The Maryland priest at the center of a seismic tumult in the worldwide international Anglican Communion is slim and stands just over 5 feet, wears her gray hair cut short and greets visitors with a strong two-handed grasp. She's known to former parishioners and colleagues for emotional and insightful sermons, administrative skill, high energy — and for occasionally wearing a giant foam wedge of cheese on her head to honor her favorite NFL team.
The Rev. Canon Mary Douglas Glasspool, due to be consecrated today as bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is known to the rest of the world by a phrase that would fit on a bumper sticker: "first openly lesbian bishop."
If the label seems handy, Glasspool said she hopes it soon outlives its usefulness.
"People who know me, the label will disappear. All I'm asking is an opportunity to get to know me," Glasspool, 56, said recently in an interview at the Baltimore headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. As canon to the bishops for the past nine years, she has served there as principal adviser to the leaders of the church.
She'll have more than enough meeting and greeting to do as she begins shuttling in the next few weeks between her home in Annapolis and Los Angeles, where she assumes her new post July 1. She'll work as bishop suffragan, or assistant, to Bishop J. Jon Bruno in a multilingual diocese of some 70,000 members in six counties, known for some of the most progressive parishes in the Episcopal Church.
"The Diocese of Los Angeles is tremendously exciting to me," said Glasspool, who spoke of the "very creative ways in which the church there does its mission and ministry," and the fact that on any given Sunday across the diocese, the liturgy is being celebrated in some 40 languages.
Glasspool's election by the Diocese of Los Angeles in December and her confirmation by the rest of the Episcopal Church in March have further strained relations with the Anglican Communion, which were already were complicated by the consecration in 2003 of The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay bishop and the election in 2006 of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first woman to head a national branch of Anglicanism.
After Glasspool's election, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has labored to prevent a schism in the word's third-largest Christian denomination, issued an unusually direct statement, warning that the decision raised "very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole."
Some say the split is already happening. The Episcopal Church has seen four dioceses and several parishes leave since Robinson's consecration; several have sought recognition as the separate Anglican Church in North America.
Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton of Maryland said the communion is in the midst of a fight, and "it's a fight worth having. … Whenever the church has tried to limit leadership based on a person's biology, in most cases they have had to admit that was a mistake."
Sutton, who in 2008 became the first African-American to lead the Diocese of Maryland, offers himself as an example. As recently as 50 years ago, Sutton said, he probably would not have been welcome to worship in most of the parishes he now oversees.
Over time, Sutton said, Glasspool's significance as a symbol of division will diminish, and she'll be seen for her qualities as a bishop.
Glasspool said she finds talk of formal schism odd, considering the history and structure of the Anglican Communion.
"The Anglican Communion has never been anything other than a loosely knit federation of churches," said Glasspool. "The kind of unity we may be seeking may be a hierarchical central kind of unity, but that's a new thing for the Anglican Communion ... You notice it's not the Anglican Church; it's the Anglican Communion."
That is, a worldwide circle of an estimated 70 million to 80 million, of which the Episcopal Church in the United States is but one of 38 branches, with some 2 million members. A creature of the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church of the United States now rattles the whole communion in matters of sexuality, although Glasspool argues that's not the issue.
"It has to do not with issues of sexuality but of power and authority," said Glasspool. "You don't hear an outcry about ordaining lesbians and gay people. But once they attain more authority and leadership there's an outcry. There have been gay and lesbian people throughout history, and there have been gay and lesbian people in the church throughout history."
Although perhaps not, as the label goes, "openly."
Glasspool made her sexuality clear in her presentation to the Diocese of Los Angeles, saying she had been in a committed relationship since 1988 with Becki Sander, a social worker whom she met in Massachusetts.