Lesbian bishop-elect finds support as well as controversy

Md. canon is 1st openly homosexual female to be named Episcopal bishop

  • The Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool has been canon, or adviser, to the Episcopal bishops of Maryland for the past eight years.
The Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool has been canon, or adviser,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
December 09, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | matthew.brown@baltsun.com

The humbling thing, for the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool, has been the e-mail.

The election over the weekend of the Annapolis priest to be the first openly lesbian bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion drew a stern rebuke from the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the 70 million-member church. Struggling to hold together a denomination divided over homosexuality, Archbishop Rowan D. Williams warned that Glasspool's confirmation could jeopardize relations in a church already in turmoil after the consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003.

But in an interview Tuesday, Glasspool focused on the hundreds of e-mail messages she has received since her election Saturday to be bishop suffragan in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

There was the missive from the gay teenager in Auckland, New Zealand, telling her how proud he was of their church. The congratulations from the married couple from the conservative Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. The appreciation from a lesbian Roman Catholic couple in England.

"I'm conscious of the symbolic nature of my election and hoped-for consecration, and it's very humbling," said Glasspool, 55, in her office at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, where for the past eight years she has served as canon - or adviser - to the bishops.

"It's also very exciting," she continued. "I'm not ignorant of some people who are fearful that this will mean a real change in our relationship in the Anglican Communion. I'm more hopeful than fearful."

The native New Yorker, who served in parishes in Philadelphia and Boston before coming to Maryland in 1992 to become rector of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, has been in a committed relationship with her partner, Becki Sander, for more than two decades.

Pending the consent of the bishops and standing committees of the 108 other Episcopal dioceses in the United States - typically, a formality - she is to be consecrated in Los Angeles in May. That would make her only the second openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion and the first since the consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in 2003 brought a decades-long divide over homosexuality in the church into the open.

Questions of whether homosexuality is sinful and what roles, if any, practicing homosexuals may assume in the church, are roiling many Christian denominations.

Williams has attempted to tread lightly on the issue. But his statement on Sunday was unusually direct: "The election of Mary Glasspool," he said, "raises very serious concerns not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole."

Williams reminded the bishops that they had agreed that "a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold," and warned that the decision to confirm or reject Glasspool would have "very important implications."

Glasspool declined to comment on the statement by Williams, saying she would leave inter-provincial relations to Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. But she did have a message to "my more conservative sisters and brothers:"

"I need you and the church needs you and you are part of this wonderful family that we hold dear," Glasspool said. "Know that what is most important is that we continue to come together around the table on Sunday in celebration of the Eucharist."

The Episcopal Church, the U.S. province of Anglicanism, has already distanced itself from the Communion. In July, the Episcopal General Convention voted to declare homosexuals eligible for any ordained ministry in the church and began writing prayers to bless gay unions.

Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton of Maryland declared the day of Glasspool's election "a great day in the life of the Episcopal Church." Bishop J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, whom Glasspool would assist as bishop suffragan, warned diocesan leaders against denying consent "out of fear of the reaction elsewhere in the Anglican Communion."

David C. Steinmetz, a professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School, says relations may now be strained to a breaking point.

"For the first time, it seems very possible to me that the Episcopal Church may lose its place in the Anglican Communion not against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury but with his full consent," he said. "What is not clear to me is whether the effective governing majority of the Episcopal Church even cares."

Support for Glasspool among Episcopalians is not universal. The Diocese of South Carolina has begun to withdraw from some national church councils over policy on homosexuality. The Rev. Dr. Kendall S. Harmon, canon theologian of the diocese, said Glasspool's confirmation, which he considers "a foregone conclusion," is "just going to increase the challenges" for church conservatives.

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