New Hampshire gay Episcopal bishop visits his theological alma mater in Chelsea
In a city like New York, houses of worship are something of an anomaly. Unlike most apartments, churches have spacious interiors and are quiet inside; and sometimes even the doors go unlocked.
Behind the peaceful facade, though, swirl undercurrents of political and social discord. Caught in the eye of one big, ongoing storm has been the Right Reverend Gene Robison, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire. Three years ago, Robinson became the first openly gay priest to be elevated to bishop in the Episcopal Church.
“The archbishop of Kenya said that the devil entered the church when I was consecrated,” he recounted last week during a visit to General Theological Seminary in Chelsea. “The archbishop of Nigeria says gay folks are lower than the dogs.”
Robinson’s elevation has led to threats of schism within the worldwide Anglican Communion, in which America’s Episcopal Church is a member. Rowan Williams, who as archbishop of Canterbury oversees the global body and was long considered an ally of gays in the Church, has been unwilling to offer full-throated support for the New Hampshire bishop in the face of conservative complaints, many from African Anglican leaders. Even the American body that approved his consecration has backpedaled to a degree after angry congregations threatened to bolt.
Robinson received death threats.
“I had to wear a bulletproof vest to my own consecration as bishop,” he said. Divisions ran so deep that, out of fear of a bomb or gunshots, plans were made to evacuate Robinson from the ceremony to a secret location.
Last Thursday, Robinson returned to the institution where he received his master’s of divinity, the seminary on Ninth Avenue. Several hundred people mingled in the seminary’s peaceful courtyard, known as The Close, before gathering in the chapel to hear an address from one of their most notable graduates.
Inside the sanctuary, the evening’s tone was set by the repetition of one theme—inclusion.
Ward B. Ewing, the seminary’s dean and president, called Robinson, “a man of great courage, one who has brought our community in the Episcopal Church light years closer to the ideal of full inclusion.”
Ewing introduced Speaker Christine Quinn, a Chelsea Democrat and the first openly lesbian or gay leader of the New York City Council. Quinn recalled that sexual orientation was not an issue when she sought the speaker’s office and that when she was sworn in, “I was proud that, in the greatest city in the world, diversity was seen as a strength.”
“To forge ahead,” she told the assemblage in praising Robinson, “even in the face of people who would go to any length possible to prevent you from holding this job just because of who you are, that is courage.
“If you believe in yourself, if you define yourself, if you love yourself, you can overcome any odds that anybody puts in front of you,” Quinn concluded to applause.
Before entering the chapel to deliver his address, Robinson sat down with this reporter in one of the seminary’s schoolrooms and fielded questions on a wide range of subjects.
Although he grew up in a fundamentalist environment in Kentucky, he noted, “I did escape, as you can see.” He described his return to Chelsea as a true homecoming and commended the seminary for the success of its outreach out to the surrounding community.
Robinson senses an excitement in the Episcopal Church.
“We’ve just elected a woman as presiding bishop,” he said. “She’s the first woman ever to be elected to the post of archbishop and I think that is yet another signal of how the Episcopal Church is taking very seriously our call to love and include all of God’s children.”
Katharine Jefferts Schori, the bishop of Nevada, will be installed the first Saturday in November and serve at the church’s national headquarters in New York.
As for recent tensions over a policy of inclusion in a number of parishes nationwide, Robinson said, “Those who are disaffected and angry… are threatening to leave, but they haven’t left yet. They have begun talking about this as a divorce.”
Robinson finds himself at the center of the controversy, but said, “Those who see my election and consecration as a bishop of the Church as a good thing are saying, ‘There’s no reason for us to come apart over this.’”
He praised the Anglican Communion for its progressive posture on such hot-button issues as abortion and stem-cell research.
“None of those things has caused us to come apart,” he observed.
Robinson suspects a power play is at work in the conflict over his role within the American Church.
“These people weren’t threatening to leave [the Church] when they were getting their way in our national convention,” he said of the U.S. governing body that approved his consecration. “But when they started to lose the vote, they began to question whether or not the Holy Spirit was working in convention.”
“You can’t have it both ways,” he added.
Regarding opposition within the Church over his having a partner and, thus, not being celibate—perhaps the greatest factor drawing fire from his critics—Robinson was forthright.
“I think this is another instance in which the Church got it wrong,” he explained. “God didn’t get it wrong, but the Church did. It’s happened before.
“We got it wrong about slavery as recently as 150 years ago,” he said. “We didn’t start ordaining women until 30 years ago. We got it wrong about women. I believe we are in a time where we are beginning to understand that we got it wrong about LGBT people.”
“Those very few passages, and there are a maximum of seven of them in all of scripture, seem to be talking about homosexuality,” he explained. “Even the word ‘homosexual’ or any notion of homosexual orientation is only about 100 years old. You can’t read a modern concept like that back into an ancient text, as if that’s what they were talking about.”
“Even if you look at those seven passages,” he continued, “it seems to me that that’s one of the places where the texts are culturally bound and are not binding on us for all time.”
Robinson believes homosexuality is an issue in every denomination since so many members of churches and other religious bodies across the board have started to come out.
“Fifteen years ago, most people in the United States would have told you that they didn’t know anyone gay or lesbian,” he noted. “The thing that has changed is, people that they already knew and already loved have come out. Sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, next-door neighbors, co-workers have come out and, all of a sudden, there’s a disconnect in their minds, because they know these people. They love and respect these people.”
Are the East and West Coasts more understanding of the issue than Middle America? Yes, Robinson said. Otherwise, he observed, “Chelsea wouldn’t be Chelsea.”
“As more and more people who never left Iowa begin to come out and people begin to understand that we are their teachers and their garbage collectors and their firemen, I think that’s going to change,” he predicted.
What about certain code words and phrases, not to mention efforts at altering the U.S. Constitution, that President George W. Bush incorporates in his speeches and are intended to appeal to a fundamentalist ethic?
“I don’t, certainly, support any kind of manipulation of people,” he responded. “What I think needs to be done is that we need to take back religion from the religious right. I think most mainline denominations, those that would have a more liberal view, have faded into the background and allowed the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world to speak for all Christians everywhere.”
As to whether he feels he is an inspiration to still-closeted gays in his Church, Robinson demurred, “With my head I understand that, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like I’m just putting one foot in front of the other. For every person who is out, who is known to be out and leads a life like that, someone else might say, ‘I’m gay and could do that,’ and it’s a great thing. So, I am honored to be one of many, many role models for young gay and lesbian kids.”
Before leaving the schoolroom to face his audience, Robinson offered one last bit of advice.
“Nothing important has ever been accomplished without risk taking,” he pointed out. “So, I made my peace with that a long time ago. God is very, very close. I don’t want to be a martyr, I just want to be the bishop of New Hampshire.”