Bishop Wayne Wright Retires, Reflects on His Work at SAS
Bishop Wayne Wright Retires, Reflects on His Work at SAS
Liz Torrey

On the first Wednesday afternoon in September, a low-slung vintage butter-yellow Mustang convertible rolls up up the School's front drive. In the driver's seat: a tall man with an aquiline nose. In the dappled afternoon sun, his shock of white hair ruffles above the windshield. A clerical collar is fastened at his throat. This is the Right Reverend Wayne P. Wright, Bishop of Delaware, making his way to St. Andrew's Chapel to deliver the first Wednesday night homily of the year. He's made this drive every September since 1998, but never before in his yellow Mustang. This year's visit is different, a celebration and a farewell; Bishop Wright had plans to retire in the spring of 2017, and this would be his last time speaking in the A. Felix duPont Memorial Chapel as Bishop.

Mustang or no, Bishop Wright cuts a distinctive figure, and post-1998 alumni will no doubt recall his trips to St. Andrew's, whether for his remarkable height (6'6"), his unique preaching style (in which he uses no notes and steps down off the altar to deliver a homily full of direct questions to his audience), and his cheerful greetings to any and all Saints who cross his path—not only at St. Andrew's, but anywhere in the world. "I always say to St. Andrew's students: whenever you see me, come up and speak to me," he says. "Anywhere in the world. On the street in London, walking in San Francisco, in Yankee Stadium, in the WaWa in Middletown—you name it, St. Andreans come up to me. And I get to learn about the excellent and interesting things our alumni are doing, how they're in their own settings now, but still living that life of intellect, commitment, passion, and faith."

Bishop Wright has done his fair share of world-ranging. Born and raised in colonial Williamsburg, he spent a semester abroad in Mexico while in college at William & Mary, and after graduating with a degree in American history, spent the better portion of a year traveling around South America. "I learned a lot," he says, "and picked up Spanish, which has been very important in my ministry. But I also picked up a broader sense of culture and of the world around us." After returning stateside, Bishop Wright thought he might try his hand at journalism, and wrote for a number of newspapers—until he decided to give in to a growing sense that he was being called for the ministry.

Part of the credit for what he calls his "change of thought" may go to his upbringing. "I grew up in the old historic part of Williamsburg, in one of the old houses," he recalls. "Diagonally across the street from our house was the Bruton Parish Church, which is one of the old historical Episcopal churches [in America], and it was also a really important institution in that community. It was a vibrant, growing, faithful, serving church in the years that I grew up. So I had that sense of embrace of a place, that sense of the important role of church. I was very fortunate in that regard. I was very involved, and my parents were very involved, so I grew up in that context."

In looking back over his life, Bishop Wright notes again and again how often he feels he was being readied for some future work that, at the time, he could not yet anticipate. "You're preparing for something and you don't even realize it at the time, he says. "I went to the University of the South for seminary, and I loved it. I really just embraced the life of the Sewanee community and the life of the institution itself. In a way, I think that sort of prepared me for being here at St. Andrew's, because they're both these great Episcopal institutions—the spirit, the excellence, the passion of these places. The generosity that's gone into their lives. Even the buildings look sort of the same! Of course, I didn't know that then."

After seminary, Bishop Wright was appointed to a small rural parish church in southeastern Virginia—"a wonderful community, not that different from the way Middletown was a generation ago, or some of the towns today in southern Delaware, which again, I did not realize that one I day I would be serving"—and from there, made the leap to Louisiana, where he became the priest of an urban parish in New Orleans' Mid-City neighborhood.

"One of the reasons they called me there was because the parish was about one-third Spanish-speaking," he explains. "There's a significant Latino population in New Orleans and this parish was one of the early churches to have a kind of community involvement and outreach to that population. They did a lot of social service: they had a big preschool program, a citizenship program for immigrants, a soup kitchen—just a lot of really hands-on community work." Wright served in New Orleans for twelve years, until he was contacted "out of the blue" by the Diocese of Delaware, who wanted to know if he would be interested in being a candidate for Bishop.

Bishop Wright can vividly recall his interview visit to Delaware, and to St. Andrew's in particular. "As a candidate, you have the opportunity to tour around the diocese. One of the days of my tour, we came here, to St. Andrew's, and I stayed behind for a few minutes to talk to Tad Roach. He had only been here a year as the Headmaster—of course he had been at St. Andrew's much longer—anyway, I was so caught by the history and the outlook of St. Andrew's, the commitment of the people serving St. Andrew's, and the depth of its service to families and community. The passion and the vision of Tad and the other leaders of the School was just immediately apparent."

"I left," he continues, "and I thought, well, I probably won't become Bishop, but if I do—how wonderful it would be to be a part of the life here. To be able to support and encourage St. Andrew's and its really excellent mission."

Of course, he did become Bishop, and the rest is history: 18 years of rich relationship with St. Andrew's, and of impactful community work throughout the Diocese, which spans the entire state of Delaware. "One of the great things about Delaware," he reflects, "is that the size of the state is such that there is a strong sense of a common good that we can work together to build. If you want to serve the larger life of the community, you can do that here."

The Episcopal Church is the third largest denomination in Delaware, and there are 34 Episcopal churches scattered through the state—"which is a lot," the Bishop notes, "when you think about the fact that the state is 100 miles long and about 35 miles across." Nine of these churches are 300 years or more old, and in the years that Wright has been Bishop, eight of those have celebrated their 300th anniversary (the oldest, Immanuel on the Green in New Castle, celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1989; it is one of the oldest continuously operating Episcopal church in the country). "What that means," he says, "is that there's a great sense of connection by the members of our church, and a great depth of commitment by our church. Our members have been so involved in the life of Delaware throughout its history, and have sought to serve its communities in significant ways. One of the ways they've done that is to found and build institutions and schools."

And one of those schools is, of course, St. Andrew's, which Bishop Wright credits with a kind marshalling or gathering role within Delaware. "St. Andrew's was founded as an act of outreach and love for the state and its communities and families," he says. "First, the School serves young people and families with opportunity and education. This is its living, vital mission. But second, the kind of people who come here to be faculty, staff, and administration—they live in our communities, and they go out and serve in these communities, and they contribute in lots of different ways. Third, St. Andrew's is now opening its doors in other ways—for the Delaware College Scholars Program, for Special Olympics events—and these are great uses of this resource. Finally, as the world around us is changing, the care and stewardship of the land has become an important mission as well. So the School provides stewardship of this beautiful piece of land in an area that continues to rapidly develop."

If St. Andrew's gathers a flock, the Bishop is in many ways its shepherd. "I come here to be a part of the shepherding of the life and the mission of the School," he says. "I do what I can to encourage it, to strengthen it, and to help guide it. I do that partly through the important work of being a Trustee, but a lot of that work is the ministry of participating: being present on campus, being known, making friends."

The "ministry of participating" might be the perfect name for a memoir of Bishop Wright's tenure, during which the work of institution-building has continued. Over the past 18 years, he has been involved in the founding of St. Anne's Episcopal School in Middletown; Primeros Pasos, an early childhood learning center in Georgetown that provides low-cost childcare to local residents, many of whom are Hispanic immigrants working in local poultry plants; and The Way Home, a prisoner-release ministry also based in Georgetown. "We're in a diverse America, and there were Episcopal churches here before this was America." he points out. "So it's always been our stance to do what we can through these institutions we support, and through the churches themselves, to work together with our communities. In my years of serving as Bishop, every time that we've had a challenge or a need or an opportunity, I've seen people of goodwill, of generosity, of good spirit come together and make something good happen. When you do that patient thoughtful work, the need is met."

"My attitude is that all times are interesting, and all times are challenging," he continues. "What's important is what can we bring to today? What can we do that speaks to today with with integrity, with authenticity, relevance, with humility, and maybe with a sense of humor—or just with joy?

The same spirit of cooperation infuses his understanding of how the Episcopal church can navigate a shifting social and secular landscape: "I've been blessed with a confident and hopeful faith, but that is infused and colored by a sense of love and respect for other people. As I've personally navigated some of the more challenging or controversial issues of my day, my approach has always been to do what I believe is right, and to recognize that there are other people of good will who may see something very differently than I do. I always try to respect that and look for ways that we can come together to do something good, even though we may disagree about a particular thing."

"This is very much at the heart and spirit of the Episcopal church," he adds. "Our approach has been that we have a very important role and mission to fulfill, but there are others who are approaching similar missions in different ways that we do, and that's okay. So how are we going to hold hands? How are we going to work together?"

In Bishop Wright's view, St. Andrew's is both an exemplar of the Episcopal spirit in action, and the ideal setting in which to explore diverse worldviews and approaches to faith. "St. Andrew's has always opened its doors—that was part of the genius of the founding of this School," he says. "It's always had this wide embrace of people from different backgrounds, walks of life, beliefs, and as the mission of the School has grown, that embrace is now world-wide. I've seen that happen in the years I've been here, and I'm so proud of that. I just think it's a wonderful example and model of what a contemporary Episcopal school could be and should be."

"Inevitably, that's going to enrich the conversation this all means," he continues, gesturing with his hands to indicate the entire School, or perhaps the entire universe. "It's a good thing. Where there can be the quality of community that exists here, where there can be a good and safe place to talk about values, morals, life—what a great way to grow up."

As he looks back on the many Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings—and countless days in between—spent at St. Andrew's, Bishop Wright professes his Sainthood: "I told Tad the other day: I don't have the diploma, but I am truly a graduate of St. Andrew's. Part of my growing and being formed by my work as Bishop has come through my association with St. Andrew's. I have real and genuine pride for the way the School fulfills its mission of teaching and learning. I have served with a generation of students, faculty, Trustees, leadership—all these great people who really generously give of themselves for the School. We've had times of great celebration together, and we've had times of sadness and challenge together."

"It has been an honor and a joy," he concludes. "All that I've received from being a part of it, is far more than I've given."

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