Truth and consequences
by Carl Kozlowski
As the president of Integrity USA, the 30-year-old national Episcopal lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy organization, the Rev. Susan Russell has been at the forefront of some of the boldest, most inclusive and most controversial policy statements of any church leader in America. She’s also the convener of “Claiming the Blessing,” a national ministry focused on the full inclusion of the LGBT population within the Episcopal Church, and a charter member of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion Council.
But it’s in her role as the senior associate for parish life at All Saints Episcopal Church that Russell has a strong hand in the discussions of social, political and moral issues in Pasadena. And as All Saints celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Russell finds the challenges to equal rights and social justice of all stripes are just as formidable as ever — but also utterly worth fighting to overcome.
This weekend, All Saints plays host to a special three-day conference on “Violence, Religion and the American Soul,” which will involve “examining the state of the American conscience” and exploring “the Christian responsibility to live a faith of nonviolence, healing and respect.”
As the Episcopal Church wrestles with the ordination of gay bishops and a pending split by conservative factions that include four Orange County parishes, Russell spoke with the Pasadena Weekly about the importance of speaking out and the occasional consequences that come with it.
“Looking back at All Saints’ history, and then considering gay and lesbian issues, it’s all part and parcel of our commitment for 125 years to be an outspoken voice on behalf of inclusion. It goes back to World War II, when our rector protested the deportation of Japanese to internment camps,” said Russell. “Later our rector was the only white clergyman willing to stand with Martin Luther King in the Rose Bowl. It’s been amazing, looking back at our history and seeing that it’s part of the DNA of this particular congregation and this particular place, not just part of [current Rector Rev. Ed] Bacon and [Rector Emeritus George] Regas. It’s a challenge to find how to continue living that out.”
As an openly gay minister herself, Russell has been a strong supporter of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay cleric to be selected as a bishop in the American Episcopal Church. But since his controversial appointment in 2003, a vocal minority has led a number of Episcopal parishes to break away from the national church leadership — even attaching themselves to more conservative Africa-based wings of the international Anglican Communion.
In Russell’s opinion, the fight is worrisome, yet she feels it signifies a coming seismic shift in the American Episcopal Church.
“I think that we’re coming to the end of this chapter of the saga. I think that those who have articulated their desire to leave have already done so. Some will come back,” said Russell. “I remember in the 1970s when a parish in Glendale called Holy Apostle tried to leave the church because of the ordination of women. The odds are that 20 years from now we’re going to look back with the same result, wondering what the big deal was and seeing that the church moves on as it moves forward.
“The reasons [Episcopalians are] having trouble has nothing to do with churches like All Saints or Bishop Robinson, but a small percentage of the radical conservative fringe who insist the only way to make peace is capitulate to their position,” she added. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room with people who believe they have full possession of the truth.”
In keeping with the All Saints tradition of frank and full discussion, Russell noted another factor in the struggle for full acceptance of gays and lesbians. “Bishop Gene Robinson is the only honest gay bishop in the church. There are definitely other gay bishops but he’s the only one who’s been honest about his life and his relationship,” said Russell. “So in some ways he’s the sacrificial lamb.”
There will be no sacrifices made at All Saints this weekend, as the church plays host to the anti-violence seminar featuring such guest luminaries as Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, Archbishop Tutu disciple and author Rev. Michael Battle, Chicago Theological Seminary Professor of Ethics and Theology JoAnne Terrell, and award-winning Boston Globe journalist James Carroll.
“It’s interesting timing for us here at All Saints in terms of … the political and cultural climate right now, because issues of violence are certainly here in Pasadena,” said Russell. “In the wider culture, we’re looking at increasing evidence that we as a nation are condoning torture, and also — from many of our perspectives — waging a preemptive, unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq."
“What All Saints wants to offer in this conference is an opportunity to reflect on the impact of that kind of systemic violence on the American soul, and how we as people of faith can use our faith as a witness to be peacemakers rather than warmongers.”
“Violence, Religion and the American Soul” runs Friday through Sunday at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. Admission is $40 for the seminars on Friday and Saturday, or $25 for either Friday or Saturday only. On Sunday, the conference concludes with keynote speaker James Carroll preaching the sermon at the 9 and 11:15 a.m. services. Call (626) 583-2781 or visit www.allsaints-pas.org to find the complete schedule of events.
Thanks, Carl! I couldn't have said it better myself! :)