The church in a new moment – without doors

The Bishop of Dallas, in the USA, has been leading the Texan Episcopalian diocese for the past seven years. He spoke to the Lambeth Conference team about leadership, global challenges and his hopes for the Anglican Communion.

The Rt Revd George Sumner was a member of the Lambeth Design Group, so has been closely involved in shaping next year’s Lambeth Conference.

“The Lambeth Design Group was a real cross section of the Communion, from pretty much every continent,” he said. “Over the two and a half years or so, we really became a family and they are all really important friends. So, it was a kind of an epitome of what we all look forward to and hope for in the conference itself.”

What are the three words that best describe your role as a leader and what are your top priorities?

“On the subject of leadership, and particularly as a bishop, the phrase that comes to mind is ‘scan the horizon’. There’s some of that in the life of a bishop, the guarding, pastoring, caring function. As Christians, we’re also scanning the horizon, which is the symbol of the resurrection. But to me, I’m a horizon scanner.”

“I spend most of my time trying to help and encourage local congregations to thrive. We want them to be faithful, we want them to grow, and we want them to minister in the world.” He said he wanted to encourage people to realise that they’re part of a body, not islands. “I think the Communion is an extension of that. We are not an island as a church. Nor are the things that we’re scanning the horizon for simply ours, but they’re shared. We’re meant to summon people away from that understandable focus on their own ministry to see that they’re actually not doing this by themselves.”

When you think about the different issues facing the world, where do you feel the voice of the Church is needed most?

“If COVID did nothing else, it disabused us of the notion that we know what’s coming or can plan for it. And so it’s a great lesson in humility that we don’t actually know what’s next. But I do think that it’s also been a lesson in interdependence. Viruses don’t care about borders, and they don’t care where you come from. So, in one way, it’s been a summons to flexibility.

“In my own diocese, we want to hear how God is calling us to a more ecumenical ministry. The problems we face are not unique to Anglicans and Episcopalians, nor to the particular people that come to our churches… Things are being broken down and built up, planted and pulled up, and in the midst of all that reclaiming the church as an ecumenical, global reality is at the heart of what we’re trying to do locally.”

What leadership qualities are needed to serve and support people through such difficult times?

“I think it’s a matter of discerning the time… We have returned to more basic questions, like, what does it mean to be an evangelising church? One example is that we realised that outdoor church had some advantages. We were doing confirmations outside for a while and a lot of people came to church simply because it was there, literally with no doors. And it was the church in a new moment.”

“We’ve also been trying to bring the contemplative vocation, quiet prayer, together with evangelism because we think a lot of our central nervous systems could use some calming down as we hear the gospel. So, we’re trying to discern in this new unusual season of restoration, what evangelism looks like.”

How do you think the Anglican Communion can be a force for hope and change in the world?

“If you look at the sort of macro challenges the world is facing, on the one hand they are shared across the world. Climate is like the virus, it doesn’t care where you are. It probably affects us slightly differently, depending on where we are, but it’s an issue across all localities. We do need to hear from each other about how churches are responding. And we need the wider view, to look at the whole vista, the whole horizon.”

“I’m interested in the history of mission. And one of the great moments in Anglican mission history was a conference in Toronto in 1963, when the tagline was ‘mutual responsibility and interdependence’. That was a vision. The particular problems we’re facing were not on the horizon as they are now, but we are still mutually responsible and interdependent to one another. We need to be continually summoned back to that.”

“The Lambeth Conference is a symbol of that because we as a church are mutually responsible and interdependent. And that’s true both for practical things, like climate or economic injustice, and as a reminder that the world needs to know that it has a purpose, beyond and wider than its problems, which is its destiny in the Kingdom of God. It’s universal to the human race that it has one gospel and Jesus Christ, and that is shared by all the bishops who are going to gather from their particular corners of the world.”

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