wife Dorothy returned to Oregon where a son, the Rev. Bingham Powell, now has his own church.

In 2013, electing Powell’s successor, clergy and lay leaders sought a priest with a different style. Mark A. Bourlakas of “high church” Greek background had been in cathedral administration in Louisville, Kentucky. Decreased finances were evident as older supporters died and – as was true in all structured denominations – younger people had fallen away.

The diocesan staff became smaller. The bishop assumed more authority and reduced the Annual Council; to sever it from its southern heritage it is now a “convention” for a transaction of business. Innovation is a modern version of a monastery for young men in downtown Roanoke. Since 2014 there have been “canons” priests as liaisons to the bishop living in far-flung areas of the mountain-valley diocese.

As a news reporter, I have memories of all four colorful consecration ceremonies. I treasure them.