A blip on the sonar screen of history occurred this week: the synchronous moment when secular liberals stood firm that Elena Kagan’s sexuality was nobody’s business while Episcopalian liberals ensured that the sexual orientation and gender of Mary Glasspool, newly-ordained Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Los Angeles was everybody’s business.
Historians of the United States Supreme Court have observed that the primary qualification for the life-long appointment is “greatness”: hard to define with specifics, but an important quality in the consideration process.
What is the primary qualification for a competent bishop? It would be disrespectful to say that gender or sexual orientation ride in the front seat. Then why is this the lead in every TEC news story or grassroots Facebook post about Mary Glasspool?
I maintain that a significant path for Christians parallels the one followed by of John the Baptist: point the way to the Christ. Therefore, the role of a bishop in The Episcopal Church is to live into the specifics of episcopacy, rejecting entitlement, honoring tradition and culture yet responding to it in a vibrant, meaningful way. Thus a good bishop defines the leadership of a servant in order to hand it off to the next person elected. The cycle continues. Rather than “greatness” as the singular quality for a bishop, a bishop’s duty evolves from prayerful responsive action to time and place. Never from grand gestures.
In the Episcopal Church – as in the case of Elena Kagan – sexuality and gender ought to be nobody’s business. Since 2003, the argument breaking up the church has been over an adverb: Openly.
Note to Episcopalian liberal idealogs – that teeny tiny little circle in the jumbo Venn diagram of liberals in the US -you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have sexual orientation both private and an important raison d’etre for the future of the church. It is not responsive, prayerful, nor appropriate to have Katharine Jefferts-Schori show up on a Native American reservation to discuss the ordination of homosexuals while omitting economic justice and suicide issues that scar the community daily.
In 2008, the bishops of The Episcopal Church used tithes of the faithful to go to the Lambeth conference pursuing the noble cause of relationship in the Anglican Communion. There, they heard bishops from countries where the issue of homosexuality was dealt with barbarically. They heard of Anglicans around the world who were harassed and beaten because they were part of a greater family that allowed homosexuals to be ordained. They also heard from bishops who weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed… but I’m sure that went both ways.
There’s an interesting phenomenon in the House of Bishops – the ones who talk the most tend to be the ones who think the least.
In July 2008, the elected leadership of The Episcopal Church was faced with a quandary. On one side of the scale were those who suffered physical pain, complete social shunning in small villages, and possibly death because th Americans had consecrated an openly gay man. It did not help that the House of Bishops voted “yea” on Gene Robinson a few months after America illegally invaded a sovereign nation. On the other side, openly homosexual men and women were denied their life’s true call. Openly gay men and women who felt that their one true path in life was to be ordained would be forced to live in the closet with all the dreadful soul-killing, potentially life threatening and health damaging, implications.
The TEC bishops looked their brother bishops in the eye during the Indaba (Bible study and prayer) groups, promising there would be a respite from ordaining openly homosexual clergy until the rest of the world could understand to the point of compassion.
It makes me uncomfortable, leaving entrenched, secure notions; but as a liberal who strives not to be an ideolog, there are a few grains that balance the scale towards honoring the promise made at Lambeth.
Grain one: beatings, shunning in community in a developing nation without the mobility- as flawed as it can be – of the United States.
Grain two: Promises are broken, integrity eroded. The bishops vowed to maintain the unity of the Church when they were consecrated. You can’t get it both ways – can’t promise to hold the church together, enjoy all the entitlements some episcopacies offer and do whatever you want in your diocese. They took diocesan funds to attend a conference focused on international relationships. They shook hands – no, they prayed – on a promise. Then they broke it.
Grain three: Confusing rights with rites. We are not dealing with suicidal gay teens, we are not dealing with civil rights: There is no right that everyone should be ordained in the church. In fact, there are so many collars and mitres and people confusing collars and mitres with spiritual journey and holiness that it’s like 8 anthropologists tracking one indigenous person smashing yucca root.
We are dealing with adult men and women who think they have a call to be clergy. Anyone exposed to the discernment process knows that this is more often than not a battle of wills at worst, or acknowledgement of a moment of grace at best. There’s still a lot of red tape, tic marks in plus columns for dioceses and parishes, and shuttling people into archaic institutions with serious budget problems hoping tuition income will prop them up for the next program year. Somewhere, a human being gets on the seminary conveyor belt and pops out the other side ordained. (But not trained for the 21st century!) Confusing call to be a priest or deacon with some God-paved tarmac highway is as disingenuous as saying the U.S. Constitution was written by the finger of God. There are plenty of people called to do the work of the Lord not wearing collars.
Having the benefit of not having to validate my church salary or my seminary degree, I recognize the quandary. Here’s my Monday morning quarterback solution: solve it locally. It’s a perception issue. Bishops, get real. Dioceses are locally based for a reason, the exception are those that are relationally based. You listened to the pain of bishops caring for their local flocks and at that moment in time made a promise. You – like everyone else in the church – are working on the John the Baptist level. Employ some wisdom.
A bishop in the United States is elected – there is nothing sacred about the process. It can have all the nuances and hard-nosed realities of Tammany Hall politics. Sometimes the most popular person wins. Or the person with the team that works the room the hardest. Or one memorable speech – maybe a nifty one about whales!
The election process is clarified and becomes healthier, when a bishop has defined the role by acting in the moment that history has offered. If a bishop has taken diocesan funds to participate in Lambeth, that bishop has been centered in a historical moment, charged by the men and women he or she serves.
When anyone makes a vow to another Christian in another land, that promise that needs to be honored.
God is stronger than any of this. In my circle of gay and lesbian friends, I don’t know of anyone with an opinion about Gene “is my mike working?” Robinson. But my friends and I are in contact constantly about legislation that will change civil rights the U.S. We pass around petitions, call our representatives, standing firm together. When the world sees that Massachusetts, a state with legal same-sex marriage, does not get plagues or earthquakes; when partners are allowed to visit each other in hospitals and the sun still shines, the dominos of legal prejudice will continue to fall.
The church is not a political party and if it were it would be hard-pressed to get a mayoral campaign rolling.
Mary Glasspool may be the perfect person to lead the Diocese of Los Angeles in the next decade or so. I hope the bishop that preceded her had wisdom enough to define the assignment, not getting distracted with high-profile projects or making promises he had no intention of keeping. But as long as the rhetoric is all about her gender and sexual orientation, it will take a long time to determine whether the best candidate was elected.