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.