An end — or a beginning?

24 January 2007

Leigh Hatts on how a gay priest came to be elected a bishop


Going to Heaven: The life and election of Bishop Gene Robinson
Elizabeth Adams

THIS BOOK, written by an insider, Elizabeth Adams, reveals much about Bishop Gene Robinson’s background, and his continuing struggle with sudden fame.

We learn that his name is derived from his mother Imogene, and was given to him by parents who were expecting the birth of a girl who was predicted to live only a few hours.

Having grown up in Kentucky, Gene Robinson sometimes calls himself “a recovering racist”. The journey to his present Anglican life began in his parents’ small funda-mentalist church, where, unusually but crucially, the main weekly service was communion.

His conversion, marriage, and extraordinarily amicable divorce are covered sympathetically. Although divorced and now living with a male partner, Robinson seems always to have appeared conventional. In 1974, he refused to support a woman for ordination on the grounds that canon law had to be obeyed.

The author emphasises, with pride, that in the Episcopal Church in the United States, unlike “most other parts of the Anglican Communion”, all elections of bishops are democratic. There is an implied, and probably unfair, criticism of the appointment of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading as being the decision of a single person, and of subsequent events as not having involved the laity.

It is clear that Gene Robinson, on the other hand, was largely carried towards his election as Bishop of New Hampshire by Episcopalian liberals, who tended to pray and mix with fellow liberals.

As the possibility of Robinson’s becoming a bishop drew near, Mike Barwell, an Anglican journalist, asked the diocesan standing com-mittee how much media coverage was expected if Robinson, a gay, divorced priest, were elected. The consensus was that a mention was likely on the local television news and in The Concord Monitor.

This innocent verdict so alarmed Barwell, who remembered the controversial election of Bishop Barbara Harris, that he took im-mediate control of press relations, since the diocese had no communi-cations officer.

Robinson had talked about homosexuality only twice in 16 years, and had never played the gay-priest role. But he appears to have been realistic about the impending storm, for his first words in private to the electors after the declaration were: “Don’t forget about the people who are heartbroken because of what you’ve just done.” Outside the church, the New York Times reporter was being told: “This is the end of the life of the Church.”

At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, where the Committee on the Consecration of Bishops met in the Hyatt Hotel ballroom to receive official notice of Robinson’s election, Barwell found himself dealing personally with 360 of the 390 media representatives.

This is a detailed book of 300 pages; and it is interesting to see Bishop Robinson portrayed as less arrogant and more cautious than some media profiles have suggested.

The book is also a fascinating portrait of small-town American Anglicans’ coming to terms with being a branch of a much larger Church that they knew little about.

Leigh Hatts is editor of In SE1, a South Bank arts magazine.

The book is distributed by Turnaround, and can be ordered from

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