The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia was created from two separate diocesan splits. The Diocese of Virginia split to form the Diocese of Southern Virginia in 1892. The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia split off from the Diocese of Southern Virginia in 1919. The Bishop of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia is a member ex officio of the Board of Trustees for Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, VA.
There has been an Anglican presence in the area that now comprises the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia since 1738, when Anthony Gavin, rector of Goochland Parish, travelled to new settlers in more than a dozen preaching places in the Blue Ridge foothills and Shenandoah Valley, where members of the established church from eastern Virginia had settled among the Scotch-Irish and Germans who flooded into the area. In spite of negative stereotypes of the colonial Virginia clergy, all fifteen who served in this area conducted themselves honorably and most supported the patriots in the Revolution. Nonetheless, the established church lost its privileged position in the Revolutionary settlement, particularly with Thomas Jefferson's landmark religious freedom statute. The Church lost its glebe farms, and often even its church buildings.
In the postwar anti-British mood, and with the rapid growth of Methodists and Baptists, the Episcopal Church in its new independent status nearly died out in Virginia. The rebirth of the church in Virginia began about 1820 in the work of a handful of evangelical clergy, with a faithful remnant of old Virginia families devoted to the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, and two evangelical bishops, Richard Channing Moore and William Meade. Meade, a Shenandoah Valley native, worked indefatigably to establish new congregations in western Virginia.
Nicholas Hamner Cobbs of Bedford County (later first Bishop of Alabama) was an important figure in Church revival in the present Diocese. In the 1820s, Cobbs started congregations of St. Stephen's, Forest; Trinity, Lynchburg; St. Thomas, Sedalia; and St. John's, Bedford. He preached in Botetourt, and helped form congregations that became St. Mark's, Fincastle and St. John's, Roanoke.
The two decades prior to the Civil War saw rapid growth of the Episcopal Church in the present Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Thriving parishes were founded in nearly every county seat, with neat little Greek Revival church buildings, many of which are still in use.
Under diocesan sponsorship, a girls seminary was founded at Staunton in 1846, the Virginia Female Institute (now Stuart Hall School), and the new Virginia Military Institute in Lexington had strong Episcopal leanings and leadership.
Although the Civil War disrupted lives, families, schools, and parishes, the Episcopal Church entered a period of growth in the late nineteenth century with many new parishes throughout the geographical area which is now the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. The character of the Episcopal Church throughout Virginia in the nineteenth century was that of the evangelical, low church, much like the Presbyterian church in architecture and in centrality of the preached Word. This stance was in accordance with Moore, Meade, Johns and Whittle. This was the churchmanship taught at Virginia Theological Seminary, which trained most of the clergy in the state. The Virginia church was unsympathetic to the high church influence of the Tractarians and the Oxford Movement, which had gained strongholds in some northern dioceses and at General Theological Seminary in New York.
It was well into the twentieth century before other styles of churchmanship and ritual made inroads in Virginia. In 1892, the Diocese of Southern Virginia was created, containing two-thirds of the state, from Norfolk 400 miles (640 km) west to Big Stone Gap, under Alfred Magill Randolph. This coincided with economic development of southwestern Virginia with the building of railroads, opening of coal mines and wide-scale timbering.
With economic development came the establishment of many new churches. For a quarter century, this part of the Diocese of Southern Virginia was also a center of missionary activity. A key figure in the missionary work was Archdeacon John Janney Lloyd, who served a nine county, 4,000-square-mile (10,000 km2) area, and founded a string of mission churches, schools, and health centers staffed by a remarkable group of women who were lay teachers or deaconesses. These dedicated persons brought the Social Gospel to hills and hollows, mining towns and timber camps of Southwestern Virginia, and through careful communication of their work and their needs, involved the entire Diocese, especially women's groups, in the support and advocacy of their work.
Another important area of mission work was at St. Paul's, Bear Mountain in Amherst County, among the Native American population in that community.
Two additional educational institutions were established before World War I, Boys' Home in Covington and the Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg. By the close of that war, the Diocese of Southern Virginia had grown so dramatically that its 265 churches made it the third largest diocese in the nation; and the largest in rural work, Negro work, and mission work.
The Diocese split again in 1919, and The Primary Council of the Diocese, meeting at St. John's Roanoke in December 1919, elected Robert Carter Jett as first Bishop. Roanoke was named see city, where St. John's Church housed the diocesan offices until Evans House was built in 1948.
At the diocesan council in 1920, there were sixty-four organized parishes and missions and thirty-six unorganized parishes and missions reporting 4,969 communicants among their 7,441 baptized members. There were about 36 clergymen in the Diocese in the 1920s and 1930s, most serving more than one mission church or parish in the dispersed, rural areas. Salaries were low, and fifteen clergy had to receive diocesan supplements to meet minimal standards. Most parishes did provide a rectory, however. This was an era of strong church organizations, including the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, the Young People's Service League, and Women's Auxiliary. It was also a period in which Episcopal clergy became leaders in community outreach and public service organizations.
In recent years the diocese has established several new congregations, Church of the Good Shepherd in Galax, Peace in the Valley in Wintergreen, Good Shepherd in Highland County, and Trinity Parish at Smith Mountain Lake. Two of these congregations are ecumenical, and two demonstrate response to the movement of Episcopalians to leisure and retirement homes in Virginia's beautiful mountains.1920-1938 Robert Carter Jett
Jett, of Virginia Episcopal School, led the balloting and received the majority votes needed for election in the third ballot. In March 1920, he was consecrated as the first bishop of the diocese. In the first year of his episcopacy, Jett established a diocesan newspaper. He was deeply involved in community activities as an integral part of Christian commitment. Jett worked tirelessly, patiently, and faithfully to carry on the evangelical and missionary tradition of the Church in Virginia. He did his work well, and he left behind him a strong and well-grounded diocese.1938-1954 Henry Disbrow Phillips
Henry Disbrow Phillips of South Carolina was elected second Bishop and carried the Diocese through the difficult years of the Second World War. The expansion of the postwar economy, the national growth in church membership, and the growth of suburbia all had an effect on parishes and on the Diocese.1954-1979 William H. Marmion
William Henry Marmion was elected third Bishop in 1954. He was consecrated at the time of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which cast a long shadow across his early episcopacy. The integration question was most explosive over the recently acquired diocesan camp and conference center, Hemlock Haven near Marion. Firmly but patiently Marmion insisted that racial discrimination is wrong and that the center be integrated. Some found that unacceptable, and a long debate ensued before the people of the Diocese could use the center. Marmion led the way in integrating the parishes of Southwestern Virginia. Yet even after integration and the closing of two of the four black parishes, there were fewer black Episcopalians in this diocese than before.1979-1996 Arthur Heath Light
In 1978 Arthur Heath Light, rector of Christ and St. Luke's, Norfolk, was elected Bishop and was consecrated at the Salem Civic Center in 1979. The success of the Diocese in the national Venture in Mission capital campaign placed it in a good financial posture. Trends in the national church, including the adoption of a new Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women, caused tension throughout the church. The Diocese took an active role in the Appalachian Peoples' Service Organization (APSO), a thirteen-diocese consortium to address widespread social needs in Appalachia. Headquarters for this organization were in Blacksburg in this diocese for more than a decade. This diocese, though, welcomed the ordination of women and encouraged their ministries. Several parishes are served by women as rectors and assistant or associate in others. Light, like Marmion before him, has encouraged, with numerous appointments, the full participation of women on diocesan committees and commissions1996–2013 Frank Neff Powell
2013–Present Mark Allen Bourlakas
On Saturday July 20, 2013 Mark Bourlakas was ordained and consecrated in the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre at the Roanoke Civic Center becoming the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. He was elected on March 9, 2013 in the 3rd round of voting with 55 clergy votes (38 were needed for a majority) and 84 Lay votes (73 were needed for a majority). Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, presided over the ceremony.