His election in 2003 as bishop of New Hampshire for the Episcopal Church threw the Anglican Communion into turmoil. The Christian right talked of fracture. Eight years on however, the Communion remains intact and Gene Robinson continues to be a beacon of hope for the LGBT community. Laurence Watts travelled to New England to talk faith, service and retirement with The Right Reverend Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire.
Conservatives thought it was the end of the world. For the LGBT faith community it provided hope and much needed affirmation. When Gene Robinson was elected Bishop by the diocese of New Hampshire on June 7th 2003 it made headlines the world over. When ratified he would become the world’s first openly gay priest to be ordained as bishop.
“I first felt called to the priesthood late in my college years and went right to seminary out of college,” he tells me. “But it wasn’t until the early 90s that I began to experience God calling me to the episcopate. I resisted for a long time because I knew that it wouldn’t be an easy journey.”
After Robinson’s election the right moved quickly and publicly to block his consecration. Although there was some domestic opposition, the majority of noise came from the Anglican Communion’s African churches, which threatened to leave the Communion or somehow cast out the Episcopal Church should he become bishop.
“After my election but before my consecration I was getting calls to step down from archbishops around the world. People I’d never met were calling me. I took that to God and said: “If I’ve done enough and I’m to back off, let me know,” but I never got anything from God other than, ‘Come forward and I will be with you’.”
When the votes of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops and House of Deputies were counted, Robinson had two-thirds majorities in each. He was consecrated in a bulletproof vest in the presence of 48 other bishops on November 2nd 2003. History was made, but opposition remained.
“The first couple of years were full of death threats. They started the very afternoon I was elected. As recently as a year and a half ago the police arrested a man on his way to kill my husband and me. He was coming through a town in Vermont in such a rage that he shot the windows out of a parked police cruiser. He had maps to our house, pictures of us and a sawn-off shotgun.”
Robinson has been with his partner, Mark, for almost 25 years. They became married on January 1st 2010 when their civil union converted to marriage under New Hampshire law, the first day such a conversion could occur.
“In many ways I think it’s harder on him than on me,” says Robinson. “I think sometimes it’s easier for the person doing the work because you’re engaged in it. You believe it’s worth dying for if that’s what it takes, though you hope not. It’s harder for your husband to stand by, wondering if something’s going to happen.”
Though he’s acutely aware of the drawbacks to being a pioneer I wonder if he’s aware of the good he does. How tangible is that for him?
He smiles. “Not a day goes by that I don’t get a letter, email or message from someone, often young people, writing to say what hope this gives them. That I could be doing this. That I could put my faith and my sexuality together. Often they’re writing from places in America that aren’t remotely open and accepting.”
The underlying issue here is whether or not it’s compatible to be gay and a Christian. Robinson is unequivocal on the matter.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are part of God’s obvious delight in diversity. We see it all throughout creation, why wouldn’t we have it in humankind?
“I believe that the church has gotten this wrong, just as we once used scripture to justify slavery and the subjugation of women. It wasn’t too long ago in this country that women wore hats to church because St Paul said a woman’s place is to keep her head covered and her mouth shut! We kept women out of the ordination process because of that! Sexual orientation is something God celebrates and I believe that will become the mainstream Christian understanding before not too very long.”
Robinson argues that with so many LGBT people coming out there isn’t a person left in America that doesn’t have a family member, co-worker, next-door neighbour or someone they went to school with that’s gay.
“Now when we discuss the issue a face comes up,” he says. “People are looking for a way they can hold scripture sacred, but understand those words in the context in which they were written, permitting them to love the people they already love.”
Such beliefs could of course have been preached from the safety of the closet. Was that ever an option for him?
“In 1986 when I came out I felt God was calling me out,” he replies. “It seems to me that if the church is about living a life of integrity then secrecy and either lying or not telling the truth about yourself flies in the face of what we stand for and robs the Gospel of its power.”
Ceremonially speaking, Robinson’s tenure as bishop has included some very public highs and lows. When the 14th decennial Lambeth Conference took place in July 2008 Robinson wasn’t invited. Every other bishop in the Anglican Communion was. Robinson describes it as the worst thing he has had to endure as bishop.
Just six months later however he gave the opening prayer at the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, the concert that kicked off Obama’s inauguration weekend. Shunned by religious hierarchy, but honoured by a president, the two events together speak of how religious institutions seem to be lagging behind society. If Robinson is right it will only be a matter of time before they catch up.
“There were many bishops from developing countries at the Lambeth conference who said: ‘We don’t understand about homosexuality and from what we know of it we don’t agree with it, but we’ve got people dying of abject poverty, AIDS and malaria. Let’s work on those things together and somewhere down the road we’ll figure this thing out’. Well, down the road they’ll realise that some of the people who helped them the most were gay men and lesbians.”
In November 2010 a tearful Robinson announced his retirement. Although he’ll remain a bishop forever he will formerly give up his job in January 2013 at the age of 65. He says he came to his decision only after Canon Mary Glasspool, an openly gay and partnered lesbian was elected Bishop of Los Angeles.
“I never considered retiring until Mary was elected. Had there not been another gay or lesbian person in the House of Bishops I would have stayed on. Now I feel God is calling me to other things. I won’t retire in any real sense of the word. I want to have a hand in helping the unchurched and the dechurched find their way back to God.
“I’m also interested in the intersection between religion and public policy. The religious right in this country has shown us how not to mix religion and politics, but I believe there’s a right way it can be done and I’ll spend at least some of my time working on that.”