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Vt. Episcopal Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown On Inclusivity, Community And 'Creation Care'

A woman stands in a field of autumn foliage.
Elodie Reed
The Right Reverend Shannon MacVean-Brown is the first black woman to lead Vermont's Episcopal church.

The Right Reverend Shannon MacVean-Brown is the first black woman to lead the Vermont Episcopal Church, and just one of three black women to hold the title of bishop in New England. MacVean-Brown says that experiencing this "otherness" can be uncomfortable, but it's also what informs her ministry. 

Listen to the Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown speak with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb above.

Church work called to MacVean-Brown from the beginning. She grew up in a religious household, though she said her parents also allowed her plenty of freedom to explore. 

“Even at one point I thought I wanted to be Buddhist,” she said.”But I just kept having conversations with Jesus, and that doesn’t quite work.”

A purple ribbon with red wax seals.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The seals of bishops for other Episcopal dioceses line the ordination certificate for Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, the newly elected bishop for Vermont's Episcopal Diocese.

MacVean-Brown graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. in 2005, and she was serving as the interim rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Franklin, Ind. when she was elected as the new bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont.

She said she initially struggled with a feeling of isolation as Vermont’s first black and female Episcopal bishop.

“So trying to deal with, what does that mean, in this conversation with God, ‘Okay, I said yes to this thing, so why do I have to live a lot of my life feeling uncomfortable and being the only one, or being a first at something?’” MacVean-Brown said. “Then I thought, ‘Well, I’ll study it.’ That’s sort of what I like to do with things.”

A woman's hand with a gold ring on it.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The ring belonging to Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, the new bishop for Vermont's Episcopal Church, is designed to look like mountains with a bishop's hat, a mitre, on top.

During the studying process, which she referred to as “discerning,” MacVean-Brown realized she could use this “awkward place of otherness,” this “feeling of being on the outside but being in the center,” for her ministry.

“If the church is going to really, truly be inclusive, like we dream, people that have been excluded are actually the ones that are experts on how that can happen,” MacVean-Brown said. “Once I grabbed onto that, I realized, ‘Okay, I can’t remain a priest just for black people.’ And that’s where I was. I was the rector of the second oldest black Episcopal church. And telling them about how to be inclusive — it’s like preaching to the choir.”

In addition to confronting the challenge of inclusivity, MacVean-Brown has another issue to tackle: declining church attendance in one of the least religious states in the country. While the bishop said she would be “looking at numbers,” she also doesn’t want that to be her main focus.

A road leading between trees.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Rock Point is a center in Burlington that's run by the Vermont Episcopal Church. It welcomes visitors and offers things like walking paths. It's also where the diocese headquarters are.

“I feel like we have a good example in thinking of how the church started: church attendance wasn’t high when Jesus was around,” MacVean-Brown said. “When the disciples started out, it wasn’t like they had this history of keeping track of how many people attended church on Sunday. Part of what I’m hoping is we won’t focus only on numbers, but on really what we’re called to be as people of faith: concerned about our world, interacting with our world, investing ourselves in our world around us and loving the people and seeing what God’s up to in our communities.”

She added that she didn’t want the diocese to take the approach that it has answers for everyone, either.

“The answers come from being in community and connection with those that are around you,” MacVean-Brown said. “That’s how we’re going to do church.”

Moving forward, MacVean-Brown said she has ideas for how Vermont’s Episcopal Church might change, including sharing ministry on a regional basis and more emphasis on “creation care, conservation and alternative energy.”

A woman smiles with solar panels in the background.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The new bishop for the Vermont Episcopal Church, Rt. Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, is interested in focusing more on conservation, alternative energy and "creation care." Here she stands by solar panels, which provide all electricity needed by the diocese complex.

But now, at the beginning of her tenure, MacVean-Brown is eager to work with others.

“You can’t just come in and just start changing things, right?” she said. “Because if you were drawn to the people, clearly there’s something good already present.”

Correction Oct. 18: This story previously referred to Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown as "Reverend," which was incorrect. Her title is either "Bishop" or "the Right Reverend," with "Rt. Rev." for short.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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