Originally published on Advocate.com May 12 2010 5:00 AM ET
There have been times when Mary D. Glasspool has doubted her place in the church she’s known all her life. As she sits in her Baltimore office, which overlooks an expanse of rolling lawns and white-flowering dogwood trees, recounting one such moment brings her to tears. In 1997, Glasspool, then the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md., was spending the month of August at a rented house in Provincetown, Mass. While there, a married couple from the church who years ago had asked Glasspool to be godmother to their younger daughter paid her a surprise visit. This was not a social call. The couple had heard rumors about Glasspool’s sexual orientation, and Bible in hand, they demanded to hear it from her in person. And she shared with them that, yes, she was a lesbian.
“What they didn’t know was that I’d been in a partnered relationship at that time, for a long time, and that I was monogamous and faithful,” Glasspool says. “I don’t want to be unfair in telling this story, but I have had the experience where I’ve tried to reach out, and people just can’t deal with me. So they don’t… And I have to let that go. And it’s painful.”
Following the confrontation, Glasspool cut short her summer trip and spent the rest of the month writing a letter of resignation from her position at the small church. “I had written the letter to say to the church, ‘I am no different a person than the one you’ve known from day one. I’ve known this about myself from early on. I am willing to stay, and I believe that we could do good ministry together. But I don’t want to be the cause of division. And rather than do that, if you feel that I need to leave, I will leave.’”
Glasspool shared the painstakingly written letter with clergy members and lay leaders at St. Margaret’s. Uniformly they told her not to send it out.
“They’re now proud of me being elected bishop,” she says, laughing off those few tears as she speaks warmly of her May 15 consecration as bishop suffragan, or an assistant to a diocesan bishop with voting power in the church’s House of Bishops, for the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles (at the time of her interview with The Advocate, she was serving her last weeks as canon to the bishops of Maryland). “I think they’ve grown as a church. And I’m not saying that everyone out there is going to march in the next gay pride parade—including myself. But I think what we’re fighting for is to have our own integrity, to not have one particular aspect of our personality preclude the totality of who we are as individuals.”
Within minutes of meeting the Episcopal Church’s first openly lesbian bishop, one gets the sense that the politics of division indeed do not interest Glasspool, 56. The alto-voiced New York native has ABBA on her Prius stereo, a banner made by church youths on her office walls, a mock bishop’s hat made of construction paper on her windowsill (this a gag gift from friends after Glasspool’s election became official), and photos of her partner, Becki Sander, displayed in magnet frames on her air conditioning unit. A self-described traditionalist, whose late father was an Episcopal rector, she builds her sermons directly from Scripture. She reaches out to conservative members of the church who may believe she is hell-bound the same way she does to those militant about gay rights who may wish she were a more politically active firebrand.
Through Glasspool’s 28 years as a priest in a church that still refuses to sanctify or even formally bless her relationship or those of other gays and lesbians, she nevertheless has maintained a core sense of faith, one embodied by her favorite Bible verse (Romans 8:38-39): For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. To a nonreligious observer, Glasspool is what one would hope any member of an organized religion aspires to be: compassionate, honest, and joyful. And yet as she begins a new chapter of what by any measure has been a stellar career, Glasspool is now intractably something she never intended to be: an “issue.”
In an April statement Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, which counts the U.S. Episcopal Church among its 38 provinces, prayed for healing “in the light of confusion, brokenness, and tension within our Anglican family—brokenness and a tension that has been made still more acute by recent decisions in some of our provinces.” It’s clear what he refers to by “recent decisions.” When the Episcopal House of Bishops consented to Glasspool’s election in L.A. a month earlier, Williams called the decision “regrettable” within a matter of hours.
Appointed archbishop in 2002, Williams saw the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, as straining the precarious cohesion of the diverse, 77 million–member Anglican Communion. A full-fledged schism remains unrealized, though several conservative U.S. bishops have left the Episcopal Church with their flocks in recent years, forming a separate church and aligning themselves with Anglican communions in countries such as Nigeria and Uganda.
Williams can hardly be cast in the role of antigay crusader. As an Oxford divinity professor, he gave a 1989 lecture to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement titled “The Body’s Grace,” where he argued that sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage need not be considered sinful perversion. Gay and lesbian relationships, he asserted, were worthy of God’s love. “If we are afraid of facing the reality of same-sex love because it compels us to think through the processes of bodily desire and delight in their own right,” Williams said, “perhaps we ought to be more cautious about appealing to Scripture as legitimating only procreative heterosexuality.”
But critics have faulted Williams for what they see as the abandonment of his earlier, revelatory theological views on gays in order to appease conservative factions of a fragile communion. Thus the urgent condemnation of Glasspool’s election, in stark contrast to Williams’s slow-to-react denunciation of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which calls for the death penalty for some homosexual acts. The archbishop, who had called the mounting pressure against him “divisive” and “counterproductive” in the church’s efforts to fight the draconian bill, finally spoke out against the legislation in December. “The response of the Anglican Church in Uganda has ranged from silence to support for the goals of the legislation,” says Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. “Anglican leaders have condemned the death penalty even as they’ve endorsed the extreme homophobia that has made Uganda one of the most dangerous places in the world to be gay or lesbian.”John Shelby Spong, a liberal theologian and retired Episcopal bishop of Newark who in 1989 ordained the church’s first openly gay priest, Robert Williams, says the archbishop is “a good human being, but he’s not a leader. He wants to be loved. But he’s made it so he’s not loved by anyone. Mary is deeply qualified, and her election is nothing but a wonderful thing.” (The archbishop did not respond to requests for an interview.)
In 2004 an international group of church leaders asked for a moratorium on the consecration of any further gay or lesbian bishops, and in 2006 Episcopal leaders approved a resolution calling for exercising “restraint” on such appointments. Last year, however, Episcopal bishops voted to affirm that “any ordained ministry” is open to all who were baptized in the church. “The church decided that an openly gay bishop wasn’t an aberration,” Gene Robinson says. “I’d like to think that Mary’s election is a way of the church saying, ‘No, we didn’t make a mistake with Bishop Robinson.’ ”
Glasspool’s more subtle style suggests she may not be as visible an activist as Robinson, who is outspoken on gay rights in the church and was prominently featured in Daniel G. Karslake’s groundbreaking 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So. “I know that he receives criticism, but I know Gene as a deeply spiritual, prayerful, pastoral man,” Glasspool says. “He’s taken on this sort of burden of being the first, which has opened the door and the possibility for me that maybe I won’t have to do that. I’m very clear that I said to the people of the diocese of L.A. that if I were to be elected, my first priority is them. Maybe a part of that is going off to [an LGBT] conference once in awhile, but I need and want to be clear about my priority. It will be a balance and a tension that I’ll have to work out. I only hope that I can at least be supportive of [Robinson].”
Robinson says Glasspool already has been. At a recent convention Episcopal leaders examined a theology committee report on the blessing of same-sex relationships. Robinson spoke out against conservative bishops’ objections (like Glasspool, he also has a long-term partner). As Robinson passed Glasspool on the way back to his seat, she stood up and embraced him. “She didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything,” Robinson recalls. “But having her support is something I’ve longed for. It’s been a bit lonely these past seven years.”
“There were stirrings in my heart,” Glasspool explains of her call to ministry while she was an undergraduate student at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College in the mid 1970s. Women were not allowed to be priests when she was a child, but she came of age at a propitious time. In 1974, when Glasspool turned 20, the first 11 female Episcopal priests were ordained. And yet Glasspool’s father believed in an all-male priesthood. When she told a New York bishop about her desire to become a priest, his first words were, “What are we going to do about your father?”
Glasspool not only decided to tell her father but also came out to him in the same conversation. “I wanted him to have every opportunity to say to me, ‘I think you’d better find another church,’ ” she says. “And instead he said to me in a protective sense that my sexuality is a personal matter, and he drew a distinction between the private and the public. It wasn’t about secrecy versus transparency.”
Following her graduation from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., in 1981, Glasspool served as a priest in parishes in Philadelphia and Boston, where she met her partner, who was a graduate student in social work and theological studies at Boston University. Upon Glasspool’s appointment as rector of St. Margaret’s in Annapolis in 1992, she and Sander were not a visible couple at church. Though Glasspool says she has always been honest about who she is when asked, she also doesn’t believe she would have been named rector had the church known she was lesbian. Sander had been a member of Glasspool’s church in Boston and attended some services at St. Margaret’s but found a spiritual home of her own at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation.
The call to ministry endured, even though there were also times when Glasspool’s life felt “schizophrenic.” But she came out by inches over the years, talking with church folk on an individual basis. Some encounters were positive celebrations. Others were ambivalent “tell me something I don’t already know” or “I don’t really need to know all about your personal life” moments. And some were far worse, as in the experience of her goddaughter’s parents, who no longer speak to Glasspool.
Why is the issue of sexual identity so difficult for so many churches—Episcopal or otherwise? “I think the basic issue is gender,” Glasspool says. “And one can see this being played out in the Roman Catholic Church. The issue is the status and role of women, and the balance of the feminine and masculine in the way in which we experience and encounter God. Where we allow women to be in positions of leadership and power and authority, we have a more balanced view of the community that is the world.”
Her own elevation into a position of authority in the Episcopal Church came by surprise, Glasspool says. After serving as canon to the bishops of Maryland beginning in 2001, she was nominated in 2009 in part by a superior, Bishop Suffragan of Maryland John L. Rabb, who commends Glasspool’s masterful ability to “correlate the gospel with real-life situations.” Glasspool was nominated for one of two bishop positions in the diocese of Los Angeles. Diane Jardine Bruce, a fellow bishop suffragan, was elected a day prior to Glasspool; both will work with L.A. diocesan bishop J. Jon Bruno. Glasspool says she was honored by the nod and eager to work with new parishes in one of the church’s more progressive and culturally diverse dioceses.
When it comes to Archbishop Williams’s criticism of her election, Glasspool tries to stay above the fray. She has never met Williams, nor has she had any form of communication with him. She chooses not to address Williams’s “regrettable” statement—“You’re asking me a question that is directed at a pay grade over my head, which is to say that’s really at the level of [Episcopal Church presiding bishop] Katharine Jefferts Schori and the archbishop of Canterbury”—though she says she prays daily for Williams. “I think he’s in a very difficult and challenging position. I support him, and I will do everything I can to help the Anglican Communion do more than survive, to thrive in terms of our international relationships.”
Yet she does not sidestep other matters. Glasspool is frustrated when the church acts in contradictory ways—and angered when it acts in a cowardly manner. “When the church won’t stand up in Uganda to say that it is wrong to execute somebody for being gay, then I get angry. That’s unjust. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that.”
Nor does one need to be a theologian to see that the church still has a long way to go in affirming the lives of its gay and lesbian followers. Glasspool has tried to strike a balance and is hopeful that change will come, disagreements will fade, hearts and minds will open. “On a personal level I’ve come to understand that God has already blessed Becki and me in our relationship. And what we’re waiting for is the church to recognize that.... That’s the challenge for the more traditional churches: to find a different way of being open about the movement of God. Because God is bigger than the church.”