The Rev. Susan Russell, a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, said she doesn’t remember feeling anxious the Tuesday late last month when she sat at the front of a packed lecture hall in Nottingham, England, to explain herself to the spiritual leader of her faith.
“There was nothing to cram for at the last minute,” she said of the defense she gave to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Anglican Consultative Council about the U.S. church’s controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians. “The idea was just that we had an opportunity to tell our stories and put a face on the issue.”
And for a few hours that day, Russell, the only gay member of the seven-person American delegation called before the influential council, personified the effort for broader inclusion of homosexuals in the 77-million-member global Anglican Communion, to which the Episcopal Church in the U.S. belongs.
Nearly two years after Episcopalians chose an openly gay man to be bishop of New Hampshire, Anglicans find themselves on the cusp of schism, with conservative churches of African and Asia particularly upset by what they see as violations of biblical doctrine in American and Canadian liberal stances.
“We are convinced that sexual orientation itself is morally neutral -- that what matters to God is not our sexual orientation but our theological orientation,” Russell said before hundreds of council members, reporters and visitors.
A spokesman for Williams said it was the largest group in recent memory to attend a meeting of the council, which is the representative body of bishops, priests and laypeople that meets every three years to set policy for the Anglican church.
Back in her office in Pasadena, Russell, 51, described speaking before the council as an honor. She also discussed how she emerged from an “extraordinarily normal” childhood and a quiet life as a housewife to become one of the foremost voices in a struggle to change the church.
Within several years of graduating from UC Santa Barbara, where she studied political science and history, the Eagle Rock native married and settled with her husband, Tony, in Ventura. She was a homemaker who worked part time as a secretary at her parish and cared for her two young sons, now 23 and 18.
“There’s a part of me that still thinks of myself as a soccer mom from Ventura County,” she said.
In her mid-30s, Russell began searching for her next step. She thought of a higher degree in law or education, but they didn’t seem to fit.
“I couldn’t imagine myself going every day to work at a company or in a courtroom,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine my life outside of the church.”
Russell decided to become a priest. She enrolled at the Claremont School of Theology in 1993.
But delving into her past, she said, forced her to confront questions about her sexuality. She had never had much interest in dating in high school. Her closest friendships had always been with women. Her marriage, she said, “was never awful, but it never quite worked.”
At one prayer service, she said, she had a breakthrough. “I heard in my head the voice of God,” Russell recalled, “saying ‘This is how I made you.’ ”
She separated from her husband in 1997, and they divorced two years later. She was ordained in January 1998.
Russell now heads Claiming the Blessing and Integrity USA, two groups that advocate more inclusion of gays and lesbians within the church. For the last two years, she has been in a relationship with her partner, Louise Brooks, a writer who also is active in church and gay causes.
The church ordained the first openly lesbian priest in 1977, and in 1994 revised canon law to say no one could be denied ordination based on sexual orientation. All Saints, where Russell became associate pastor for parish life in 2002, has blessed same-sex unions since 1991, she said.
But more orthodox elements -- inside and outside the country -- continue their vehement objections. The debate heated up in 2003 when the U.S. church confirmed the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, who is gay, as New Hampshire’s bishop.
A year later, three Southern California parishes -- St. David’s Episcopal Church in North Hollywood, All Saints’ in Long Beach and St. James in Newport Beach -- seceded from the national church and affiliated themselves with an Anglican diocese in Uganda, saying the U.S. church had strayed from biblical teachings condemning homosexuality.
On June 21, Russell was a member of the U.S. delegation -- led by presiding bishop the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold -- called to Nottingham to explain the theological reasoning for confirming Robinson and blessing same-sex unions.
“Those of us ... who advocate for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people into all orders of ministry and for equity between same-gender partnerships and heterosexual marriage do so out of our deep conviction that these actions are our response to the Gospel as we receive it,” she told the council.
The reaction from critics was ardent.
The U.S. representatives “made no attempt to repent,” Cynthia Brust, director of communications for the American Anglican Council, said later. The council is a coalition of American churches -- some of which remain with the Episcopal Church, others of which have broken away -- that favor an orthodox interpretation of Scripture and reject homosexuality. “They could not justify what they did.... They said, ‘This is what we’ve done. We want you to bless it.’
“We find this very disturbing,” added Brust, who was at the Nottingham meeting. “It threatens to tear apart the fabric of the Anglican Communion.”
The reaction of the council to the U.S. presentation was reserved, with some polite applause, Russell remembered.
Canon James Rosenthal, a spokesman for the Anglican Communion, said in a telephone interview from Britain that council members “listened intently” to Russell’s comments.
“She made her presentation in a warm, open and inviting way, and I think that was greatly appreciated” by the council. “It was not only amicable but it was welcomed that this topic, through the actions of people like Susan, was being discussed in a church setting. Some people have waited a long time for this to happen,” he said.
Though conservatives sought to have the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada fully suspended from all activities on the governing council, the group voted in Nottingham to ban the North Americans just from its standing and central finance committees.
The Anglican council also voted to initiate a “listening process” in which it resolved to “monitor the work done by the church on the subject of human sexuality,” gather anecdotes on the experiences of homosexuals, and study the information “in the light of Scripture, tradition and reason.” Russell said that resolution was a big victory.
She likened the Anglican Communion to a far-flung family with divergent opinions.
“We do fight and argue, but it’s what binds us together that’s so much larger,” she said. “The whole Communion may not agree, but they’ve agreed to listen.”