Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves had weathered some predictable challenges since partnering the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real in central California with dioceses in England and Tanzania, but she didn't anticipate a recent development: what happens when one of the partner bishops retires?
Bishop Gerard Mpango of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika, Tanzania, retired in June, "earlier than we thought when we started" the companion relationship, Gray-Reeves said recently after returning from England, where partnership teams were hosted by Bishop Michael Perham of the Diocese of Gloucester.
Asked how the July election of Mpango's successor might affect the future of the nearly two-year-old partnership, Gray-Reeves said it means "we will have to build relationships with the next person and put forth every effort. I'm happy to do that work. The partnership means a lot to the people of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika. It's not just about the bishop."
Context, building relationships and listening have been huge factors in cultivating the partnership, which began after a chance meeting of the bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the every-10-years gathering of Anglican Communion bishops. It has blossomed to include joint ministry and mission projects, team visits and lasting friendships, she said.
During their mid-June visit, the partners committed themselves to begin participating in the Anglican Communion's Continuing Indaba project, which is exploring ways of communicating across different contexts within the Anglican Communion, a process begun among bishops at the Lambeth Conference. Indaba is a Zulu word meaning purposeful discussion.
Those involved in the three-way partnership "are extremely committed to it," Gray-Reeves said. "It's borne a tremendous amount of fruit in all our lives, as Christians, as leaders. We hope to share that good news with others in the communion."
Perham said in a statement on the diocesan website that international friendships developed in such partnerships "help us to understand what it means to be part of a worldwide community, whether that community is the family of the church or whether it is the human race."
The June visit was intended to help partners "explore and deepen that friendship and so to play our part in the building of unity within the church and beyond it."
Bible study, "lots of worship" and visits to local parishes were all part of the visit, which was the second such encounter. A first visit was held in California in 2009.
As teams tackled weighty topics such as ministry, salvation and marriage, "one of the greatest surprises, more challenging than we thought, was thinking that we mean the same thing when we use the same word," Gray-Reeves said.
"Part of our culture as a partnership is that we are not in this to get one or the other to change their minds about what we think, but to understand each other more deeply," she added.
Gray-Reeves made history as the first woman bishop to preside at a Eucharist at Gloucester Cathedral. She addressed a June 15 gathering of the diocesan synod, where she fielded questions about the consecration of a gay, partnered bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles and about what has been dubbed "Mitregate."
Concern over the incident, in which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams asked Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori not to wear her mitre during a June 13 service at Southwark Cathedral, prompted both Gray-Reeves and Perham to address the issue in statements posted on diocesan websites. The presiding bishop also was asked by Williams to verify her orders of ordination.
Gray-Reeves explained the incident as exacerbated by tensions within the Anglican Communion and Lambeth Palace's June 7 removal of Episcopal Church members from some international ecumenical dialogues.
Gray-Reeves said she had not met anyone in England who is happy with those actions, "but rather many are embarrassed and upset," she said.
She reported "no major issues regarding the wearing of my mitre or being a woman bishop" and Perham explained that the Church of England's Overseas and Other Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure of 1967 is generally not enforced and makes no reference to clothing.
The rule requires that clergy from abroad need the archbishop's permission to officiate in the Church of England. Perham added that he sought and was granted permission for Gray-Reeves to preside at the Eucharist at Gloucester Cathedral.
"There has never been any doubt within our dioceses that the three bishops are equally bishops of the Anglican Communion and not for one moment would we have treated one bishop differently from the others," he added.
Gray-Reeves also defended her decision to consent to but not attend the May 15 consecration of Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Mary Douglas Glasspool, the Episcopal Church's second openly gay partnered bishop, as a way of saying "I hear you" to partner bishops.
"It was really hard for me, personally. It was a big effort," she told the June 15 gathering, adding that she had discussed the decision with Glasspool and her diocese.
"The times are incredibly complex," she said. "In our context we've been discussing the matter of sexuality publicly for 50 years which is longer than I've been alive. I've grown up in a culture where our decisions make sense to me in a big way, but I hear that it doesn't make sense for somebody else. So it was a way for me to reach both ways. Lots of people were fine with it and some other people weren't, and that's just the way it is."
Relationship is "where we develop our voices best," she said. "But that requires a lot of us -- all of us -- and I encourage my diocese, and you and Western Tanganyika ... to keep talking."
She intends to do just that. While the partnership has resulted in Tanzanian sewing machine and solar cooking pot projects, scholarships for 500 primary school students and the first woman seminarian, the greatest gift has been "friendship," Gray-Reeves said.
She is looking forward to the next years of the five-year triad agreement. In September she will meet with the next bishop of Western Tanganyika and plan ministry, she said. The three dioceses, she added, are "hoping to come up with a project in Tanzania that is life-changing."