The Episcopal Church in the US has elected its first openly lesbian woman to serve as a bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles, instantly sparking fresh tumult in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned that the Church would now face "very serious questions" over the decision, which will see Canon Mary Glasspool, 55, elevated to serve as an assistant bishop. Canon Glasspool, who has openly been in a relationship with her female partner, Becki Sander, for 21 years, was chosen at the Church's annual convention in Los Angeles.
"I am very excited about the future of the whole Episcopal Church, and I see the Diocese of Los Angeles leading the way into that future," the new bishop said after the votes were counted. She added: "Any group of people who have been oppressed because of any one, isolated aspect of their persons yearns for justice and equal rights."
On Friday, the Church also chose another woman, Canon Diane Jardine Bruce, 53, to serve as bishop. It is the first time in the 114 years of the Los Angeles diocese that women have been elected as bishops. But it was the selection of the Rev Glasspool, the daughter of a pastor and a native of Staten Island, New York, that gripped the convention and which is already reawakening some of the bitterness that followed the election six years ago of Gene Robinson, who is also gay, as a bishop in New Hampshire.
While many in the American Episcopalian Church, which belongs to the wider Anglican Church and therefore has direct links to Canterbury, believe they are simply leading the way to waking the Communion up to the presence of gays and lesbians in their midst, the issue remains deeply divisive.
After the election of Bishop Robinson, a small number of conservative congregations in America broke away. The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to resist the ordination of gay and lesbian church members and had asked the Episcopalians in the US to respect a moratorium on gay ordinations. Yesterday, noting that the decision had still to be confirmed by a majority of US Episcopal Church heads, he reminded American church leaders that they had "collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary".
He has also alluded to the possibility of a two-tier worldwide church if the US branch demurs.
"I can't imagine anything that would be more abhorrent to Jesus than a two-tier church," Bishop Robinson recently said, rebuking Dr Williams. "Either we are children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, or we aren't. There are not preferred children and second-class children. There are just children of God."
News of the elevation of Canon Glasspool brought expressions of dismay from conservative leaders of the Church of England. "I feel deeply ashamed that this is happening in the Anglican Church," declared the Rev Rod Thomas, a member of the Synod and leader of the conservative evangelical group Reform. "I think a schism is absolutely inevitable."
But Giles Fraser, a liberal voice in the Church and Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, celebrated the news. "This is another nail in the coffin of Christian homophobia," he said.
The life of Mary Glasspool
*Canon Glasspool, 55, comes from Staten Island, New York. Her father was an Episcopal priest. She was ordained in 1982 in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and has been a canon in the Diocese of Maryland for eight years.
*She realised she was gay in the 1970s at college. "Did God hate me?" she asked.
*Her "life partner" Becki Sander, who she has been with for 21 years, has a doctorate in social work and demonstrates a "loving service and ministry", according to the Bishop of Los Angeles, J Jon Bruno.