Never lonelier, never more blessed

by
30 April 2008

Gene Robinson was in the UK this week to promote his new book of reflections on being the only openly gay bishop. He spoke to Paul Handley

ANDREW FIRTH

ANDREW FIRTH

Why is sexuality such a big issue?

First of all, I think it shouldn't be such a big issue. For all kinds of complicated reasons, it has been raised to a level higher than it deserves. We should be talking about the gospel, feeding the poor, caring for the HIV-infected, solving the ecological crisis.

Of course, it's not just homosexuality: sexuality's an issue that's been talked about much too little; so that gives it a certain power.

I also think it's safe to say that there has been a widening gulf forming for some number of years. I would date it at least from the ordination of women in the '70s. In an odd sort of way, certainly for the American Church, this was a division looking for an issue.

I'm not sure it's a good analogy, but I think George W. Bush had it in his mind to invade Iraq anyway, and 9/11 gave him a wonderful excuse. In some way, I think my election and consecration gave this growing rift an issue around which to rally.



I thought you were going to say that your consecration was the Church's 9/11.

[Laughs] No, no, I don't want to go quite that far. I don't believe it was a terrorist act against the Anglican Communion.

 

But conservatives say it's not about sexuality: it's a scripture issue.

Well, I would believe that if the person saying it were keeping kosher, if they weren't wearing two kinds of cloth on their bodies at the same time, or not planting two kinds of seed in the same field . . . because those kinds of proscriptions are in Leviticus, and yet somehow they don't have eternal binding authority the way these two verses have been pulled out.

A piece of scripture which I have only noticed in the past year, which I know I must have read a thousand times, is in John's Gospel where Jesus says to his disciples: "There is much more I would teach you, but you cannot bear it right now; and so I will send the Holy Spirit to lead you into all truth."

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If you look back over the last 2000 years, the Church has changed its mind about what scripture means, the most notable example being that, out of Jesus's own mouth come the words that remarriage after divorce is adultery, and yet the Church has changed its mind.

So I see this as one of the many ways in which the Holy Spirit has led us to new, deeper, and I would say better understandings.

 

But how does the Church change its mind? How does it square inspiration with democracy?

I think it happens over time. And the first person, or the first few people, who articulate a new understanding never meet with particularly positive reactions. It takes time for any kind of consensus to build.

You go back to Acts, and you have Gamaliel talking about the disciples' teaching in the marketplace, saying: "You know, we ought to give this some time. If it's not of God, it will go away. And if it is of God, do we want to be opposing it?" I think we're in the middle of that now. All of us want it to be over, but the fact of the matter is that it's going to take us some time to settle this.

 

But didn't Rowan Williams say to you that the proper way of doing this was to pose the question, take soundings, and convince people before doing the deed?

What I said to Rowan in that meeting was "Yes, wouldn't that be wonderful? It sounds so orderly, and neat and tidy, when in fact it rarely happens that way." We find someone taking action and then we think our way backwards to it.

I pointed out to him that in our own country we had 11 women who were uncanonically ordained to the priesthood before we had sanctioned the ordination of women. I wonder how many years it would have taken us (rather than the two years it took us to the next General Convention to approve that) to ordain women had we gone about that in an orderly process. We might still not be ordaining women.

 

If the Anglican Communion means anything, surely it should operate as an international body rather than as a group of disparate dioceses.

We've never been an international body. We've had international relationships. It should be an interconnected group of relationships that work for the good of all sides.

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I believe in the Anglican Communion, and I believe in those relationships, because how else are we going to hear in the so-called First World the ramifications of our actions around racism and colonialism and all that? We need our brothers and sisters to reflect back to us the results of our actions.

 

But if you're in a relationship and you say to someone, I hear your objection but I'm going to do my own thing anyway, how does that build a relationship?

I think it's true that you listen to people that you care about, but at the end of the day, one has to follow the discernment of God's will.

And I know in my own relationship with my partner, and there's no one in the world that I care more about, I listen to what he has to say to me, and sometimes I have to choose not to do what he has urged me to do. In any good relationship, one is free to follow or not follow. And then you deal with the change in the relationship as a result of that.

 

Can I ask about your election in New Hampshire? How many people were involved in the choice?

There are about 15,000 Episcopalians in the diocese. The diocesan convention includes all of the clergy, and from two to four lay persons from each parish - about 300 people.

 

And your election was confirmed by a majority in the House of Bishops?

And the House of Deputies, which is clergy and laity. And I think it's important to note that that consent was not by a narrow margin. Two-thirds of the bishops, two-thirds of the clergy, and two-thirds of the laity voted to consent to my election.

In contrast, the election of Barbara Harris, as the first woman bishop, received only one more consent than was needed from the House of Bishops, and that only at the last minute.

 

So how did it feel when you first had an inkling that you would not be invited to the Lambeth Conference?

Until very recently I thought that my inclusion in some way was going to be possible. So it was only on the Friday night of our House of Bishops meeting that the three bishops who had been negotiating with Rowan's representatives shared with me what the proposal for my participation was, and it was so minimal, and controlled, and not substantive that I decline that minimal participation.

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You've said that you wouldn't go to Canterbury in a diminished capacity, and yet you are still going to attend. Why?

One main reason. It is not a surprise to me that people from many of the provinces of the Anglican Communion are opposed on this issue, because what has changed things in the American Church are the huge numbers of gay and lesbian people of faith, who have come out, and are making their witness in the parishes and dioceses.

But in most of the Anglican Communion, it is simply unsafe to be open about one's sexuality, and so many of the people coming to Lambeth will never have had the experience of sitting in the same room as an unashamedly Christian, unashamedly gay person, and to hear about the journey in which they have put their sexuality and their spirituality together.

And so I want to make myself available to anyone who wants to talk to me. I have no intention or desire to be an embarrassment to the Archbishop or to the Conference, or to do anything disruptive: I wouldn't want to take part in anything like that.

 

You're going to be in the Conference Marketplace. Will you have a stall?

A booth, a kissing booth? [Laughs] I believe the suggestion was that you can pay $5 and have a kiss from Bishop Robinson or $10 not to.

 

If Rowan Williams came up to you at Lambeth and said: "We've changed our minds. Will you come and speak to us?" what would you say to the bishops?

I would want them to know how amazingly orthodox I am. I think both the conservatives and the liberals would be shocked by that.

Because one of the things I've learned - and I've learned this from the most conservative people in our House of Bishops - is that they perceive that the fuller inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Church is the precursor, the sort of camel's nose under the tent, to the deconstruction of other essentials, whether that be the divinity of Christ, or the Trinity, or the resurrection. That could not be further from the truth about me.

I would probably want them to know a bit of my story, not because my story is important, but because it is not unlike the story of so many people who have come to know themselves as gay or lesbian.

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Lastly, I would want them to know that I want to be in a Church with people who disagree with me about this. I want us to continue to hold on to one another while we figure out this issue, because I don't believe this issue is essential.

One of the great gifts of Anglicanism for the world, certainly for Christianity, is this big-umbrella approach that allows for such a wide diversity of styles while acknowledging the authority of scripture. That is one of our great traditions, and we ought to be proud of it and encourage it, not discourage it.

 

You talk about convincing people of your orthodoxy, but there's that part of your book where you say that the inerrancy of the Bible is not part of your creed.

I would want to know where in the Anglican tradition there is the contention that scriptures are inerrant. I would question that as our orthodox view of scripture. I think that's very new.

I'm most often asked these things by people who are themselves divorced and remarried, and very unrepentant about it. This whole thing about remarriage after divorce: I would want to know whether they were defying the words of Jesus, and if so, why? And if that's inerrant, how did the Church come to change its mind?

 

Some of the opponents of gays and lesbians are said to be gay themselves.

It's one thing to be closeted, to have made different decisions. I would never out anyone like that. But it's especially painful to some of us who know that our opponents themselves are gay and are using that secret place to harm the rest of us. That's especially repugnant.

 

Putting those aside, what about gay priests who are quietly getting on with their ministry?

The degree of openness with which one lives one's life is a very personal choice. I don't think there's any right or wrong about that. The question for any gay or lesbian person is: "Is the price that I'm paying for being quiet exceeding the benefit?" When the negative consequences of that secrecy begin to outweigh its rewards, then that's a dilemma.

 

But it's not just a personal consideration. It's a political question.

I would say back to you, then: What is the cost to the Church of secrecy? And I think this especially true here in the Church of England. What does it say to the Church when a vicar gets into a pulpit and calls the congregation to a life of integrity, when it is so obvious to the congregation that the vicar is himself not able to grasp at that straw of integrity? There's cost to the people themselves, and there's a a cost to the Church.

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I've met, what, probably 300 gay, partnered clergy here in the Church of England, and I could tell you stories that would make you weep about what life is like for them, and the fear with which they live: the difficulty in having their bishop come to dinner at their home, with their partner, have a lovely time, and the bishop be fully affirming of them - and to have the bishop say: "You know, if this ever becomes public, I'm your worst nightmare. I will see to it that you are punished." Now that does something not just to the bishop and to the couple; that does something to the Church.

 

What about gay bishops? Have you had people talking to you quietly about their sexuality?

Yes.

 

And what have you said to them?

Most of the people who have shared with me that they are indeed gay. These bishops are my age and older. Like me, they grew up in a [difficult] time - when I came out, I thought my life as an ordained person was at an end - they made their choices, and I honour those choices. I would be the last person in the world to out them. They come to me as a pastor.

 

But the thought of having two or three openly gay bishops must be attractive.

It would be a wonderful thing. It's a pretty lonely place to be, and I probably never feel lonelier than at meetings of my own House of Bishops. Not because I don't have support, because the support there is extraordinary; but, perhaps more than at any other time, I feel that I'm the only one carrying this particular load in this particular way. I just long for the day when the next two or three come along.

It's not unlike being the first person of colour, or the first woman - it's why Barbara Harris is such a mentor and a hero to me. It would be nice to have a brother or sister to share this with.

 

Has that become less likely in the past year or two?

I think it's become less likely in the near term. I believe that the commitments made at the last General Convention and by the Bishops since then make the election of, and consent to, an openly gay or lesbian person as bishop highly unlikely. I do believe that the 2009 General Convention will revisit that decision.

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In your book you mention the mantra "Love them anyway." What practical steps have to be taken to love people in the breakaway churches?

Mostly what I have tried to do is not vilify or demonise my enemies. I don't believe I have ever spoken ill of them in public, and have never characterised them as anything but faithfully trying to do the will of God as they perceive it.

I keep reminding myself that my worst enemies are children of God. Jesus didn't say we wouldn't have enemies; he said love them.

 

Have you had any encouraging contact from people who disagree with you?

Certainly, I have a wonderful relationship with those who disagree with me in my own diocese, people who think it was not right to elect me, or it was not the right time, or whatever. And yet we really have a quite wonderful working relationship, and I would even say, warm and affectionate. We just disagree about this one thing.

 

Do you have any parishes in your diocese which have elected to go over to a conservative province?

No, there are none at this point.

 

There was one early on, the Church of the Redeemer, in Rochester, New Hampshire, and they were being coached by a person who is now a bishop in one of the breakaway Churches. He was at the table, telling them what to do.

It was very clear that they wanted a break. They made a request of me for alternative oversight by another bishop. I gave them 20 very conservative bishops that I would be willing to come in. They didn't want any of those: they wanted the Bishop of Albany.

Eventually, I called the Bishop of Albany and asked him, would he be willing to come in and serve as their pastor? He said that he would, under my authority. When I offered them the person they had asked for, they rejected that, because they didn't want him if I had approved him. So it seemed that what they wanted was a fight, not an agreement.

Ultimately, at that final negotiation that we had, they slammed their church keys down on the table and walked out. There were about 25 of them, and that left about ten in the parish. We kept that parish for about a year, and after about a year they asked me to close them, and they're all worshipping in neighbouring parishes now. That is the only parish that flirted with going in some other direction.

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What about Rowan Williams? Could he have handled these past few years better?

It would be arrogant of me to judge the Archbishop of Canterbury and his actions. I have a hard enough time keeping track of my own actions. 

 I would like him to have insisted that everyone stay at the table.

 If there were one thing that I could change about what he has done: two or three years ago [in Dromantine, in Ireland] when there were a number of Primates - I believe there were 16 - who refused to take communion from Rowan because our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, was there, just as a part of the service, he should have sent them home.

I think to absent oneself from the communion table because of the presence of other perceived sinners is blasphemy against the sacrament. And I think if the Archbishop of Canterbury had named that for what it was, and had called it not just inappropriate but sacrilege, we would be in a better place.

We can't choose our own brothers and sisters; we can't choose our brothers and sisters in Christ. We might not get along, but we cannot declare one another not members of the family any more. I think that's a very unfaithful thing to do.

  How has all this changed you, if at all?

God has not been so palpably close in my whole life than he has been in the last five years. I would say the only other time when God seemed this close was at the time when I was coming out.

 And I've done a lot of thinking about the Hebrews once they were released from Egypt. You know, they thought the Promised Land was just on the other side of the Red Sea. And when they got there, it was the desert; and it was 40 years of desert.

I think the reason that God had them wander round the desert for 40 years was to teach them their dependence on God. And what I can say about my coming out, and risking not having a life in the Church, and what I can say about the last five years, is that it has taught me about my dependence on God, and that's always a good thing.

Certainly, my confronting my own alcoholism, and finally saying what every alcoholic must say: "I'm powerless over this disease, and without God it's going to kill me."

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And so I have just been made so aware of God's presence and of my dependence on God, for my own being and for the vitality of my ministry.

It sounds incredibly trite, but I'm trying to point to God in all this. If it winds up that I'm just pointing to myself, then it would have been better if I had not done it at all. When I talk to the media, they're trying to get me to say something that will make news, and I'm wanting to tell them about this amazing God who loves all of God's children.

How often does the issue of your sexuality come up in your normal ministry?

Oh, almost never. I keep saying to people: if you want to see what the Church is like after we've finished obsessing about sex, come to New Hampshire. We're so over it. Really, we are getting on with the gospel, and this occupies almost none of it. It's what keeps me sane.

So, 90 per cent of my time is just doing what a bishop does, and loving it. I just love this ministry. I feel like the most blessed person I know.

In the Eye of the Storm is published by Canterbury Press (£12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-85311-902-6).

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

 

 

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