An address delivered to the Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas 

By George Sumner

A month and a half ago, on a Zoom meeting of the House of Bishops, the demographic news about our church was yet more grim than we might have thought. The bottom has fallen out of the number of marriages, and baptisms are not far behind. Average Sunday attendance nationally is down a third, to 35. The shortage of clergy for a plethora of small, often rural, churches is severe.

Answers are not immediately evident, so let us begin somewhere else, somewhere earlier. For this is not the first time we Americans have been here. Go back 300 years, and the statistics on colonial America would have been worrisome too. The founding fathers and mothers were often, surprisingly, doctrinally shaky, and quite suspicious of the domineering features of organized religion they had fled (that, by the way, means us Anglicans). Some were proto-“spiritual not religious.”


Then something remarkable happened, first on the far side of the Atlantic, and then here. A first wave in the east, in the generation before the American Revolution, and then a second across the prairie in the generations after. We were awakened. You know the story. The great preachers of what came to be called “evangelicalism” were Anglicans: John Wesley and George Whitefield. They were colleagues of other converted Anglicans like Augustus Toplady (think “Rock of Ages”) and John Newton (think “Amazing Grace”), not to mention the hymns of brother Charles Wesley such as “O for a Thousand Tongues” or “Love Divine All Loves Excelling,” by which we can still join the vibe of that Great Awakening. This movement in England influenced what followed in the colonies, with Wesley and Whitefield actually coming over to preach.

There ensued a first wave in the east, in the generation before the American Revolution, The Second Great Awakening took place in the generation that followed. In the latter, while our Anglican forebears were reluctant to leave their comfortable Eastern parishes, our Methodist brothers and sisters raced across the south and west with the gospel, ending up in Texas, among other places. But their spiritual bloodline too went back to the Anglican/Episcopal divines.

We must be brief, so here is the important thing, what I want to call “the matrix for renewal and mission.” Here are the features this twofold movement, on two sides of the Atlantic, showed.

First, grasping anew the faith of the Bible and creed: it was a traditional movement.

Second, being grasped by a personal faith, of heart as well as head. It was a movement of a “heart strangely warmed,” as John Wesley famously said.

But third, the separation of religious expression from political power. The gospel works through culture and daily life, not from a human throne, no matter how much we Americans enjoy royal weddings and fancy coronations. Our churches are on their own, which means freedom (hence our insisting on calling ourselves “the Episcopal Church,” so as to mark a new beginning).

This goes along, fourth, with innovation, in ways of actively getting to and speaking with people. The outdoor sermon, for example, was an evangelically Anglican invention. This showed them to be aware of the ways in which culture and society had changed, and the need to go out and find the listener. It was thoroughly, missional, as we say nowadays.

Fifth, face-to-face small groups. A 20th-century book on the influence of small groups in American culture was titled I Come Away Stronger, but we must remember that the Methodists invented this. Undiminished today is the power of such small groups.

Sixth and finally, reconciliation of race and class. The early Methodists sought out the working class. The Second Great Awakening was closely linked to the abolitionist movement. The gospel message of reconciliation naturally finds the place where the rubber hits the road.

Word, Conversion, Freedom, Missional, Small Groups, Reconciliation: whether we use the word evangelical or not, this was invariably the matrix in which renewal happened, and through it the Holy Spirit moved and worked where we human beings could not see a way forward. I am tempted to say “formula,” except that it would come to naught were it to rely on our power rather than that of the Holy Spirit.

As an aside, I recommend highly the book by the late Anglican priest and sociologist David Martin called ‘Tongues of Fire,’ in which he contends that this movement, this nexus of beliefs and practices, constitute the great contextualization or adaptation of the Gospel to the modern world.

The story so far, though long ago, is not far away. It has everything to do with our history, and with the denominational landscape around us. And it gives a very clear message to us, its great-great-great-grandchildren, about where renewal lies. But the story does not end there.

While one gospel arrow headed west across the Atlantic, and then across the American continent, another headed south, across the Mediterranean and Sahara to Africa, west and east. Now you can see how my talk has everything to do with “Africa in Dallas and Dallas in Africa.” The arrow of renewal and mission westward to the Americas was in the 18th and 19th centuries; the second arrow to Africa was in the 19th and 20th.

Whatever our churchmanship, they, we, share the same Anglican and evangelical DNA. Let’s follow this out. Those same English men and women were committed to sharing the gospel across the world as well as across the street. They were great creators of societies, of groups, once again — for the relief of famine, for the protection of young women (in a group called the Mothers’ Union, please stand!), and last but not least, for the evangelization of countries and continents hearing the gospel for the first time. (We see the effect of this still in the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, the Daughters of the King, the Order of St. Luke, all church societies, and on and on.)

They brought the same faith to Africa, which was kindled anew in England; they worked from the very same matrix. In addition to forming a mission society, they preached for conversion. They knew that where they were going the gospel would have none of the protections of the state as they had in England. The church was on its own, which is to say, free. And they meant to preach at the same time that they challenged the scourge of slavery, Islamic in the east and European in the west.

Conversion and racial reconciliation were, here too, inseparable. The slides show some of the famous figures in the struggle against slavery. I know that the word missionary has a dubious ring in some ears. They made mistakes. But many missionaries went there, before the era of quinine, with the virtual certainty that they would die in their new home. Most were women with vocations to teach. And everywhere they went, the bulk of the work of spreading the faith was actually done by local, native catechist-evangelists. Africa is simply too vast for any other possibility.

We are happy to welcome our visiting bishops this morning. For a moment I want to focus on our preacher, Bishop Joseph Wandera of the Diocese of Mumias in Kenya. For spiritually he is a great-great-grandson of the renewal movement called Balokole, the east African revival, which had a powerful effect on Stephanie and me as missionary teachers in neighboring Tanzania 40 years ago. And I might add that our friend and bishop from north Tanzania, Mwita Akiri, whose choir has produced our commissioned new hymn for this occasion, which we will hear shortly, is likewise a child of the movement. I want briefly to tell the story of that revival, for it vividly illustrates my point.

It began in 1930s. The coming of the gospel, the age of martyrs, seemed distant. The challenges of a new culture and its compromises proved hard to navigate — could the Gospel really meet them? Furthermore, there were tensions between white missionaries and black local Christians. An Anglican evangelical missionary with the improbable name of Joe Church decided the matter, along with a friend, a church elder named Simeon Nsibambi.

They spent a whole night putting their mutual resentments, their failings, their sins, “in the light,” as they said, so that they might come to a place of brotherhood, of oneness, of reconciliation born not of their themselves but of the cross. About their meeting the news spread, as did the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome enmity, to bridge chasms, to break through intractable problems. From that meeting came a movement, primarily of lay people, of putting old sins in the light, of receiving a new assurance of salvation (hence the name “Balokole,” the saved ones).

They challenged those who accepted sleepy and compromised church life. Sometimes they made mistakes and went too far. But they believed that God could bring about new life, as if an old man could indeed be born again. They challenged the missionaries and the seminaries: were they lost in distractions instead of preaching to the bondages people actually experienced?

And here is the remarkable part. Upon being given a second chance, we Anglicans got it right. By this I mean that, in the first instance, we allowed the Methodists to break away, to our great loss. But with the east African revival we kept the fire of the Spirit in the fireplace of the church, we kept the power of renewal within the church, no matter how unsettling it would prove to be.

And what resulted was dramatic growth in east and central Africa (the great evangelistic story in the west, in Nigeria, is a story for another occasion). It was a lay movement, ordinary Christians sharing their faith. I have included a picture of Apolo Kivebulaya, missionary to people like the Batwa, as the Kellerman Foundation these days reminds us. It was also a movement of martyrdom, as when Archbishop Janani Luwum said, “Father, forgive them they do not know what they are doing,” as Idi Amin’s henchmen murdered him, and the great bishop and preacher Festo Kivengere, after he fled, wrote a book called Why I love Idi Amin, whom I heard preach as a seminarian. Histories such as this one are why the new center of gravity of world Christianity now lies in the Global South (as the great scholar at Baylor, Philip Jenkins, has taught us in books like The Next Christendom).

Why the mini-history lesson? The great Southern novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” In the moment in which we stand, there are so many imponderables, so many worrisome trends before us. The demographics of our church, post-COVID, is daunting. They take the worrisome graying of our society and accelerate it. To be sure, we are somewhat insulated from these trends, given the number of our young ordinands and the economic vitality of our part of this country.

But just the same, our church as a whole, with its raft of small, part-time, rural parishes, cannot go on as it has. We are facing massive changes we cannot yet discern due to the ongoing technological revolution. Along with this go fundamental debates about the very nature of the human. What lies ahead is, in short, dramatically different from the world we know, much less the world of 18thcentury England or 19th-century Africa, much less the ancient church. We look into a glass very darkly.

But in the face of these changes, what history teaches us is reliance, by God’s grace, on the same matrix of renewal that we have seen in previous crises — divine word, personal conversion, evangelistic freedom, mission, face-to-face communities, racial reconciliation. The more the world changes, the more the Methodist/Anglican matrix stays the same, even as it display its remarkable flexibility.

What indeed has Dallas got to do with Africa, or Africa Dallas? The simplest answer is the best: those verses from the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, which we recite at every baptism: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. We and they are in Christ one. In this talk I have intended to give you a second reason, that we are related one to another, more specifically, as offspring of the same movement, though we live on opposites sides of the globe from England. And there is a third reason as well. For you see, that same history I have described is around us and it is in us, not least as we face unprecedented circumstances of our own. We need the guidance of the legacy of renewal, and we need one another, as we feel our way into a new chapter of the church’s life in this 21st century.

To repeat: because the circumstances are dauntingly strange, the matrix out of which we must minister had better be the same. Let me, one more time, define the lines of that matrix. Renewal in our tradition is as global as it is local. It begins with the Bible and the creed. It is at once personal, the converted heart and mind, though it is expressed, and then tended, in groups, in societies of prayer. Naturally it goes out to find its audience, even as it assumes no cultural privilege. Finally, it does so arm in arm with brothers and sisters across lines of class and race. The more ecumenical it is, the more truly Anglican/Episcopal it proves itself to be. The matrix is the same, in circumstances that are in no way the same as we are accustomed to, since the matrix is actually derived from the apostles.

Let me end with a point of personal privilege. During COVID, I very much enjoyed a Lenten Zoom group with St. James, Texarkana, in which we read Anglican poets. At the end of the series we read these words by T.S. Eliot, American, poet of modern trauma and despair, who finally found harbor with Jesus Christ and became a devout Anglo-Catholic.

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

As a young seminarian, I was struck powerfully by the passage in First Kings when a servant of King Josiah was rummaging in the basement of the Temple in Jerusalem during its renovation (I am sure the dean will get the feel for that passage). He finds an old book, the Torah, and brings it to the king, who immediately rends his garments. The words are new and they are fire.

We too will come to the same place, within the same matrix, and will know the place as for the first time. That is the nature of renewal. There is so much that is blessedly unfamiliar — the risky adventure of planting, young clergy being raised up, the denominational scene upended and requiring adjustment. But the face we will see there is the same; familiar, yes, but never worn out, always new, the face about which I leave you with the words of Paul: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

This essay has been lightly modified from the originally published version in order to more closely approximate the address as delivered. — Editor

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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5 Responses

  1. Pierre Whalon

    Vintage Sumner! An excellent address, if a little tilted toward the evangelical wing (a lot tilted, actually!). There is another, later story, of course—that of the Anglo-catholic missionaries when the Low Church rested on its laurels. And there is another fact. The evangelical control of the church faded in one generation as the Broad Church movement gained ground. And it is fair to say that it is still the dominant party today.

    Nevertheless, Bishop Sumner’s call to remember “the matrix” that led to who we are and to renew it, confident that God’s grace will not be lacking, is exactly what we all need to hear right now.

  2. C R SEITZ

    “And it is fair to say that it is still the dominant party today” must then surely have its corollary, viz., the place where Sumner began. Average Sunday attendance, 35. The bottom falling out for baptisms and marriages. Will the present TEC even exist in a meaningful way in 20 years? This is the backdrop of the hopefulness being recalled from an earlier day. I wish I could share it, but one must always recall that God is the one who sees death and calls forth life.


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