Edwin Friedman writes, “I have been struck by how families, corporations, [churches,
synagogues] and other kinds of institutions are constantly trying to cure their own ills
through amputations . As a priest ordained in Southern Virginia, I have often thought of
this reality and wanted to gain a better understanding of the history of the Church in
Virginia and what are the historical reasons for the dysfunction that seems to be in the
Diocesan DNA. Here are two initial questions: What impact does the Colonial Church
have on the current workings, attitudes, and ecclesial developments of the Diocese of
Southern Virginia and could there be particular dimensions of family systems theory—
particularly as articulated in the work of Edwin Friedman—that shed light on what
appear to be some longstanding dysfunctional patterns that negatively impact the role and
office of bishop?
It is understood that the American Revolution was an instrumental event in the decline of
the established church in early America, and especially in Virginia. However, what else
was going on that contributed to the decline? Was it the powerful privileged gentry class
that ruled the vestries, the chaotic political situation in England, the inadequate response
to evangelicalism, the tie to the monarchy in England, the lack of educated clergy, the
lack of bishops in America, a compilation of all of these, or was it something else?
This paper attempts to explore a deeper understanding and appreciation of the impact of
the Colonial Church and its legacy, and the way in which it continues to manifest itself
within the family system of Southern Virginia as well as any diocese with Colonial
Church roots. This author believes that this single understanding could well be the most
important pre-requisite for an incoming bishop in a Colonial diocese. When such a
diocese and their new bishop do not know or understand these deeply rooted patterns, a
“secret” stays alive in the system, and it is only a matter of time before it begs to come
out and wreak havoc with future generations.
It is not only necessary to understand the ramifications of living in an institution with
roots in the Colonial Church, but just as important is to address how we may be able to
usher it out the door.