This post is lightly adapted from my address at the November convention of the Diocese of Dallas.

Why did Africa become Christian and, in considerable measure, Anglican? There are various reasons (not least the Holy Spirit), but the Swedish Lutheran historian of mission, Bengt Sundkler, identifies one of the most interesting. It involves a word in Zulu, mfecane. It means “the churning.” For that was what the middle of the 19th century was, mfecane, a great churning of peoples, like a vast laundry dryer: war, famine, disease, the building of the railroad, new education, the coming of the Westerner.

Everything got churned up, a bit dislodged, so that people bumped into a wider world, people who were looking for where they belonged. And, says Sundkler, at that providential moment came the mission societies to preach, to make mistakes, to die, to send a generation of evangelists out. But it wasn’t clear until a century later the tide that had been unleashed.

In God’s goodness we here and now do not have to deal, for the most part, with war, famine, or disease, but still I submit to you this thesis: we too are in the midst of a quieter kind of mfecane, a great churning. We need to raise our heads and notice the series of dramatic changes that we are living through. But noticing them is only the first step. We must go on to see them, especially when they are perplexing and difficult, as a vocation from God, an opening for the Gospel, a tilling of the soil for the Church.


In this spirit consider the Joseph story in the later chapters of Genesis for it is also one of mfecane, quite literally. Dislocation, hunger, the collision of peoples and cultures: in the midst of all this God is providing for the preservation of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and preparing for Moses, liberation, the Torah, the Promised Land, the Messiah. But you cannot see all that in those straitened, even desperate, chapters. What we do see is Joseph, given a wisdom to find the path of life, to make a way in a culture new and strange to him. The Church, that is, we, are called to something similar to Joseph’s vocation.

This morning let us reflect on seven features of the churning in northeast Texas in AD 2016. You and I live in the fastest growing metroplex and one of the most dynamic economies in North America (which I might add is at present the engine of the world economy). Condos and homes sprout like mushrooms in places like Frisco and Prosper and Heath. We live in a unique moment, one that will not last forever. And as I travel around the diocese I am reminded of our roots by our in-house historian, the dean: recall our founding Bishop Garrett with his wagon replete with altar and organ. We recall this morning the beginning of many of the parishes here today, in the planting work in the midst of its own mfecane.

We are living in a similar moment today.

Meanwhile, the national church has turned its attention to evangelism, including church planting; Mike Michie is serving on the national commission and is the right man to do so. With the guidance of people like Canon Heard we have been a leader in this work for some time — the national church needs us! Reviving our church planting initiative is central to a strategic plan but equally important is seeing it as something God now gives us as our vocation in the time of the churning. To this end we are blessed to have as skilled a cadre as Leslie, Noe, Andrew, Tony, and Alfredo.

Though they are pioneering examples for us all, planters and their congregations are not the only ones called to be evangelists in this dynamic situation. At the heart of the strategic plan offered at this convention are the hope and will that every congregation will be reaching out with the Gospel in its own circumstances. We in the diocesan offices aim to have resources and mentors available, but the center of gravity needs to be in the parishes themselves, their goal being to empower lay people to fulfill their callings as disciples. To this end we will promote orders of lay evangelists and catechists. These will require new steps to make education at the Stanton Center more easily and widely available. By these means a new generation will come to know their inheritance in the faith. To this end we must, figuratively, tie the Word to our doorposts, and talk of it throughout our lives, as our theme verses from Deuteronomy command us.

Perhaps the subtlest and yet most pervasive of the changes that the churning brings has to do with the way we think about, and what we know about, religion. All churches struggle to retain their young in the face of powerful influences in media, technology, and our sense of ourselves and what matters. Our denominations command less automatic allegiance in the young.

Meanwhile, recent decades have seen the creation of fewer and fewer resources for formation and teaching — could it be that we became less clear about what we are to teach? None of us knows the eventual end of these trends. But the calling, in such a time as this, to create teaching or catechetical resources is clear. We have assembled in this diocese as fine a team of scholars, several of them young, who aim to author works to convey the faith of the Church for this moment and this generation, and we will be beneficiaries as well. For as we express the faith we ourselves better understand it. We have assembled a fine team of scholars to this end, with younger theologians like Jeremy Bergstrom and Jordan Hylden along with Victor Austin, a tad longer in the tooth, to lead this endeavour. To this same end we are excited about our common cause with the Living Church, which will have a branch office in Canterbury House.

But of course culture is never moving in just one direction at a time. Even as the prominence of denominations like ours seems to fade, young evangelicals are discovering the treasures of the Anglican way of being a Christian. They retain their gospel center, even as they appreciate the deep and wide roots and reach of our tradition. Some of our best clergy and ordinands have walked what the late Robert Webber called “the Canterbury trail.” They are a gift for the upbuilding, not just of this diocese, but of our church — and they too are a fruit of the churning in the Church itself.

As each of us knows well, we also live in a time of intense cultural debate within our society as well as the global church. The debate about same-sex marriage has been a defining one and a divisive one in this generation. Surely it too is part of the churning in our time. Some criticize our talking about the issue too little, and others too much. Our diocese is in a minority among Episcopal dioceses, yet there are progressive parishes in Dallas.

I would reiterate what I said at the outset of my episcopate: we are called to charity and dialogue, all of us, and I intend to pray for and serve the whole diocese, however inadequately, though by conscience I hold a traditional view of the matter. We are called to what the New Testament calls parrhesia — freedom to speak, to question, to challenge, under the banner of that charity.

But here is the deeper point, the one consistent with the theme of this entire talk: we need to understand what may feel like living at loggerheads as a vocation. God has something in mind for us in this too; this includes a calling, for us conservatives, to offer a witness for a comprehensive church, and for progressives, to find in this making room a true liberalism. I know this is frustrating for many of you. But patience and forbearance are cross beams of the Church. And a sense of being one body with those with whom we strongly disagree is the shape of our shared baptismal life as well. In all this I remain convinced we have something of value to offer to our church as a whole.

The churning — if that is the theme, then how could we leave out American politics 2016! I have foresworn saying anything more specific, if for no other reason other than staying on the right side of the IRS! So let us limit ourselves to the underlying anxieties in our nation: economic and demographic stress in small towns; immigration and refugees; stresses between segments of our society.

In our own modest way we need to, and are, making our witness for the common good. Mother Samira with her Gateway of Grace has a remarkable ministry to refugees. We are committed to helping rural churches to survive and reach out, and we look forward to Jerry Morris’s ministry to encourage us to this end. The churning includes, within our own city, the alarming fact that Dallas has more child poverty than any other major American city, a fact to which our own Dabney Dwyer has been prophetically drawing our attention for years. We are talking and praying about common cause with some south Dallas churches in outreach related to young people, the impetus for which comes from the irrepressible Carrie Headington. I hope that this effort will be a sign of the kind of racial reconciliation that our own Presiding Bishop has been calling us to. I am also particularly impressed when our Hispanic clergy said clearly “We are not an ethnic ministry in the diocese; we are (along with everyone else) the diocese.” Amen.

Yo doy gracias por Dios todopoderoso por la fe y la perseverancia de nuestros sacerdotales y líderes en nuestras paroquias Hispanas. (También me gustan tus fiestas maravillosas.) Ellos trabajan mucho y pueden invitar Christianos nuevos del juntar. Nosotros vamos a ensenar y ayudar.

What are we called to in the face of this hard and creative churning? We need to plan, to marshal our resources, and to seek new ones. To this end we engaged in our strategic planning process, for which  I want to thank Betsy and her  energetic and missional-minded teammates. Their plan tracks what I have been saying: planting, Hispanic ministry, supporting young ordinands, efficient congregational development , catechesis. It does so because by means of the churning the Holy Spirit is opening these up to us. But of course planning does not suffice — like the apostles after Christ’s ascension, we have to wait on the Holy Spirit. So much of what this diocese has accomplished in the recent past was the work of the generation of lay cursillistas. What new form should inherited ministries like Daughters of the King or the Brotherhood of St. Andrews or Cursillo take? Are there altogether new ways the Spirit means to draw us together and then send us out?

There is no plan for this, unless it is the fervent efforts of our intercessors throughout the diocese. The history of mission amidst mfecane was in Africa a history of surprise, and so it was doubtless be for us, who are left fervently to pray, Come, Holy Spirit, come.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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