The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire--which has fewer than 50 parishes--is nevertheless part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Last month, its members elected an honest, out-of-the-closet homosexual priest to be its next bishop.

The word "openly" was used as a modifier for the word "homosexual" in most of the stories written about the Rev. Gene Robinson. It was a telling choice of words, clearly cognizant of the fact that homosexual people have been secretly ordained since the Christian Church was born.

At that time, when Christianity moved out of the Jewish orbit and into the Mediterranean world, it confronted a dualistic neo-Platonism that denigrated the flesh and suggested that marriage was a compromise with sin. Holy life was to be celibate. This, in turn, attracted men into the priesthood who, because of their homosexual desires, wanted to hide from marriage. The evidence is clear that the priesthood of the Western Church became the largest closet in which gay men hid their sexual orientation during the Middle Ages. This theory has been fully documented in a monumental study on homosexuality in the Church from its beginnings to 1400 by Yale historian John Boswell.

It should by now be obvious that an institution does not make celibacy a prerequisite for leadership without attracting large numbers of gay men into its ranks. This has always been an unspoken but silently acknowledged reality that those familiar with the Church's ministry accepted as a fact of life. Yet the Church protected itself with a vocal and frequently vicious anti-homosexual campaign, since it could ill afford for the public to become suspicious about the reality of homosexuality in the priesthood. Officially, then, homosexuality was deemed "deviant behavior" and "unnatural." Privately, however, every bishop knew the gay clergy of his diocese-sometimes the bishop himself was also gay. Duplicity came to be viewed as a virtue.

Until the middle of the 20th Century, there was little discussion of this issue in either church or society. The general consensus was that practicing homosexuality was destructive behavior, condemned as "sinful." But data began to emerge in the 1950s that was destined to change these definitions and their resulting stereotypes. Scientific studies began to suggest that homosexuality was not abnormal behavior; it was simply a minority aspect of sexuality that has always been present in the human family. Investigations revealed that the percentage of homosexuals in the population was fairly constant at all times and in all places. Homosexuality was determined not to be something people choose, but something to which they awaken. It was part of one's identity--and as such not amenable to change.

The test of this latter truth came in the realization that those of us who are heterosexual did not choose our sexual orientation, either. We also simply awakened to it. Yet heterosexuals continued to believe that what they do not choose, the homosexual person does. This meant that the heterosexual majority could continue to cast blame on parents, dominating mothers, weak fathers, or molesting adults as the causative agents that created homosexuality in innocent children. Vestiges of these largely discredited ideas still feed the prejudice of many people.

But all of these definitions began to die as the new data trickled down to average people. In the late 1960s the Stonewall riots in New York enabled homosexual people to proclaim, "We will no longer accept the culturally imposed stereotypes of who we are. We will also no longer accept passively the abuse of others."

In the late 60s and early 70s, debates on homosexuality began to take place in various national assemblies. The American Psychiatric Society removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Later the American Association of Pastoral Counselors stated that anyone who sought to change a person's sexual orientation through counseling was guilty of practicing "pastoral violence." Clergy in various traditions began to come out of the closet. Resolutions were debated in many national church assemblies.

The issue was now in the open. Let me trace the steps the Episcopal Church followed, a path that culminated in the New Hampshire election. At the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1979, a progressive study of homosexuality was defeated. But a "statement of conscience," written by the Bishop of Southern Ohio, John Krumm, and signed by 21 other bishops, stated that the signatories disagreed with the official position of the Episcopal Church. Interestingly, two of the signatories, Edmond Browning of Hawaii and John Walker of Washington, D.C., were later elected Presiding Bishop and Vice President of the House of Bishops, respectively, the two most important positions in that church. A new consensus was clearly growing.

As this new consciousness became overt, those who opposed it, recognizing that they were losing, mounted a vigorous campaign to reinstate the old prejudices. They were loud--but ineffective. Gay rights clearly was an idea whose time had come.

An Episcopal Church commission on health and human affairs then initiated a vigorous debate throughout the church, with pro and con arguments published side by side in 1987 in the national Episcopal newspaper. In the Diocese of Newark, where I was serving as bishop, a study document was prepared for the churches of the diocese, in 1987 commending gay couples to the Church and suggesting that their sacred commitments be recognized and blessed. The document also called on the Bishop to protect openly homosexual priests.

In December 1989, I ordained the first homosexual male living openly with his partner of five years in Hoboken, New Jersey. My church's leaders recoiled, but the debate raised consciousness and even the attempts to disassociate the leaders of the Episcopal Church from my actions and those of the Diocese of Newark failed to reveal a consensus. By 1994, 88 bishops had signed a document called "A Statement of Koinonia," affirming support for gays and lesbians in the church and in the ranks of the ordained. That was not yet a majority, but a critical mass had formed that could not be denied.

Next, the conservatives sought to halt this movement in the Episcopal Church by bringing charges of heresy against Bishop Walter Righter, an assistant Bishop of Newark. (Righter had ordained a gay man as a deacon in my diocese; I later ordained him to the priesthood.) These charges were dismissed by a 7-1 vote in a court trial.

In 2000, the national convention of the Episcopal Church voted to commend "non-traditional" couples to the pastoral care of the church. No one questioned who was meant by this phrase. The convention also recognized that the choice of whom to be ordained must be left to each diocese. The victory for gay rights in the Episcopal Church was all but complete.

Now the Diocese of New Hampshire, in an open election with four nominees, has chosen the Rev. Canon Eugene Robinson, an openly gay man, living in a committed partnership of many years, to be its new bishop. It was not an accident. It was not even a strange aberration in an otherwise unprepared church. It was rather the next step in an ongoing process.

The Episcopal Church requires that the whole church confirm New Hampshire's election. That is normally a routine procedure. A vote will be taken at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Minneapolis at the end of this month. It will be the last stand for the people who hold the dying view that homosexuality is either a sickness or depraved behavior. We'll hear threats of schism. We'll hear violent words. Every effort will be tried to stop this action.

But the election will be confirmed. And the Episcopal Church will be more whole, more honest and more Christlike than it was before. I welcome the day. I welcome Gene Robinson. I am proud to be part of this church.

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