Episcopal Church leaders in Los Angeles on Sunday nominated two openly gay priests as bishops, becoming one of the first dioceses in the national church to test a controversial new policy that lifted a de facto ban on homosexuals in the ordained hierarchy.
The nominations of the Rev. John L. Kirkley of San Francisco and the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool of Baltimore are likely to further inflame theological conservatives in the U.S. church and their global partners in the Anglican Communion, who have repeatedly warned about the repercussions of such action.
They are among six nominees who will face election in December for two suffragan bishop positions at the Los Angeles diocese's annual convention. Suffragan bishops assist a diocese's primary bishop.
Home to 70,000 Episcopalians across six counties, the diocese is widely regarded as one of the most liberal in the U.S. church of 2.1 million members. Its bishop, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, is an outspoken advocate for the rights of gays in the church.
"I affirm each and every one of these candidates, and I am pleased with the wide diversity they offer this diocese," Bruno said in a statement Sunday.
Since the Episcopal Church's 2003 consecration of a partnered gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire, dozens of traditionalist parishes and four dioceses, including one in Central California, have voted to leave the national church.
The list of breakaway congregations includes several in the Los Angeles diocese, which has waged a costly, largely successful, legal battle over ownership of church properties.
Amid conflict over Bishop V. Gene Robinson's consecration, U.S. church leaders had promised to exercise restraint by agreeing not to consecrate bishops "whose manner of life" presented a challenge to the church and would strain ties with the communion. But they reversed course last month at their convention in Anaheim, voting overwhelmingly to open "any ordained ministry" to gays and lesbians. They also agreed to consider rites of blessing for same-sex couples.
Sunday's action in Los Angeles came a day after the Diocese of Minnesota nominated three priests for bishop, including a partnered lesbian, the Rev. Bonnie Perry. She is rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Chicago and an adjunct professor at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
Church conservatives predicted that the swift actions of the two dioceses in response to the recent policy shift would lead to greater division within the U.S. church. And they accused top Episcopal leaders of being disingenuous by suggesting that the denomination had not strayed from traditional beliefs and policies.
"What this represents is a continued in-your-face gesture to the worldwide Anglican Communion," said Kendall Harmon, a prominent conservative who is chief theological advisor to the Episcopal bishop of South Carolina. "Anyone who is paying attention can see that the Episcopal Church is moving in the direction of the new theology and practice that they have embraced."
The church's presiding bishop, the Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Bonnie Anderson, leader of its clergy and laity, had sought to quell Anglican fears even as the convention moved last month to relax the restrictions on bishops.
In a letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican Communion's spiritual leader, Jefferts Schori and Anderson described the resolution as "more descriptive than prescriptive" and said it did not repeal the earlier ban on ordinations.
Instead, they said, the measure reaffirmed assurances of equal treatment spelled out in the U.S. church's canons and constitution.
"In adopting this resolution, it is not our desire to give offense," they wrote. "We remain keenly aware of the concerns and sensibilities of our brothers and sisters in other churches across the communion."
Last week, Williams responded to the Episcopal church's new policies, saying that "very serious anxieties" had already been expressed among the communion's 77 million members. He suggested that the U.S. denomination might have to accept a different role in a new, two-tier system -- one tier for churches that remain fully within the Anglican fold and another for those that wish to be more autonomous.
Although Williams condemned persecution of gays and lesbians, he also made clear that the communion does not sanction blessings for gay and lesbian couples or the selection of such candidates as bishops.
Still, Episcopal leaders in Minnesota will select a new bishop Oct. 31 at their diocesan convention in Minneapolis. Clergy and lay representatives in Los Angeles will vote in early December.
Once the dioceses vote, their selections must be approved by a majority of bishops of the national church and of the diocesan "standing committees," which include clergy and lay representatives.
In Los Angeles, 51 priests were nominated for the two assistant bishop posts that will become vacant next year when two current bishops retire.