Interview: New Hampshire’s ‘turbulent priest’ and the fight for gay acceptance

Tony Grew June 5, 2008
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Controversy and Bishop Gene Robinson go hand in hand. Ever since his election as the first openly gay bishop in the American Anglican Church, he has rarely been out of the headlines.

Splits and schisms over the position of homosexual men and women in the Church have been a staple feature of reporting on religious affairs since his inauguration in 2003.

Traditionalists decry him as a snake, a man determined to divide the faithful with his selfish insistence on taking senior office in the Church.

To others, especially gay clergy and laymen and women, he is a hero, a man unafraid to be Anglican, gay and proud and to lead his diocese.

For at least a year his brothers and sisters in the Episcopacy have been struggling with the issue of the Lambeth conference.

This once-a-decade get together of senior Anglican leaders from around the world is being boycotted by more than 100 bishops.

They want the Church to get tough on the gay “renegades” and return to the traditional interpretation of the Bible.

Homosexuality is a sin and there is no place for clergy who are in sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage.

Bishop Robinson has not been invited to the Lambeth conference.

In the sort of compromise that satisfies no-one the spiritual head of the loose Anglican communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to try to hold together the traditionalist wing.

Some bishops have reportedly threatened to boycott the conference due to the way Robinson has been treated.

However, he asked his fellow bishops not to keep themselves from the event for his sake, saying someone has to represent the LGBT population in their communities.

The latest news is that he will now attend, if only to show leaders from across the world “that they have gay and lesbian faithful Anglicans in their flock.”

Bishop Robinson also intends to enter into a civil union later in a few weeks time, much to the consternation of Anglican traditionalists.

He visited London last month to promote his new book In The Eye of the Storm, which is described as a “revealing spiritual memoir.” It is that, and much more.

An exploration of the Biblical homophobia espoused by many Christians, it also illuminates Bishop Robinson’s life experiences, from a poor child in the racist southern states of America to his elevation to this highest levels of the Anglican church. What’s your view of Rowan Williams?

I have great respect for him as a human being and as a theologian, and certainly as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

And to be honest (when he was chosen for the role) we were dancing in the streets, we just couldn’t believe our good luck. It makes you believe in the Holy Spirit when something like that happens.

But I think we have been mystified by his setting aside of his personal views, which have been extremely affirming of gay and lesbian folk.

He has more than bent over backwards for who disagree about the inclusion of gay and lesbian people and it’s odd because they have cut him no slack.

They keep making demands, he meets those demands and then they demand more.

He has successfully disappointed both sides. Maybe that’s a good strategy on his part, maybe he’s in the right place – he’s making everyone mad, because I think in this current debate it’s a bit hard to make everyone happy. Do you have sympathy for his position though? The view seems to be that he is a good man who’s trying to keep together the church.

Yes, and I mean, there is no doubt in my mind that that is his intention, I’m not sure whether the policy he has followed will in fact do that. You talk in your book about being called to the episcopacy. Do you think that means God is calling you to cause this division or this debate?

You know, I don’t know!

I did feel called and I wasn’t sure that I would ever become a bishop, but I believe I was meant to be in the process.

And then the people who actually elected me – the laity, clergy and bishops – voting for me on about a two thirds majority on all three orders – consented my election.

Then this debate has resulted – I think it’s a good debate for the church to be having, and it still mystifies me that people think that the church should be conflict-free, when in fact our history says that there has always been conflict, and when you’re trying to figure out God’s will people disagree about that. Do you think that the acceptance of gay and lesbian people is more important than the unity of the church?

I don’t think that that is a choice, I think that’s a false dichotomy.

There was a great split in the earliest church between the apostle Peter who believed passionately that one needed to become a Jew, an observant Jew, in order to follow Jesus.

The apostle Paul argued quite the opposite, because he was out there evangelising amongst the Gentiles, who had no intention of being circumcised or eating kosher or any of those things.

And so the church ultimately settled that debate. I’m sure in the middle of it, it seemed like a choice between the inclusion of Gentiles and the unity of the church.

So I think we’re in the middle right now, of that debate, and therefore we cannot see our way forward to unity, but I believe that will come. Let me put it another way, in this book you talked about the Episcopalian church coming to grips with civil rights, and that therefore some people left the church.

We’ve seen it in England over women priests – some people have to leave the church they couldn’t accept that. Do you think that that’s going to be a part of this process?

We’ve already experienced that, in large measures in the Episcopal church, and it looks very similar to the reactions to the inclusion of other races and of women.

We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Jesus says in countless ways if you follow God it will be costly. And isn’t it odd that Christians would be surprised at the costliness of the Gospel. Turning to the Bible, I we’ve all heard the Leviticus ‘abomination’ and all that sort of stuff and St Paul’s slightly odd views…

Yes, well they are actually not odd if you know what he was talking about. You said in the book that he was expecting the imminent arrival of Christ.

It’s very interesting, there are translations of the Bible, many, many popular ones who use the word homosexual in that passage by Paul, which is a very modern concept – only 120 years old.

To put a word and a concept back into an ancient text to which is was wholly unknown does bias to the text.

What Paul was really referring to in his letters was something very well-known to him and greatly in Roman culture which was older men taking young adolescent boys under their wing and teaching them the ways of the world and – by the way – using them sexually.

Well, we would call that child abuse. No one’s arguing for that.

But you see to take those words and substitute the word homosexual, sounds like it’s talking about what we’re talking about today when in fact it was talking about something very different. Do you think that the pace of change is too quick for some in the church and that you should maybe be a bit more Roman Catholic about it and take a hundred years…

[Laughs] Or how long did it take for them to decide that the earth really goes around the sun?

Martin Luther King said that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’

I think that we are always bound by the Gospel to point out injustice, and set about rectifying it.

If it takes 100 years, that’s ok by me – you know we made great strides in terms of racism, but racism isn’t over and done with.

We made great strides in terms of women, but sexism is alive and well and living among us. So you know it’s going to take a long time. What about this distinction between sexuality and sexual behaviour – in other words whilst one’s sexuality may be embraced by the church, sexual behaviour outside of marriage is not, there’s no provision for same sex marriage within the Bible.

It’s a real Catch-22 Therefore the only thing for gay people to do is to remain celibate within the Church of England – what’s your view on that?

It is amazing to me that we gay and lesbian folk and gay Christian folk have carried on our relationships with such integrity, and really following the values that are put forward in terms of our relationships being faithful and monogamous, life long intentioned and so on.

You would think that conservative Christians would be all for that yet they accuse us of trying to undermine marriage, when all we’re wanting to do is embody our same values in our own relationships.

You would think that conservative Christians would be totally supportive. If you were in a heterosexual relationship and you were doing all of the things that you said but had not got married they would criticise you in the same way.

I do think that’s true. There is no mention of same sex marriage in the Bible, it’s very clear that it’s supposed to be for men and women in the Biblical sense and a religious sense and so –

Well the church is supportive of lots of things that aren’t in the Bible. And the church has changed it’s mind about things a lot.

The Roman Catholic church has not changed its mind about divorce.

In the Anglican church we used to not give people communion after divorce, and we would not bless their second marriages – we’ve changed our minds about that.

We’ve decided that we were denying them communion at perhaps the very time they needed it. And second marriages can be a blessing, both to the couple and to the community.

And so I see that as a testing to God’s ongoing relationship with those of us who are in the church. And so I see that as just a part of the natural development. Are you still having a June wedding?

Well, we’re not having a wedding, but the law provides for a civil union. It provides about 400 of the 1100 rights and protections that heterosexual marriage offers, so it’s not equal, it’s not equality, but it’s certainly a step forward.

And frankly the reason I’m doing it at this time is that there is every reason to believe that my life will be in danger here at the Lambeth conference. And frankly I’m not willing to… You think your life will be in danger more in England than in the United States?

I don’t know about more but I can tell you that I just talked to my partner on the phone this afternoon and since I’ve been here and articles have been run about me, we’ve got two threatening calls to our home phone saying that if I come to Lambeth then my life will be hell. And so you wear a bullet proof vest …

Yes – and you know there are lots of crazy people out there and you know more and more crazy people are turning to violence.

And so I’m not willing to put my life at risk without taking advantage of what protections I can put in place, in a civil union for my partner and family. I think that’s what any wife or husband would do
. I’m surprised to hear that people would take something like this so seriously that they would threaten someone’s life – I assume you’ve spoken to the authorities?

I literally just heard about it in the car coming back here, but I will, yes… You’ve said you want to be a June bride. A conservative Christian would think that that’s a very camp way of expressing yourself, very cheeky …

It was! It was. I’m a human being, I’m a fairly playful human being and you know I love that part of gay culture, and I’m not going to conform to someone else’s idea of how I should act as a bishop – perhaps more bishops should be acting in a similar manner.

And it points out to me the lack of humour in all of this – my goodness, if we can’t laugh about this then we are in sad shape indeed. Well, I don’t remember Jesus making many jokes.

Um, we don’t have a lot of recorded … but you know he was actually kind of playful and mischievous with his critics. On this idea of civil partnerships, radical homosexual activists claim that civil partnerships are a form of apartheid – what’s your view on that?

For me I think that civil partnerships are an interim step until we have equality. I frankly don’t care what word we use. What I care about is that they be equal.

And it’s very interesting where in the United States about six or seven states have civil partnership in one form or another.

It’s been the experience that in a couple of those states that civil partnerships are not being recognised regardless of what the law is.

If your partner’s at the hospital and you’re not allowed to make medical decisions on his or her behalf, and so we have a couple of states that have civil partnerships – Vermont and New Jersey – who are looking at making it marriage. So I see it as an interim step. Do you think your civil partnership should be celebrated in the presence of the media?

It will be completely private, as a matter of fact to ensure that – to represent this division between the civil and the religious – we were going to have a civil ceremony actually on the state Capitol steps (in Concord, New Hampshire), and then walk across to the church for the religious part.

But in an effort to keep this completely private we’ve moved this entirely inside the church, you have to show your wedding invitation and be on the list.

And we will do the civil part of the ceremony in the rear of the church. And then we will process up to the altar for the religious part. Finally, why are you coming to Lambeth later this summer, despite the lack of invite?

I think it’s important that the six hundred bishops or so that are planning to attend not be allowed to forget that they have gay and lesbian faithful Anglicans in their flock.

And it will be all too convenient for them to gather and never remember that we are there needing their pastoral care as much as anybody else. And are entitled to it – as much as anybody else.

I will be there to represent that under-represented group, and frankly, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that someone from say Nigeria has never had the opportunity to sit with a self-affirming, unashamedly Christian person and hear their story.

Because it’s illegal to be gay – you can be imprisoned for it in Nigeria.

And so I want to be there for those bishops who might want to take the opportunity to sit down with someone who is both gay and Christian, and if they want to listen to my story and that of other gay and lesbian people.

In The Eye of the Storm by Gene Robinson is published by Canterbury Press and is on sale now for £12.99.

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