SARASOTA — Seated in a room with Anglican clerics from around the world, the Right Rev. Dabney T. Smith felt himself grow up as a bishop.
Smith, who last year became the fifth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, heard fellow prelates talk about ministry work in Sudan, violent attacks on churches and parishioners in northern India and economic hardships in Scotland. And of course, there was discussion about the homegrown fracas in the Episcopal Church over human sexuality and the ordination of gay priests.
This was Lambeth 2008, the once-a-decade meeting of bishops in the Anglican Communion, the worldwide umbrella group for Anglicans, including the Episcopal Church USA.
Listening to bishops share their experiences, Smith, 54, said he came to understand his place in the global organization.
"Being at Lambeth put me personally in a situation to challenge any of my undefined assumptions about the way life is," Smith said Friday, a few days after returning from the two-week meeting at Kent University in England. "It's pretty easy to go about your daily life being very busy and thinking that your life is normal for everybody. And, frankly, that's just not true."
Smith spoke about his impressions of his first Lambeth Conference, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
What did the bishops discuss?
We talked about issues such as the empowerment of women, climate change, evangelism, our relationship with other world religions, working with other Christian bodies as well as issues of human sexuality. … I would have to characterize the days as full, eye-opening, tiring, impressive and extraordinary.
What did you learn about bishops outside the Episcopal Church?
The Anglican Communion is very important to them because it backs them up in terms of a voice to their government, a voice to other faith communities. In our American context, we don't normally think like that because we don't have to. That was impressive to me to realize how large and necessary the Anglican Communion is.
Did the bishops resolve any of the controversial issues facing the church?
What I'm not saying to you is everything is solved. What I am saying to you is there was a very keen, and I would say highly developed, spirit of generosity toward each other with a desire to maintain a stronger Anglican Communion.
Bishop V. Eugene Robinson, an openly gay priest who leads the Diocese of New Hampshire, was not invited but came to England anyway. Was his presence on the fringe of the meeting a distraction?
Not to me. Each day was so busy; it wasn't distracting at all. I was certainly aware. There were some bishops from different parts of the globe who took the opportunity to go meet him and have conversation with him.
What was the tenor of the meeting?
There was a real sense of gained understanding across the board that we're all in this together. The church needs to use the moral authority it has to bring attention to those things because people across the globe are suffering in ways that they don't need to be.
What was the archbishop of Canterbury's message to the bishops?
He spoke about a generosity of spirit toward each other. He didn't scold, but he was very clear in his language that what one province (of the church) does (has) an impact on another province. We need to be judicious and cautious in our own autonomous determinations.
What's your message for the Diocese of Southwest Florida?
I took away from Lambeth a gladness of heart to be who I am as bishop of the Diocese of Southwest Florida. What we do here has the great potential to be global in effect, and an individual participating in the life of the local Episcopal congregation can be of assistance in terms of prayer and resources to people they'll never meet but who desperately need their relationship.
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