2016-06-30
Last month, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, 56, was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson is openly gay and in a long-standing relationship. If his election is confirmed by the national church's General Convention, which starts July 30, he will become the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop. The event will be a watershed not only for Episcopalians, but also for the Worldwide Anglican Communion, whose governing body in 1998 called gay sex "incompatible with Scripture."

The vote will occur about a month after a gay Anglican minister in England, the Rev. Jeffrey John, turned down an appointment as a bishop. Two U.S. prelates who hailed John's decision as "one of deep courage and grace" now are focusing on Robinson. "Approval of this (Robinson's) election will be a vote to rupture the Anglican Communion," bishops Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and Edward Salmon Jr. of South Carolina said in a joint statement on July 8.

This week, Robinson spoke with Beliefnet about the tempest swirling around him.

So much news about gay rights has happened this summer -the Canadian marriage decision, the Texas sodomy case, and your election. At the same time, Pat Robertson is praying for changes on the Supreme Court because of the Texas case, and other conservative Christians are predicting the downfall of civilization because they believe traditional marriage is now threatened. What's your take on all of it?

The famous test pilot Chuck Yeager, after breaking the sound barrier for the first time, in a speech said something like: "The plane shakes the hardest just before you break through." And I believe what we're experiencing from conservatives right now is that shaking, and maybe the whole culture is shaking before we break through this next barrier for gay and lesbian folks.

I believe God is doing a new thing in the world. God is always moving us to include more people in the kingdom. God has taught us that about people of color, about women, and now I think God is teaching that about gay and lesbian folk. And I am humbled and privileged that I might be playing a very small part in that grand and wonderful plan of God's.

What's happened to you in this last month?

I've been going to two different churches every Sunday morning since the election, and my reception has been remarkable. People are excited about our future ministry together. People have been so welcoming; even those who have difficulty with my election and making that square with their reading of scripture have done me the honor of asking me those questions directly. It's helped me to stay in touch with why I'm doing this in the first place--which is that I want to be in ministry with these people as their bishop.

And that has helped me to keep perspective on all the national and international news and press surrounding my election. When I stand back and look at it, I'm amazed I'm not more overwhelmed at the whirlwind I find myself in.

What sorts of mail are you getting?

First of all, I'm getting lots of mail. I've surpassed 2,600 emails and over 500 letters and notes. So that in and of itself is a little overwhelming. It's my intention to answer all of them, although it might take me several months. But I'd say 95% of them are supportive.

Really? Isn't that surprising?

It's overwhelming support. And that's from within the diocese, within the Episcopal Church, and internationally. Most of the negative stuff is going on at an official level and not aimed at me personally or coming into my own email box.

But many of the letters are so moving. I got a letter from a woman in the state women's prison here who started out by saying, "I'm neither gay nor Christian but your election means so much to those of us who are incarcerated here because it gives us hope that there might be a community that could love us despite what we've done." It's those kinds of letters I want to respond to personally and tell them how much it means to me.

Do you have a sense of how close--or not--the election will be?

I don't think there is any way to predict. I have to tell you I'm hopeful, and cautiously believing that indeed consent will be afforded me. But no one knows that for sure, and one of the big question marks is how the House of Deputies will vote on this, because 44% of the deputies are brand new. So there are no voting records on similar issues that you can look back to. We've made a great effort to bring women and people of color and young people into the deputation--but this is their first general convention.

What will it mean if you're voted down, and you aren't confirmed as a bishop?

What I fear it will mean is that the Episcopal Church will be saying to the world that it is not the inclusive church we've been telling the world it is. You know all those signs that say "The Episcopal church welcomes you?" I think we'll have to put an asterisk by that and add: "Unless you're gay or lesbian." That's what I fear a negative vote would be saying to the world.

And even greater fear for me is what this will say to the gay and lesbian young people in our church, many of whose parents don't know they are struggling with this issue and have come to know themselves as gay or lesbian. I am fearful of what this will say to them about whether God loves them and whether the church loves them. I work with a lot of teenagers who are gay or lesbian, and it's interesting to me that even those who are completely unchurched--who have literally not been inside a church in years--think they know exactly what the Bible and what God thinks about them, and that is that they are an abomination and that they are awful in the sight of God. That permeates our culture, and it's time for the church to stop adding to the anti-gay feeling.

Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria has threatened to leave the Anglican Communion over any further openness to homosexuals. At the same time, in England, Jeffrey John stood down from his appointment after a furor was raised. Is it possible that, if you're voted down, it's because people will decide the Anglican Communion needs to stay unified?

If I don't achieve consent, that will be the reason given. But there are several things I want to say. One is that, until the last 35-40 years, all it has meant to be part of the Anglican Communion was to be one of the independent provinces in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. There's not all that much connection between the member provinces. It's only in recent years, and largely through mass communication, that we've established greater bonds with these churches. But no province of the Anglican Communion has any authority over any other province of the Anglican Communion. And neither does the Lambeth Conference of Bishops have any authority over any of the constituent provinces of the communion.

So the effect of the Nigerian bishop's anger is embarrassment for the communion, but not much else?

I can assure you that most of the people in the pews in the Diocese of New Hampshire would not be affected one way or another by any action or statement by the Archbishop of Nigeria. Certainly it would cause me great pain to be at odds with him, but the fact is we've disagreed about a lot of things in this communion. It has not fallen apart, and I don't believe it's going to fall apart this time.

Most of the Anglican Communion does not allow women to take leadership positions the way we do here in the American church. There were great predictions this would cause the demise of the Episcopal Church and of the communion internationally, and it just hasn't come to pass. And we're able to live together despite our differences on that particular issue. And I believe we'll be able to live together despite being at odds on this issue.

I believe the Archbishop of Nigeria--and anyone who is troubled by my election--are doing so out of their own faithful reading of scripture, their own prayer life, their own journey with God. But the fact of the matter is, so am I. I'm doing what I'm doing because I feel called by God to this, because of my faithful reading of scripture and my prayer life and my journey with God. It seems to me the Anglican Communion can hold together if we find our unity in Jesus Christ not if we agree or disagree on any one of these issues.

What do you make of Jeffrey John's decision to stand down?

I wouldn't want to comment at all on that process in Britain, other than to point out one major difference between his appointment and my election here. His was an appointment--and there were people in his diocese who felt this was something done to them by officials in the Church of England.

In sharp contrast to that, here in this country, our selection of bishops is totally democratic. It was the clergy and laity of the Diocese of New Hampshire that elected me. So this is something they have wholeheartedly embraced. It's a very different system.

Do you think the issue in England will have any affect on the convention here?

I'm sure it will, and I have no idea what that will be. I think some people will feel, "Why can't Gene Robinson stand down for the good of the church and the unity of the church?" And there will be other people who will feel as if what happened to Canon John was unfortunate and perhaps even worse than that, and they will be emboldened to vote for consent for me.

There is so much going on in the larger culture right now related to gay issues.

It's almost like an alignment of the planets. It actually brings me back to something I wanted to say about what would happen if the consent is not granted. There is almost no one, including the most outspoken conservatives in our church, who believe that the full acceptance of gay and lesbian folk in our church isn't a foregone conclusion. No one is arguing that we can keep it from happening. The only argument is whether we can forestall it a little longer. The most vociferous critics are saying this is going to happen, but perhaps we can keep it from happening right now.

What do you make of the gay marriage decision in Canada? What sort of effect does that have on the Episcopal church?

It doesn't have any effect in a legislative way, because that is a civil decision being made by the Government of Canada--and civil decisions are going to be made by civil authorities in this country and ultimately by the Supreme Court. What the church, I think, is trying to figure out is this: are relationships that are faithful, monogamous, and life-long-intentioned between people of the same sex worthy of the church's blessing? That is, whether or not they are sanctioned by the state.

I think it's only a matter of time when they will be sanctioned by the state, and we will very soon get to a time when it'll be hard for us to imagine we didn't accord the same civil rights to gay and lesbian couples as to heterosexual couples who want to be married and who want to have all the responsibilities of marriage. But the church is arguing something quite different.

Have you and your partner participated in a church blessing ceremony?

No, we haven't. Fourteen years ago when my partner moved here to be with me and my girls, it's hard to remember what a different time it was and how dangerous it was to come out and what an act of courage it was for my bishop to hire me as his right-hand person. We did not want to get the bishop in trouble with the church, so the liturgy we used to celebrate this new family we were creating was from a book of Episcopal liturgies--the Book of Occasional Services. And we used the "blessing of a home" liturgy because we had just built a new house, we moved into it and we invited about 80 of our friends to come. The bishop presided, and we had a different clergy person bless each room. It was taken word for word from the book of occasional services and therefore was completely authorized.

Have you gone to Vermont to have a civil union?

No, because at this time that isn't recognized by the state of New Hampshire. There is no question in my mind that were that to become possible here in New Hampshire that we would certainly do it, but at this time that has no standing in other states of residence.

What's your read on the Lawrence decision? That has very much upset conservative Christians.

This is not a wild-eyed liberal court, and yet even they did something that is quite remarkable. They said to the world that "we got it wrong a few years ago." And I think it's one of those steps forward in terms of granting equal rights-not special rights-to gay and lesbian folk in this country in the eyes of the law. That's a major step forward. To have the highest court in the land decriminalize sodomy undercuts much of the work the other side is doing.

Conservative Christians would like to make the defense of traditional marriage a large part of the Presidential campaign and to have President Bush come out unequivocally against any form of gay unions. What do you think of that political controversy?

Judging from New Hampshire, where first Presidential primary is held, a recent poll here asked the citizens of New Hampshire if they support gay civil marriage. And a majority-54%--were in support of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. That should say something to the Presidential primary candidates.

What will happen at the Episcopal Church's convention? Is it a done deal that you'll be confirmed, or is there politicking still to come?

First of all, this is not going to be a cakewalk, because the issues my election raises are of serious concern to the Episcopal Church and to the Anglican Communion worldwide.

No resolution can go to the floor of either the House of Bishops or House of Deputies without an open hearing. The hearing on the resolution for my consent will take place on Friday morning, Aug. 1. Following that, the resolution will be sent to the House of Deputies with a recommendation for passage or defeat. And it will probably come up for a vote on the floor of the House of Deputies after debate on Aug. 3. As soon as the vote is taken in the House of Deputies, they will send it to the floor of the House of Bishops. That could be as early as Monday the 4th.

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