A New Shepherd

11.09.15 | by Kimberly Durnan

    Bishop-elect, George Sumner, is many things to many people. Some often tout his impressive, Ivy League education and others talk about his gregarious nature and sense of humor. While those attributes are defining, those who know him best say a fuller snapshot must include his pastoral instincts, passion for world mission, and gifts as an administrator.

     “He’s not a dry or ivory-tower academic – far from it,” said longtime colleague the Right Rev. Dr. R. Mwita Akiri, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Tarime, Tanzania. “It is hard to find George-the-academic, because more often you will see George-the-pastor.” He skillfully uses his theological expertise to assist others in reflecting theologically and Biblically in order to refine their faith as disciples of Christ, he noted.

    Akiri, who first met the bishop-elect in the 1980s when Sumner and wife, Stephanie, taught at St. Phillip’s Theological College in central Tanzania, said he fondly remembers a young Sumner who wholeheartedly embraced new experiences and cultures.

    When Sumner taught a class on the Old Testament, his Boston accent confused the Africans, Akiri said. “George asked us to open the book of ‘Jab,’ which we could not find in the Bible. We were staring at him. He realized something was wrong. Fortunately, one of us asked, where in the Bible is the book of ‘Jab?’ He quickly wrote the name of the book on the blackboard. Nearly all of us responded with laughter. It was a good cross-cultural experience for both George and the class.”

    The fact that George spent time in Navajoland, Wyoming, and east Africa are important clues for understanding him, said Professor Joseph Mangina who teaches Systematic Theology at Wycliffe. “He is a missiologist at heart. The way he thinks theologically is through mission. He pays attention to how people live and the way they talk.”

    Such rich cultural experiences will likely help Sumner in his leadership of the Dallas diocese, where congregations are diverse and services are held in seven different languages. “He’s coming with a larger world view which will be great for any diocese to get a bishop with that kind of breadth,” said the Rt. Rev. Michael Louis Vono, bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande. “The church is going through changes, and he will be able to lead the diocese in a great way.”

    Sumner will join a unique brotherhood of bishops who have all worked vocations in western Massachusetts that includes Vono and the Rt. Rev. Rob Hirschfeld, bishop of New Hampshire. Both bishops say Sumner will make a great addition to this group, the Episcopal Church and the House of Bishops. “He will be a good resource for people as they go through their spiritual journey,” Vono said. “He’s very affable, has a great sense of humor and is easy to talk to. He will be a great pastor and a good leader.”

    Hirschfeld, who also knew Sumner during their academic studies at Yale, predicted Sumner’s legacy in Dallas as one of unity and relationships. “I appreciate he’s on the conservative side of things. There is a need for that voice in the House of Bishops.”

    Sumner was fun in college, recalled Hirschfeld. “I remember walking by his carol when he was studying in the library stacks and he was always up for a conversation. We also played squash together. He was a fierce competitor on the court but very jovial, fun and a quick laugh.”

    Also during this time, Sumner was involved in a movement of younger scholars to reclaim theological orthodoxy in the spirit of generosity and engagement. From this movement came a number of books and influence on an upcoming generation of young clergy.

    While most colleagues describe Sumner as a gifted, cerebral administrator who provides strong pastoral care for those he leads, they warn he’s not a stereotype or even easily defined. “Canon Sumner doesn’t fit snugly into conventional categories,” said the Rt. Rev. Tony Burton, who is rector at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas and has known Sumner for 15 years. “I’ve observed on the Internet that some people think that because he has theological concerns with same-sex marriage, he must be a Bible Belt fundamentalist. But they don’t seem to take into account that he is an Ivy League-educated, East Coast child of the 60s, with more than a decade of cross-culture ministry.”

    Sumner served on a panel appointed by the House of Bishops for collaboration on a statement regarding the nature of marriage in the life of the Church. He defended the conservative, but minority, viewpoint while at the same time taking full part in the dialogue and debate. “I was the facilitator of that group,” said Ellen Charry, a professor of theology at Princeton University. “He was a very active participant. We worked closely together and published a joint statement which he helped to write, and it was published in the Anglican Theological Review.”

    Charry, who is a former parishioner of Saint Michael and All Angels in Dallas, also knew Sumner when they were both students at Yale University. She said his academic background and mission experiences make him a strong choice. “This is a good thing for the Church to have, and a gift that he brings,” she said. “Bishops that come up through a pastoral ministry exclusively may not have the rigorous training to think about the Church in theological terms.”

    While his conservative theology makes him a strong choice for Dallas, those who voted for Sumner say his success, as an administrator at Wycliffe College, was also an important factor in their consideration. He has a track record at Wycliffe College of taking a complex organization and making it thrive, Burton said. “Rather than being overwhelmed by the challenges, I am confident that Canon Sumner will apply his proven analytical and leadership gifts here as well,” Burton said. As a result of Sumner’s work at Wycliffe, the school is considered to “punch above its weight” with fewer resources than the top tier schools, but operating in the same league. The school’s rigorous academic program has become a magnet within the theological landscape.“As principal of Wycliffe, George was a force of nature,” Mangina said. “He energized the institution. It was a strong school when he got there, but he took us up a notch or two or three. For a small faculty, we do a great job of forming clergy and professors.”

    At the same time both faculty and students have enjoyed a playful relationship with the principal and feel comfortable joking about his bowties, American accent, and Red Sox bobblehead collection. Students laughingly noted his appointment of tall students to one-day faculty positions during the annual faculty/student volleyball game.

    “He’s an irrepressible people-person, gregarious to a fault. He loves working with people,” Mangina said. “I once heard George say his management style is the Tom Sawyer style, getting people down to do a job is to get them excited about it, so it’s a job they really want to do.”

    A former student at Wycliffe said he felt personally impacted by Sumner’s strong theology and leadership. “He was able to relate to students and realize a vision during his time at Wycliffe,” said the Rev. Simon Davis, assistant curate at the Cathedral Church St. James in Toronto. “We are really sad to be losing him up here, he’s a special guy. He was a great principal and made some huge changes in vision and direction that brought academic credibility to the school.”

    Davis told how Sumner’s camaraderie with students was also evident by the reaction to Sumner’s stray comment that, when he someday left, a gargoyle looking down on the chapel would be cheaper than the usual portrait. As a parting gift, the class had a stone gargoyle replica of Sumner’s head erected in the main hall.

    Former students and colleagues all agree that Sumner will bring a lot of talent, skill and experience to the diocese once he’s consecrated as bishop. He will elevate the institution, said the Most Rev. Dr. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion. “He has a heart for knowing the Bible and living it out. He has a passion for intelligently sharing his convictions clearly. George is going to have an impact and he will be an encouragement to the faithful in Dallas.”