Election of New Lesbian Bishop Reveals Tensions in Anglican World

Rev. Mary D. Glasspool doesn’t see herself as a “one-issue person.” But history may not agree with her self-assessment. At least not yet.

On Saturday, as the world knows by now, Glasspool, 55, became only the second openly gay bishop in the Anglican world after New Hampshire’s V. Gene Robinson. Chosen as their suffragan (similar to assistant) bishop by the diocese of Los Angeles, Glasspool’s election must be consented to by the wider Episcopal Church leadership before she is consecrated on May 15, 2010.

While her long résumé as a beloved parish priest and skilled church administrator who has worked both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line is impressive, it’s Glasspool’s lesbianism that made her an international news item. Conservative Episcopalians and Anglicans, who oppose the ordination of women and homosexuals, wasted no time in denouncing Glasspool’s election. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said her election “raises serious questions” for the Anglican Communion and urged the Episcopalian bishops not to seat her for the sake of unity.

Yet for all the uproar, there’s a growing sense of inevitability about the “all-inclusive” wing of the Episcopal Church that elected Glasspool. As the Guardian wrote recently, the fact that the Anglican Communion is headed for a schism is “bleeding obvious.”

“I think there is already a split,” Rev. Carol Anderson, rector of All Saints Church in Beverly Hills, and one of the first women to be ordained into the Episcopal priesthood, told me. “The level of faithfulness in the gospel is the same but there are different worldviews.”

Nowhere are the fault lines so stark as regarding Uganda, which is on the verge of passing a draconian anti-gay law that would make homosexuality punishable by imprisonment and even death. In a move that alienated many, Rowan Williams rushed to scold Episcopalians over Glasspool but only issued an anemic, and tardy, response on Uganda, where the Anglican Church is very influential.

Carol Anderson had “high hopes” for Williams, but believes “he’s bent over backwards to listen to only one segment of the Anglican Communion.”

“Electing a woman bishop who happens to be a lesbian is not the same kind of affront to the gospel as killing somebody. I’m sorry, but they just don’t measure up,” Anderson said. “I think he’s lost his way.”

Regarding Uganda, Glasspool believes people will comprehend the difference between her election in the diocese of Los Angeles and “laws that threaten and oppress an entire group of people, homosexuals, as punishment for just being who you are.” The Episcopal Church is “trying to move beyond all that,” she said. “We welcome everyone regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, class. This is about being a child of God.”

Anderson has seen a great deal of change in the church since she was ordained in 1977. When she took over as rector of All Saints in 1988, for example, her congregation “was not even willing to hear a conversation about AIDS.” Now the congregation is about one third gay and lesbian, and the profile for her replacement (Anderson is retiring at the first of the year) is anyone, “male or female, black or white, gay or lesbian or straight, it doesn’t matter.”

So far, Glasspool reports that 99 percent of the emails she’s received from around the world have been “positive and joyful.” She’s gotten well wishes from everyone from a lesbian Roman Catholic couple in England to a straight couple from the generally conservative diocese of Dallas. And unlike Gene Robinson and Carol Anderson, who both received death threats for their pioneering roles, Glasspool has not been so targeted—yet. When I asked her about any fears, she was hopeful but circumspect that since Gene Robinson was consecrated in 2003 “we have a healthier church and society” so that she “wouldn’t have to deal with wearing a bulletproof vest” as Robinson has.

“Yeah, I worry for her,” Anderson told me. “Any time you step out and do something like this it arouses anger and hatred. But I think she’s prepared.”

No doubt both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican world as a whole are in for many, many more years of anguish over gay clergy and other issues currently dividing the church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, especially, has positioned himself to be an object of criticism from all sides, satisfying neither the all-inclusive wing nor the so-called “traditionalists” with his mealy-mouthed call, in response to Glasspool’s election, for a “period of gracious restraint” in order not to violate the “bonds of mutual affection.”

For their part, the traditionalists and conservatives gathered at events such as last year’s revolt against Lambeth, the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON), continue to bolt from Canterbury as fast as they can; the diocese of Los Angeles, meanwhile, is thrilled to welcome not just openly gay Glasspool, but another female assistant bishop, Diane Jardine Bruce, into its fold.

For all of the brouhaha surrounding Glasspool, Carol Anderson states simply that “It wasn’t an issue vote, it was a competency vote.” People voted for “her character, her faithfulness, and her experience.” And that’s just the point. After more than three decades of “writing theology and doing biblical studies on issues of human sexuality,” as Glasspool described the process inside the Episcopal Church, her election is, in fact, business as usual.

To many observers who don’t care about the Anglican Church, or any church for that matter, all the prattle about the impending, or de facto, “split” in the Anglican Communion may be of little interest. But Anderson insists that “it’s a microcosm of the larger issues in society” and that “it’s a dialectic—as the church changes, the society will change.” She sees inclusiveness attracting new worshippers, which in turn generates more interest in faith in general.

But of course inclusiveness, especially of women and gay clergy, is precisely what may drive some “traditional” Anglicans to take up Pope Benedict’s recent offer to move their congregations into the Roman Catholic Church.

“He’s trying to do a pastoral thing for Anglicans who want to become purists, or whatever he wants to call it,” Anderson said. ”Well, I want to take him at his word.” Why not “open the door” and welcome “Roman Catholics into the Episcopal Church because they don’t want to be part of a narrow interpretation of what it means to be Christian.”

“If it’s time to shift sides of the aisles,” she said with a chuckle, “let it be a two-way street.”

As for Glasspool, Anderson thinks that based on her own experience of being one of the first ordained women priests, “people need to see that Mary is not an issue person, she’s a person person.”

They just have to meet her.

“They’ll say, my goodness, she just wants to minister to us and to the world and that’s fine with us. And the fine points of biblical interpretation and church order and whatever begin to pass away.”