Anglican angst

Those Angeleno Anglicans are at it again.

For decades, the Episcopal Church in Los Angeles has been home to some of the most liberal pulpits and congregations in town -- and in the worldwide Anglican Communion. A few years back, Pasadena’s venerable All Saints Church was investigated by President George W. Bush’s Internal Revenue Service after its former rector delivered a vehement antiwar sermon shortly before the 2004 election. Local Episcopal priests have marched for striking janitors and helped organize the poor.

So it should have come as no great surprise when the L.A. diocesan convention recently elected as its new assistant bishop the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool -- the senior assistant to the bishops of the Maryland diocese, the daughter of an Episcopal priest, and an open lesbian. Her ordination must now be confirmed by the U.S. bishops, who have already been told in no uncertain terms by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself to back off.

“The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect,” wrote Archbishop Rowan Williams, “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 archbishop can hardly be blamed if he sometimes shudders at the thought of pesky American progressives. In 2003, the U.S. bishops ordained a gay bishop for their New Hampshire diocese. In 2006, they elevated the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori to the post of presiding U.S. bishop, the first woman to head a national branch of Anglicanism -- and not just a woman but a woman who allowed the blessing of same-sex couples within her diocese.

Within months of Schori’s elevation, a number of more traditionalist Episcopal dioceses around the nation announced that they were leaving the U.S. church and affiliating with more conservative dioceses -- in some cases, with African dioceses where the thought of a woman priest, let alone a gay or lesbian bishop, had yet to cross many minds.

The conservative Anglicans, chiefly in Latin America and Africa, vastly outnumber the American Episcopalians -- there are more than 80 million members of the worldwide Anglican Church, while the American Episcopal Church is home to about 2 million members, including the secessionists. And because the conservative wing has made it clear that there’s no place for gay bishops and the like in its vision of Anglicanism, a formal schism is at least a possibility.

Even as the archbishop gazes in dismay at the Episco-libs to his left, a meddlesome pope has now popped up on his right. Without any advance notice to his Anglican brother, Pope Benedict XVI recently announced that the Roman Catholic Church would take to its bosom any Anglican clergy or congregations that want to affiliate with a reliably orthodox church in which the pope’s word is law. The congregations could keep their liturgy; the priests (the male priests, that is), their wives.


What the archbishop is really up against is the relativism, the historic particularism, of religion itself. It is sheer folly to expect traditionalist African Anglicans and progressive Pasadena Episcopalians to adhere to the same norms of gender equality, absent either a stunning cross-cultural agreement or a top-down Roman Catholic-style structure. Conservative Episcopalians, who decry the increasing egalitarianism of the American church, want traditionalist transnational norms in every Anglican diocese.

But a common complaint of American and European conservatives against Muslims is that Islam itself is a monolithic faith unsuitable for the pluralistic West. We don’t have to accept this characterization of Islam to recognize that it is close to what Anglican traditionalists are advocating for their own church.

Besides, if ever a church were rooted less in timeless truths than in historic particularities, it is Anglicanism, and the Episcopal wing of Anglicanism most of all. Anglicanism began, after all, because the pope would not sanctify Henry VIII’s divorce, and Henry used the opportunity to seize the church and all its properties. Episcopalianism began when the leaders of the American Revolution (two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were active or, like George Washington, nominal Anglicans) realized they could hardly stay religiously affiliated with a church headed by the very king against whom they were rebelling secularly.

Given the schismatic and distinctly secular nature of Anglicanism’s and Episcopalianism’s origins, the pending ordination of L.A.'s lesbian bishop seems well within the church tradition. A faith rooted in the denial of papal authority and kingly authority, a faith that in the United States has increasingly championed egalitarian principles, should hardly be cowed by contingent bigotries masquerading as universal truths.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.