This month's General Convention in Minneapolis, which must approve New Hampshire's decision, will likely see Robinson as a chance to decide the question of gay bishops for a long time to come. The debate will be vociferous.
You would expect an openly gay clergyman like me to be delighted with Robinson's election. And I certainly am. But the election does present the exquisite conflict of two cherished values: The imperative that one called by the spirit of God and chosen by the community of Christ be ordained a bishop in the Church. And the hope that, as Jesus said, his body, the Church, could continue to be one.
For a long time biblical scholars have been saying there is no good reason to give anti-gay strictures in the Bible any more authority than cautions about lending money at interest or wearing clothing made of blended fabrics. Robinson's election is an institutional ratification of this idea, and it could not have been more clear: The election didn't grind on for 15 ballots well into the night. Gene was the clear winner for a position, I am told, he dearly wanted, and for which he was adequately prepared. He has worked his way up through the ranks, as we used to say in the military. He has been a parish priest, and spent many years on the staff of the bishops in that diocese.
That might be the end of that, then, but for two things: politics and theology.
Politically, Robinson must get the consent of a majority of the American church. This is normally achieved by writing letters to the approximately 100 diocesan bishops and each diocese's standing committee to accept the new bishop's election. But if the election occurs, as Robinson's did, within four months of a General Convention of the whole church the whole process can be done by a vote of bishops meeting in their House and the lay and clerical deputies meeting in their House. Some say the General Convention voting as a body is somewhat more liberal than the standing committees voting separately. If that is the case, Robinson may have an easy--or easier--road to ordination.
But a bishop is a bishop of the whole church, and as such are symbols of unity. What about the voices of conservatives in the church? Already some American bishops are declaring that they will not be in communion with the new Bishop of New Hampshire. (I wonder how they feel about being in communion with those who have chosen to elect him.) What about Africa? Anglicanism is on the decline in most of the western world, including in the United States. In Africa, a conservative, evangelical approach is attracting millions. At least one African Bishop has said that the American Church has broken its communion with him by electing Robinson. Another, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has gone so far as to say that openly gay clergy should be killed. That should give pause to anyone who thinks the whole communion is of one mind.
Beginning many years ago, the Anglican Communion agreed that some branches of the church would go in different directions on some issue-for example, the ordination of women, liturgical renewal and certainly the church's attitude toward homosexuality.
There is the timid option and there is the courageous option. We can take a course of action more likely to preserve church unity, placate the conservatives, keep the African Bishops happy, and increase the number of friendly teas offered at Lambeth Conference, the gathering of the worldwide Anglican communion. And that would be a value, indeed.
On the other hand, we can take the next step on the path the church has been taking for 25 years and ordain an openly gay bishop, continue to ordain openly gay clergy, and witness to our conviction that gay and straight in this church stand on exactly the same footing. My choice is highly influenced by my years in this church as a gay man. Consider these two slices of church life-one from about 25 years ago and one from just last month.
Twenty-five years ago a priest I know was brought in to start a ministry in the arts at a huge, influential parish in a large metropolitan area which, recognizing how we have all changed, will remain nameless. Not too long after he joined the staff, it was discovered that he was homosexual--a gay man committed to a discreet existence with his live-in partner. This was radical in those days. The parish decided they could not tolerate it, and the priest was quietly severed from the parish staff.
Last week, at this very same parish, a senior staffer sent me an invitation to a dinner planned for clergy, along with their spouses, partners, and (not my favorite phrase) "significant others." I indicated I would be there with my friend Jorge, whom I've been dating for about four years. At dinner we were seated with the parish rector and a number of other clergy and their spouses. Times, in short, have changed: What the parish could not tolerate less than a generation ago is now invited to the table.
One of the worst things about growing up gay, in my experience, was the awful thought that I was the only person that this dreadful thing had ever happened to. Ordaining Gene Robinson a bishop will lessen this dread for others who are coming to understand that they are gay. Lives destroyed by despair are not easily repaired. We can, however, repair church unity, with patience, love, and understanding. We know we can because we've been doing it for 25 years.