The Diocese of Los Angeles elected a second Suffragan Bishop yesterday, the Reverend Canon Mary Glasspool of Maryland. It would be largely unremarkable but for the fact that she is an open and partnered lesbian, and so the event of her election is the next large domino to fall in a chain reaction that was set in motion nearly seven years ago with the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire.
I have to say at the outset that Mary Glasspool is a gracious and competent woman and I have no reason to doubt that she has substantial gifts for ministry. I got to know her just a bit at General Convention in 2006, when she served as a legislative aide to Special Committee 26 (Inter-Anglican Relations), and she and I shared a brief reminiscence of those heady days just this past July in Anaheim. So there truly is "nothing personal" in anything that follows.
A really telescoped selective history: In 2006, General Convention said, in effect, "Oops, we goofed. We made Gene Robinson a bishop without taking fully into account the effect our action would have on the rest of the Anglican Communion. Our bad. Sorry." (A160). We also said, in effect,"We're going to hold off on doing it again. For a while, at any rate." (B033) Then, in 2009, we said, "Hey, let's get real. We all know that God has called partnered LGBT people to the episcopate before, and will probably do it again. When that happens, we're going to be ready." (D025)
Now, before we formally debated D025, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the convention, in effect, "I really hope you don't do this. In fact, I'm asking nicely: Please don't do this." After we went and did it anyway, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies (aka the Co-Primates) fired a letter off to Dr Williams (who had since returned to Lambeth Palace) earnestly denying that D025 actually changed anything, that it was manifestly not an abrogation of B033. "The moratorium won't be lifted until we actually do something that lifts it," they said (once again, in effect).
Well, "something" has now been done. At least by the clergy and lay delegates of the Diocese of Los Angeles (the diocese in which, for the record, I was confirmed in 1975). Before the moratorium of B033 can be said to have been formally lifted, Canon Glasspool must actually be consecrated, and before that can happen, a majority of the Standing Committees and a majority of the bishops-with-jurisdiction must consent to the election.
It was with these contingencies in mind that Rowan Williams issued a statement only some eleven hours after the election. It is uncharacteristically brief and to the point:
The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.
The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. That decision will have very important implications.
The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged 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.
The nub of the matter is this, I believe: The Archbishop is asking--one might even say "pleading with," given his proclivity for British diplomatic understatement--those bodies and individuals with a role in the consent process to withhold such consent, for the greater good of the unity and vitality of the rest of the Anglican Communion.
As one might imagine, Dr Williams has already been excoriated by both the left and the right. The left considers him a quisling, a moral coward, lacking the courage of his convictions, kowtowing to the forces of bigotry and fundamentalism of the worst sort. The right considers him a toothless dog who barks at all the right times (though someone timidly, so as to raise the suspicion that he's not really doing so with conviction), but is incapable of chomping down on an intruder's leg. Lots of talk, but no follow-through.
Sadly, this is a script--both Rowan's statement and the responses to it--that could have been written accurately before the events actually transpired. There is nothing here that is new or surprising. (Even the election itself was a virtual foregone conclusion; if not Mary Glasspool, it would have been somebody else later.) This is why it has all the qualities of few more frames in the slow-motion train wreck that is the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. One may criticize the Archbishop's words and deeds--as indeed many are; Rowan is taking hits from both directions--but he certainly cannot be faulted for lack of consistency. The conservatives who complain, "Great bark, but we'd like to see some actual biting take place" are quite correct in not expecting their worthy opponents to be displaying Canterburian toothmarks any time soon. From Day One it has been Rowan's position that, if any "discipline" is going to take place, it will be exercised by the organic processes of the whole communion, and not by the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. At present, those organic forces are following a trajectory that will lead to an Anglican Covenant. That is the mechanism by which TEC will suffer any consequences for her recalcitrant behavior. Some may argue that the Covenant will end up as toothless as the Archbishop, and they may well be correct. But for the time being, the Covenant is the next vessel with which the Episcopal Church is on a collision course. If the election of Mary Glasspool hastens that collision, perhaps it is an occasion for gratitude, even among those whose default inclination is to be dismayed by it. We can't start picking up the pieces until the debris stops flying.