Mary Glasspool, the Lesbian Episcopal Bishop of LA

In 1974, when Mary Glasspool was 22 years old, she delivered to her father two unwelcome bits of news. First, she was gay. Second, she wanted to follow in his footsteps and become an Episcopalian priest. The Rev. Douglas M. Glasspool was not wholly pleased. He belonged to a conservative church Tradition—as he would have said, "capital T, please." He opposed women's ordination on theological principle and did not allow girls to be acolytes, or altar servers, in his church. Confronted with his daughter's revelations, he did what any loving father would do. He swallowed his objections the best he could.

"I was an exception to his rule," Glasspool reflects, "not an example of the rule itself. That's how he was able to live with it. In his own gracious way, he sort of separated out public and private. I think he honestly was proud of me on a personal level and wanted to support me but couldn't break out of the kind of characteristics he himself promoted as someone who upheld the Tradition." Mary Glasspool was ordained in 1981. Her father stood proudly by.

Last month, for the second time in its history, the Episcopal Church in America elected an openly gay person as a bishop. The Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool—an experienced administrator and human-rights advocate from Maryland—will be consecrated as Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan at a ceremony in May. To date, her election has generated astonishingly few headlines. "People have in a caring way asked if I've received any hate mail," says Glasspool. "I really haven't."

The Catholic news explosion can't take all the blame for the Americans' disinterest in Glasspool. Their disinterest—in her sexuality at least—is genuine. In 2003, Gene Robinson, a gay man, became the Bishop of New Hampshire—an event still credited with triggering schisms within the Episcopalian denomination and causing the defection of thousands of devout churchgoers to more conservative corners of Christendom. In seven short years, attitudes have changed—dramatically. Polls show that support for gays in the military, gay marriage, and civil unions has been, for most of this decade, steadily rising. Even diehard conservatives concede that the battle over gay rights (if not gay marriage) is more or less over. Half of Americans have a close friend or a family member who is gay, according to a 2009 CNN poll. "A human face always makes harsh judgment more difficult," wrote Michael Gerson last month in The Washington Post.

Here, Glasspool's father offers a human lesson. Traditionalists often capitulate to change without enthusiasm—or even willingness—but because someone they love insists on violating old, accepted rules. A daughter wants to vote, say, or go to college, or marry outside her race (or religion), or join the army. Eleven women were unofficially ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1974, a symbolic gesture of defiance. The usual panic ensued, the expected denouncements. Two years later, the church approved the ordination of women; today, more than a third of Episcopal priests are female. The highest Episcopalian cleric in the land, the Presiding Bishop, is Katharine Jefferts Schori—a former oceanographer and a woman.

Jefferts Schori won't call herself a feminist or a gay-rights activist—only a Christian. "We claim a faith that has a vision of what civilization ought to look like, called the reign of God, or the kingdom of God. When current reality is dramatically divergent from that vision, most of us feel it's our responsibility to advocate for a different vision," she told me. And it was, perhaps, this Christian vision that allowed her—and those who elected Glasspool—to overlook a warning that came from their superior, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, back in December. Glasspool's election, he wrote, "poses very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole."

Was the selection of Glasspool, then, an act of defiance? "It's not in defiance of anything.…People have made their decision carefully, with abundant consideration for impact on others but also out of a sense that they deeply feel is correct," the Presiding Bishop said.

The defiant moment may be yet to come. For if California reverses Proposition 8 and relegalizes gay marriage, then Glasspool faces a decision: does she marry Becki Sander, her partner of 22 years, and become a living symbol of a controversial debate? Or does she continue to duck the news glare and remain as she is, contentedly cohabitating? I'd like to think her father, were he alive, would assert the Traditional (capital T, please) importance of marriage—and uncomfortably, but proudly, walk his middle-aged daughter down the aisle.

Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife.