Eugene Sutton sees historic Maryland election as mandate for reconciliation, advocacy

April 7, 2008

When the Rev. Eugene T. Sutton, canon pastor of the Washington National Cathedral, was elected diocesan bishop of Maryland March 29, it was on the first ballot -- only the second time that has happened in the diocese's 227-year history.

The first was for the Rt. Rev. Thomas John Claggett, the first bishop consecrated on American soil -- and an owner of slaves while rector of a Maryland church. The first American census two years earlier showed that the overwhelming majority of clergy and lay delegates to the convention of the Diocese of Maryland owned slaves.

Bishop-elect Sutton, 54, a native of Washington, D.C., is the first African American to be elected bishop of Maryland. The election was held in St. James' Parish, Baltimore, which in 1824 became the first African-American parish established south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Sutton said of Claggett, "As spiritual and gifted as he was, I think on March 29 he was rejoicing in heaven, saying, 'Thank God, they are finally getting it -- they are undoing some of the injustices that even I was a part of' and that he is resting in peace a bit better.

"Just as the Thomas Claggett ordination was an occasion for bringing about reconciliation in the Episcopal Church in his day," said Sutton, "I want my ordination and ministry to be characterized by Maryland leading the way toward more reconciliation in the Anglican Communion -- between traditionalists and progressives, black and white, rich and poor.

"I don't believe the Diocese of Maryland set out to elect any kind of bishop based on race, age or gender," he said. "We are so starved for spiritual leadership that we are increasingly open to the spirit in whatever package it comes."

The bishop-elect plans to be proactive in the often-violent community surrounding the diocesan center. "When a young person is killed on the streets of Baltimore," he said, "these are our people living in our diocese. As bishop, I want to be there praying with the family, to be present. I want our people to know the Diocese of Maryland cares, that the church is there and God cares."

He also plans to be an advocate for the environment. "More than being known as the first black bishop of Maryland, I'd like to be known as the 'green bishop,'" he said. He wants to initiate discussions on a statewide level about what the diocese and congregations can do to protect the Chesapeake Bay for future generations.

The youth of the diocese are vital to its health, he said. "I came to my commitment to Christ as a 17-year-old through the ministry of Young Life." he said. "I will make myself available to young people, sharing my faith with them."

On the issue of gays and lesbians, Sutton said, "We have to welcome all people. I've had a conversion. I used to believe that gay people were going to hell; that they chose to remain in sin. I've had to repent of that bigotry and that I used the Bible to justify my own prejudice. But the Gospel agenda is not a bigotry agenda.

"I now believe the church needs to find a way to bless loving, committed relationships. I will work for the full inclusion of all people."

Reconciliation, he said, is the key to the health of the diocese -- and the church. "It begins with prayer, reconciling each individual to God, and then it spreads out into all the world.

"There is no situation in the church -- however toxic, distrustful or destructive -- that cannot be redeemed. Our ministry is one of reconciliation; we dare not give up on each other," he added. "And our call to be 'one as Jesus and the Father are one' is not a call for uniformity -- but rather is a call for unity, united in love, prayer and mission. Why should the world believe in our message of God's love for the world if we Christians cannot find a way to exhibit it among ourselves?"

He said his guiding principle for ministry comes from 2 Corinthians 5:17-20. He calls it the "spirituality of reconciliation," involving the healing of broken individuals, broken relationships and broken cultures "where there is poverty, hunger, injustice, disease and war. We need to restore those relationships."

Sutton will be consecrated by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori June 28 at Washington National Cathedral. He succeeds Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, who retired in April 2007. Bishop-in-charge John L. Rabb will resume his former position as bishop suffragan of the diocese.

Sutton's, wife, Sonya Subbayya Sutton, is director of music at St. Alban's Parish in Washington. They have four children and stepchildren.

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