[The Episcopal News] The Rev. Canon Susan Russell, diocesan Canon for Engagement Across Difference – once “a suburban housewife and soccer mom with the boat slip and French doors and Junior League life” and now a globally recognized lesbian priest activist – has starred in a documentary about her odd friendship with a Mormon filmmaker, preached truth to power on a hill overlooking Canterbury Cathedral, led diocese-wide conversations about racial reconciliation and Christian nationalism, and earned the nickname ‘Queen of the Sound Bite’ in her quest for equity and full inclusion in The Episcopal Church.
The journey continues for Russell, a lifelong Episcopalian, whose early experiences with her beloved late younger brother Bill helped to undergird her current diocesan role. “We grew up disagreeing about absolutely everything our entire life,” she says. “He was doing NRA and I was doing ERA.
“As adults; nothing changed. We agreed about almost nothing other than we loved each other and would always be there for each other. For me, the idea of engaging across difference was just how I was raised.”
Engagement “is such a key piece of Bishop [John Harvey] Taylor’s vision for the work we want to do together,” she said, “that we center our hope in Christ around bridging differences being the via media. My job is to create and disseminate curriculum and opportunities for engagement and to amplify voices where that’s already happening.”
Taylor created the role after it became obvious, “during the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd and God’s cry for racial reckoning, and in the shadow of Jan. 6, it’s fair to say that the middle way is not always easy to find,” he told The Episcopal News recently.
“We asked Susan to use her gifts as both advocate and mediator to work in a range of conversations along the fault lines in our diocesan community that can be broadly defined as the space between blue and red,” Taylor said. “In 21st century U.S. Christianity, The Episcopal Church must always stand up for racial, orientation, and identification justice. But Susan helps us keep the conversation going by helping us hear all perspectives with empathy and curiosity.”
This particular day, Russell is enjoying a moment: “I’m thrilled at the word from the presiding officers that they have funded the Task Force for LGBTQ+ inclusion for the next triennium, and I’m looking forward to that work in the new year. That resolution was put forward from this diocese.”
The 80th General Convention, meeting July 8-11, 2022, in Baltimore, Maryland, adopted Resolution D026, which provides for archiving the history of the journey toward LGBTQ inclusion in The Episcopal Church, surveying the whole church about the present status of and creating opportunities for engagement for full inclusion.
Or, as Russell, a task force member, says: “It’s where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go.”
Russell was steeped in Episcopal Church ethos from an early age. Born at Good Samaritan Hospital and baptized at the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, she says “the whole Episcopal Church was so much a part of my growing up and formation,” including “following around Aunt Gretchen, who was on the altar guild at the old St. Paul’s. I did junior altar guild.”
Aunt Gretchen “died with a ‘Save the 1928 Prayer Book’ bumper sticker on her car,” Russell recalled. “She was a member of Holy Apostles, Glendale, when they tried to leave the church over the ordination of women. After 68 years in The Episcopal Church, it’s just kind of another day; how are we going to get through it anyway together?”
The ‘inclusion wars’
Canon Jim White, who wrote Resolution D026, knows Russell from way back when, fighting “the inclusion wars” together. “And she’s my priest” at All Saints, Pasadena, he says.
White attended the Integrity Eucharist during the 2008 Lambeth Conference in support of then-New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay noncelibate bishop in The Episcopal Church. Robinson had been uninvited from the every-10-year gathering of bishops from across the worldwide Anglican Communion.
By then, Russell was serving as both national president of Integrity, the organization for gay and lesbian Episcopalians, and as full-time executive director of All Saints-based Claiming the Blessing, a collaborative of organizations and individuals within the Episcopal Church that she co-founded in 2002 to advocate for full inclusion of all the baptized in all sacraments of the church, including marriage.
“We began to call Susan the Queen of the Sound Bite because she has a real gift for coming up with these succinct phrases that people remember,” White said. “At a General Convention, a reporter asked her about a resolution that got passed and she said, ‘It’s not the whole enchilada, but it’s enough guacamole for me,’ and it got reported everywhere.”
Russell’s public relations ability is legendary, says diocesan Canon for Common Life Bob Williams. “No one is more skilled with a sound bite – or in mapping a strategic media blitz – than Susan in her unrivaled work of advancing LGBTQ+ full inclusion and marriage equality in the church and wider world,” he told The News.
During the 1997 General Convention in Philadelphia, Russell served “as solo reporter for our diocesan newspaper,” recalled Williams, who edited The Episcopal News from 1994 to 2004. “Then, in no time – at General Conventions in Minneapolis, Columbus, Anaheim and beyond – Susan was front and center on CNN and NPR, in The New York Times and London papers, speaking out for social change that came to pass, always expressing pride in her L.A. roots. I’ve been in her fan club ever since and now applaud her new work of engagement across a spectrum of interrelated polarizing differences.”
The Rev. Michael Hopkins, Russell’s predecessor as national Integrity president, said her impact on advancing churchwide inclusion “has been consequential and substantial.” As “a brilliant and omnipresent spokesperson, she stands out, but she has always had a heart for collaboration and does nothing without the substantial support of many. One is tempted to say we wouldn’t be where we were in regard to LGBTQ inclusion in TEC, but she knows she stands on the shoulders of, and beside, many. That is what has made her so effective.”
‘The persisterhood of hope’
Although uninvited from the 2008 Lambeth Conference, Robinson, 75, said that on the advice of Russell and others, “I decided I would go anyway. I wouldn’t force my way into any place I wasn’t invited or didn’t have credentials for, but I wanted to be present, as a constant irritating reminder to all bishops inside that there were people like me in their pews back in their own home dioceses, even if it was in Africa or Asia.”
Susan “has the clearest and most fierce understanding of and commitment to justice of anyone I know,” Robinson added in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C.-area home. “She sees LGBT+ justice as a piece of the justice due everyone, and she never loses sight of that. She has been in it for the long haul and is still in it.”
Russell ranks “as the most brilliant strategist that I have ever known, either in the church or, frankly, in the world,” he said. “She understands what motivates people to do things or to change, and once she’s identified that, she can go back and think methodically [of] all the steps that need to happen to get that person or group there. She brought that keen vision to everything we did.”
For Katie Sherrod, communications director for the Diocese of Fort Worth, and LGBTQ+ activist, Russell has been “a vital part of how women and LGBTQ+ people have loved the Episcopal Church into change. She often has been the eloquent voice and smiling face of all those who are pushing the Church into examining what it really means when you mark someone as Christ’s own forever. We do that with a cross, not an asterisk.
“Either you are Christ’s own, or you’re not,” Sherrod said, “no matter if you are straight or gay, male or female or non-gender-specific, cis or trans, no matter your race or ethnicity, ability or any other variable among the amazing diversity of humanity. Baptism is not for the faint-hearted. Those promises are powerful and world changing. and Susan is a master at helping the wider Church and the world understand that.”
Russell helped lead the progressive response to a series of events that attempted to codify resistance to advances in LGTBQ inclusion in the Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church. In 2004, the Anglican Consultative Council published The Windsor Report, a study that was critical of Robinson’s election to the episcopate and the growing acceptance of LGBTQ persons in some provinces of the Anglican Communion. In response, the 79th General Convention in 2006 adopted Resolution B033, which called upon standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction “to accept the initiation of the Windsor Report to engage in a process of healing and … to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”
Resisting such efforts is “very real, very hard work,” Sherrod said. “More than once over the years I have seen [Russell] with a group of people who have worked hard on a resolution or action, only to have it defeated, or for a harmful resolution to pass. As the group gathered in the wake of what often felt like betrayal – for example, B033 in 2006 – Susan would mourn the setback as deeply as anyone, but then soon would begin gently but persistently nudging everyone into looking forward again, into strategizing about what to do next. She would honor the pain, for she felt it as deeply as anyone, but she refuses to dwell there. She will not let fear set the rules. She lives in hope, a hope based on her deep faith. I am proud to be part of the persisterhood of hope with her.”
The Rev. Canon Ed Bacon, retired rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena, and a co-founder of Claiming the Blessing, says that Russell was the only gay person invited to speak with the Anglican Consultative Council to respond to the Windsor Report.
“She really held her space there,” he said. “There was no wilting flower energy in Susan. However, she’s not a sledgehammer at all. She’s just very confident and goes and holds her own.”
In addition to “her relationality, her ability to lead the room and her ability to think visionarily … Susan is a great preacher and profoundly reflective theologian,” Bacon said. “She’s also a pastor. She’s ready to go to the hospital, visit with you, pray for you, do your sacraments, and prepare you for the sacraments. She’s a proclaimer, pastor, prophet, sacramental officiant – all those things that we think of when we say priest.”
The 2009 documentary film “Talking Across the Divide in Faith” portrays the unlikely friendship Russell developed with Mormon filmmaker Brian Hunter. The bond moved him – against the position of his church – to campaign against Proposition 8, a proposed California state constitutional amendment intended to ban same-gender marriage.
Their friendship “made it hard to stay on the sidelines,” Hunter said at a February 2009 All Saints rector’s forum after the film was screened there.
“I’m amazed by the power that is found in being willing to be vulnerable before your community … and to never give up on the other,” he said. Visiting various faith communities, “I see people moved to tears because of the power of God in their lives. I see that in a conservative Mormon bearing their testimony and I see that here in the community created at All Saints and I see it in Susan and that is the glue that binds us together and I don’t ever want to let go of that.”
For the Rev. Antonio Gallardo, rector-emergent at St. Luke’s Church in Long Beach, “Susan was my pastor before I was ordained” and while he was wrestling with his own call to discernment.
“She said, ‘We’re not asking you to commit to anything yet. Just say yes to start the process,’” he recalled. “One of the things that you can bank on Susan is, she is solid and consistent. She is very knowledgeable about The Episcopal Church.”
Russell’s experience “makes her the perfect person” for her diocesan role to engage across differences, he added. “She knows what it takes to reach out to the other side. Susan takes things for what they are. She’ll listen. She might differ but that doesn’t stop the conversation.”
Gallardo, a member of the Engagement Across Difference steering committee, says Russell “gives us space to propose things, to entertain new and diverse ideas, to try those things on. If we want unity in the church, we have to work with those with whom we differ.”
Canon to the Ordinary Melissa McCarthy agreed: “It’s been a pleasure to have Susan on our staff. She’s a great colleague with wisdom to share in any given situation. She is so articulate and clear. Her visionary leadership roles within the greater Episcopal Church is inspiring and it is also helpful to us as we navigate through this unique time in our history here in L.A. Susan is a wonderful pastor and friend to all of us at St. Paul’s Commons. “
In her role as diocesan staff liaison to the Bishop’s Commission on Liturgy and Music, Russell has also been “particularly focused on getting our work, especially the rites and resources we are gathering, onto the diocesan website to serve as a library for churches in the diocese,” according to the Very Rev. Kay Sylvester, commission co-chair, who added that the group also is planning a curriculum on prayer book revision.
“She brings the bishop’s concerns to our team and serves as a full team member in planning and implementing liturgies at Diocesan Convention, clergy conference, and anywhere else the commission is asked to serve.”
The Very Rev. Keith Yamamoto, also a commission member, said Russell “is able to take complex and nuanced things and make them easy to understand, with a punch. She’s authentic and she cares about beautiful liturgy and how we use it to reflect a loving, inclusive God.”
She’s funny, too, according to the Rev. Michelle Baker Wright, commission co-chair. “I am grateful for Susan’s astute organizational skill and quick wit; in the midst of a lot of intensive planning she is able to lighten the mood with some turn of phrase that keeps me laughing hours later.”
Russell, who has also served at St. Mark’s, Altadena, and St. Peter’s, San Pedro, and been a deputy from Los Angeles to General Convention, hopes to extend the support and love received in the diocese across the church.
“We want to build on our capacity to engage across all kinds of difference,” Russell said. “Being raised and mentored in this diocese and having the … platform or privilege to speak my truth, to live my life, to live into my vocation as a priest and pastor … galvanized me to try to change the church to be a place where my story wouldn’t be extraordinary, where anyone who needed that kind of support from bishops and churches would get it.”