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How We Understand Ourselves

By George Sumner

As a member of the Communion Partners, I recognize and agree with recent essays by my friends Canon Jordan Hylden and Bishop Dan Martins. I mean this essay to be complementary to their reflections. I want to describe how I understand our vocation as the Communion Partners. We, of course, fall short of this vision in many ways. Nor do we claim that these attributes are ours alone. My account prescinds from strategic or legislative questions. Relationships require an empathetic hearing of how people understand themselves, what the Germans call Verstehen. To that end I offer, in seven themes, our self-understanding.

  1. Comprehensiveness

We are a minority within the Episcopal Church, powerless politically, and are under no illusion that our view of marriage will come to be the majority view. But we need look no further than the Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics of the 19th century to see how important minorities can be in our tradition’s renewal. Finding room for diverse groups is entailed in Anglican self-understanding of comprehensiveness. The seminal thinker for liberal Anglicanism, F.D. Maurice, believed that different church groups represented themes which Anglicanism as a whole needed. This insight can enable the Episcopal Church to move from mere toleration to mutual flourishing.

  1. Witness

We are grateful for the priority that our Presiding Bishop has given to the mandate of evangelism in the Episcopal Church. There is abundant evidence that CP dioceses in particular receive a stream of young men and women seeking ordination as they walk the “Canterbury Trail” from evangelical traditions. They bring gifts and experience in evangelism with them, and we are a stronger witnessing church as we welcome them. We need to continue to offer space for these new arrivals.

  1. Communion

While there still remain for the Episcopal Church “bonds of affection” in the global Communion, they have frayed. We have a particular contribution to make here, for we serve as a kind of umbilical cord to important parts of the Communion otherwise estranged from the Episcopal Church. Likewise, congregations that are largely Sudanese, Pakistani, Nigerian, etc. in our own church are encouraged by the presence of the Communion Partners. Significant numbers of our indigenous and Latino congregations identify with the CP stance on marriage. Our presence makes us a more diverse church.

  1. Solidarity

While we dissent on the nature of marriage, we are in agreement with our brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church on many other matters. We agree that we should work for a society that is more economically and racially just. We in Dallas stand in solidarity with fellow Churches that are primarily African-American in south Dallas, and stand together with other denominations on behalf of immigrants in Texas. We pray for a greater sense of national unity across bitter political divides. We try to minister to rising human need in the face of COVID-19 in our communities.

  1. Friendship

There is at present too much warfare and hostility, in society and in the church as well, our brains too awash in cortisol. We seek friendship with brothers and sisters who disagree with us on marriage. The implementation of B012 across the Episcopal Church has been almost entirely amicable. We stand in fellowship with other dioceses struggling with the consequences of the pandemic. We want to contribute at all levels in the common life of our church.

  1. Memory

At the heart of our particular vocation on behalf of the Church as a whole is memory. On the topic of marriage, we hold to the received doctrine, as well as the warrants for and implications of that view. We remind our colleagues that the Church does not change its doctrine quickly, but rather requires patience and testing. For this the Church needs the connection with the past. For example, the discernment conference held in Dallas is called RADVO: “Ancient Order — Radical Vocation.” That title implies that retrieval and renewal in a changed context are bound together. Amidst new circumstances we return ad fontes, to the Scriptural and credal basics, to the Lordship of Jesus crucified and risen.

  1. What’s Next

We all suppose that we know the issues before us over which we will struggle, and then a novel virus upends everything. We need to preserve the theological biodiversity of our church, and the sinews of inter-connection, for we do not know what we will face together next. We surely have huge demographic challenges. Now we face post-virus financial challenges too. We have work to do together; we haven’t the time for further rancor. It is time for the Truce of God, for the sake of the gospel in a changed landscape. The Communion Partners believe that we have something unique to contribute as we face forward together, and pray our brothers and sisters will think so too.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.


  1. I can remember when the older Living Church ran the church ads on the back page and in the East Coast area one could find all the Anglo-Catholic parishes, in DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, NYC, New Haven, Boston etc. Fitz Allison jokingly called it the ‘underground railroad.’ Interestingly, these parishes did not rely on Bishops in order to survive and in some ways chose to stand aloof/apart from the Diocese/Bishop. It was an arrangement that went both ways. (One thinks of St John’s Savannah in our day). Now those AC parishes are pretty much happy in a changed TEC.

    I wonder where the analogy with ‘conservative’ Bishops/dioceses today actually fits and where it is very different. Parishes can be given leeway when they are in the minority and enjoy being so, inside a diocese. Dioceses themselves? There one might wonder. A lot will depend upon BCP alterations underway, as B012 has exposed. Bishops could look the other way when the Anglican Missal was on the altar. Will TEC look the other way if Dioceses want to have their own stricter BCP identity? The Albany verdict did not send helpful signals.


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