Renewing Christian hope in the City of Angels

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
17 May 2010

In the face of worldwide controversy, Anglicans in Los Angeles were on 15 May 2010 celebrating the consecration of Mary Glasspool as a new assistant bishop.

Some have condemned the Episcopal Church, on the grounds that she is a partnered lesbian, and so unfit to be a church leader, or that the time is not right since the Anglican Communion as a whole is not ready. Yet this development reflects attempts to be faithful to Christ and the Anglican tradition in an area of great diversity, and a world where there are sometimes no easy answers.

Throughout the twentieth century, Anglicans and other Christians across the world, have wrestled with what it means to love God and neighbour in practice. International gatherings have expressed gratitude for the work of scientists, calling on Christians to “learn reverently from every new disclosure of truth” and of theologians “who, worshipping the God of Truth, have enriched and deepened our understanding of the Bible, not least by facing with intellectual integrity the questions raised by modern knowledge and modern criticism” (http://www.lambethconference.org/resolutions/1958/1958-4.cfm)

From 1978 the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops called for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research. The Church, recognising the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them”.

Justice too has been a key theme. Churches worldwide were urged to encourage “members to see that a true Christian spirituality involves a concern for God's justice in the world, particularly in its own community”.

As one report put it, “Christians in mission live out the values of the gospel: love, justice, peace and preferential option for the poor, powerless and weak. They respect and affirm the dignity of each person, looking for and honouring the Christ in each child of God... Christians in mission are prophetic risk-takers”.

Prophetic risk-taking was a hallmark of the movements for change that swept US society in the mid-twentieth century. Many Americans were socially conservative, though others sought more rights for workers, women, ethnic minorities and, in some cases, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people.

Even some of those opposed to racial segregation, at first viewed the civil rights movement as extreme and mainstream politicians kept their distance. But in 1960, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and other leaders organised a protest at the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles (LA) which, alongside other nonviolent activism, played a part in shifting attitudes.

King was a Baptist minister who pointed out that “History unfortunately leaves some people oppressed and some people oppressors” and argued that violent retaliation and passive acceptance were both wrong: what was needed was “mass non-violent resistance based on the principle of love” .

A few years later, in 1965, the riots in Watts, LA helped to spotlight deep-rooted injustice.

A former journalist, Malcolm Boyd, who had been ordained as an Episcopal priest in LA in 1955, became a dedicated civil rights activist, alongside a number of other Episcopalians willing to risk imprisonment or death to defend their neighbours’ rights.

He also wrote a best-selling book of prayers. Later Boyd came out as gay. He is now an honorary writer-in-residence in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Tall and heavily built, diocesan bishop Jon Bruno played American football at college. Born and brought up in LA, he followed his uncle into the police force. But he too felt called to the priesthood. Though white and heterosexual himself, he ministered in communities deeply affected by racism and other forms of injustice, and combined prayerfulness and care for individuals with commitment to social change. When HIV swept through his parish in the 1980s, and many AIDS patients were shunned, he held the dying in his arms.

Along with many other Episcopalians, he was part of a journey of understanding which – though it did not lead to automatic acceptance of same-sex partnerships – meant that theological issues around sexual orientation and gender required careful thought, rooted in real-life experience rather than stereotyping.

By the early twenty-first century, it became apparent that some Anglicans elsewhere cared little for justice and were committed to blocking, rather than encouraging, serious study and dialogue.

As theologians put forward a strong case for equality, many in the Episcopal Church grew increasingly uneasy about discriminating against LGBT people. Some felt they were betraying their baptismal vows.

When Mary Glasspool was chosen, Bishop Bruno poignantly quoted Dr King: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”

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© Savitri Hensman works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate and regular columnist. A version of this article will also appear in her regular Guardian Comment is Free column: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/savitrihensman

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