Thousands gathered at Washington National Cathedral on June 28 to be part of history as the Rev. Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, 54, became the first African American bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
"The significance of this consecration goes beyond the Diocese of Maryland," said Joseph Overton, a member of St. James Church in the Kingsessing neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "It is a statement as to who we are beyond the color of our skin."
Adding to the importance of this consecration is the fact that Thomas John Claggett, the first Bishop of Maryland and the first bishop consecrated on American soil, owned slaves while serving as the rector of St. James' Parish in Ann Arundel County. Sutton is a descendant of slaves.
Sutton, the 14th bishop of the diocese, succeeds Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, who retired in April 2007 as leader of the 44,000-member diocese.
"This is a joyous day to have one of our own elected bishop of the Diocese of Maryland," said Iris Harris of the Diocese of Washington. "I know Eugene well and he is a great person. They are very fortunate to have him."
Bernice Arnold of the Diocese of Maryland, who attended the service with her 10-year-old son, said she had never sat through a consecration before but felt "this was a piece of history" that her son should experience.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori served as chief celebrant for the service, during which more than 25 bishops from around the country and throughout the Anglican Communion participated.
Delivering the sermon, the Rev. Dr. Barry C. Black, the first African American chaplain of the U.S. Senate, said that being "faithful servants" to Jesus Christ is "what it is all about."
"He doesn't require us to be talented or gifted but faithful," Black said, adding that all are ambassadors "reconciling the world unto Christ."
The theme of reconciliation resonates with Sutton, who in his first message to the diocese wrote that all must first be "reconciled spiritually" because various circumstances have caused people to "turn our backs on God." He said that in his episcopate he will call his diocese "to times of prayer" which he considers to be the core of his ministry as bishop. In his message he also wrote of taking a greater role in the "healing of the environment."
Prior to his election, Sutton served as canon pastor of Washington National Cathedral and director of the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Known as a frequent leader of retreats and conferences on prayer, preaching, spirituality and mission, Sutton directed the cathedral's national and local programs in building spiritual community through pilgrimages, gatherings and courses.
In his first words as bishop, Sutton acknowledged all who had shared in the day, including his wife and children, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and his 94-year-old grandmother, and said his ongoing prayer was, "God, please make me ready to be bishop." He said the Lord's reply was, simply, "Put your clothes on and get to work."
Sutton delivered his first sermon as bishop on June 29 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, Maryland.
-- Daphne Mack is a correspondent for Episcopal Life Media and is editor of http://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/ and .