Maryland Episcopalians elected the Rev. Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, canon pastor of the National Cathedral in Washington and an advocate of environmental causes, as the diocese's 14th bishop yesterday on a single ballot.
Sutton, 54, the first African-American elected to lead the diocese in its 227-year history, also works as director of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage.
If the majority of bishops and standing committees of the national Episcopal Church consent, he will replace Bishop Robert Wilkes Ihloff, who retired in April. Bishop Suffragan John Leslie Rabb, who was named bishop-in-charge after Ihloff's retirement, will resume his position as second-in-command once a new bishop is ordained and consecrated.
"I am both honored and humbled to be elected your bishop in the wonderful Diocese of Maryland," Sutton said in a written statement. "I, Sonya and our family look forward to being among you as fellow travelers in this exciting journey."
Nearly 500 parishioners filled the pews yesterday at St. James' Church in Lafayette Square - the first African-American Episcopal parish to be established south of the Mason-Dixon Line and the third in the country, according to Sharon Tillman, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
Of the attendees at yesterday's election, 370 were able to cast votes - 219 clergy and 151 lay delegates who represented their parishes, said Tillman. Sutton, who needed a majority of votes from both groups to be elected, received 125 clergy votes and 85 lay votes on the first ballot. The Maryland diocese has about 44,000 baptized members.
Episcopal dioceses have a unique democratic process in choosing bishops, involving both clerical and lay delegates. Members say the process reflects the church's philosophy.
"It truly reflects who we are as a denomination," Tillman said. "We are open, and we are welcoming. We respect various viewpoints and work to bring various viewpoints to the table. And that's reflected in this process."
Once a bishop dies or reaches 72, the mandatory retirement age, parishioners are able to nominate priests to become the next bishop. Qualifications for the bishop nominees are developed out of surveys that ask members what they want to see in a leader. Members of the diocese vote one of the nominees as bishop-elect.
The bishop-elect must then win a majority of votes of all the standing committees, or governing boards, of the more than 100 dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Then a majority of all the bishops must consent before the bishop-elect can be consecrated.
If he receives the approvals, Sutton is scheduled to be consecrated by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other bishops June 28 at Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Glenn Dale in Prince George's County. On June 29, Sutton would then be seated, a symbolic procedure, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore during the 10:30 a.m. service.
Before serving at the National Cathedral, Sutton was associate rector for mission and spirituality of St. Columba's Church and as priest-in-charge of St. Margaret's Church, also in Washington.
He has also taught homiletics and liturgics at several schools, including the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and has served as assistant to the bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey.
Along with teaching the importance of prayer and creating at least one new "worshiping community" each year, one of Sutton's main priorities is the environment.
"The global change crisis is very big, and I would love to help `green' the diocese," Sutton said in a nominee interview with the church. "I was talking to some friends the other day, and they were saying, `Eugene, it is possible that you will not be known as the first black bishop of Maryland, but as the first green bishop of Maryland.'
"I would want to be known, not for the color of my skin, but the color of the things I want to do in the diocese," he added.
Parishioners who attended yesterday's election said they consider nominees' principles and philosophies when deciding who is best suited to lead the church - much in the way they would evaluate presidential candidates.
Wesley Thatcher said his wife was a lay delegate representing Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Essex. He said he was there to support her through the difficult decision.
"I know she's taking into account the best interest of the church," said Thatcher. "It's a very important position."
Pam Fahrner, an alternate lay delegate for St. John's, Deer Park in Garrett County, said the election process has "tremendous significance" for church members.
"It is not like the CEO of a company - it's a spiritual leader," Fahrner said.