Argus title : Why this openly gay bishop is a hero to me
As a child I had many heroes. I admired people like Robin Hood and Joan of Arc and Oliver Cromwell. I liked the idea that Robin took from the rich and gave to the poor.
My battered children’s history book had an illustration of the young Oliver Cromwell refusing to kiss the hand of the boy prince who later became Charles 1. I don’t know if the incident ever happened, but I thought it was pretty impressive. Best of all was Joan of Arc who spoke to angels, rejected housework, dressed up as a man and led an army to victory.
One of the hardest aspects of growing up was losing the capacity for innocent hero worship – though some fine souls survived my increasing scepticism about the motivation of leaders. I continue to admire reformers like Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler and Martin Luther King. Archbishop Tutu remains a definite hero and has featured in this column.
Another hero is Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, best known for being the first bishop of the Anglican tradition to be openly gay and non-celibate.
Nothing has come easily to Robinson. His parents were poor tenant farmers, in rural Kentucky. As a baby he was temporarily paralyzed and so seriously ill that the doctor was certain he would not survive.
Robinson had a very religious upbringing within a small strict non-conformist Christian church. It’s difficult to imagine a more restrictive and difficult environment for a young man who was beginning to question his own sexuality.
He was a bright student, and though he might have been better off at a more liberal university, won a full scholarship to the University of the South in Tennessee, and so attended there.
He discovered the Episcopal Church and very soon began to consider the ordained ministry. As he puts it “The Episcopal Church got a hold on me”. He graduated in 1969 then studied at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.
While serving as a Chaplain at Vermont University he met a young woman whom he grew to love and to whom he later proposed. Robinson was honest about his sexual confusion and at one point they considered breaking their engagement. However, they proceeded with their marriage in 1972 and he was ordained a year later.
The couple had 2 daughters in 1977 and 1981, but some time after that, during the early to mid 80s they began to realise that Robinson’s sexuality was an insoluable impediment to their marriage. They agreed to divorce, though both continued to care for their daughters, to whom they are devoted.
In 1987 Robinson met his current partner Mark Andrews and has lived faithfully with him ever since. Andrews helped care for Robinson’s daughters.
Robinson and his former wife remained on terms of affection and respect and later, when he was consecrated as Bishop, his former wife and 2 daughters were there in the front of the cathedral, smiling broadly and supporting him in the most public way possible.
Despite the fact that he had been democratically elected bishop in 2003 – unlike bishops in England who are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister – theologically conservative US Episcopalians aligned themselves with conservative bishops throughout the world to try to dislodge him.
In the same year Jeffrey John, a Gay priest in a longstanding reportedly celibate relationship, was nominated Bishop of Reading. The furore that followed was so intense that Archbishop Rowan Williams, although known to have liberal views on this matter, urged him to stand down. Dutifully John complied, but it did little good. Conservative elements within the church – already battle-hardened by opposition to women priests – had found a new issue around which to organise. They’d also scented blood.
Since that time the situation for openly gay people in the church has been even more difficult than before. People seeking ordination are now actively questioned about their sexuality. Some are prepared to lie, but many of the best of them are not. I personally know of one woman who believes she has a vocation and I’m sure would make a good priest. However, she’s unable to put herself forward for training because she’s unwilling to lie.
In a recent interview with the Church Times, Bishop Robinson said: “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.”
Some argue that Gay priests should quietly get on with their ministry, but Robinson says:
“The degree of openness with which one lives one’s life is a very personal choice…..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.”
He goes on “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 cost to the Church.”
The Lambeth Conference of Bishops is due to take place this July in Canterbury. Regrettably, the Archbishop of Canterbury has given way to pressure from conservative bishops and has failed to issue a full invitation to Bishop Robinson. There has been an outcry from the US church, which asserts that as a duly elected bishop he is entitled to attend as a full participant.
Bishop Robinson says he will attend with the aim of increasing awareness. In June, just one month before the conference takes place, Bishop Robinson and his partner plan to contract a civil partnership with a church blessing. Some have criticised him for the timing, but he says:
“if we’d waited until after Lambeth to announce our intentions, I’d be just as severely criticised for having been disingenuous and secretive about the civil union to assure an invitation to Lambeth. There is no time when our civil union will be acceptable to many in the Anglican Communion. But I will not be irresponsible to the partner and love of my life just to avoid giving offence.”
When questioned about the timing by journalists, Robinson’s usual media-awareness deserted him. He responded unguardedly, though very amusingly: “I’ve always wanted to be a June bride”. He was widely criticised by conservative bishops.
He later commented: “What I should have said was something like this: “Gay and lesbian people grow up with the same hopes that other people do – that they’ll be able to celebrate their love for one another with family and friends gathered around, pledging their support for the faithful, monogamous, lifelong-intentioned, holy vows they’ve just taken. I, too, have always longed for such a day.”
He added ruefully“… it’s reminiscent of the years and years that I had to self-censor everything I said, so as not to give away the fact that I was gay. Gay and lesbian people learn at an early age to filter every single word before uttering it, straining out anything that might indicate who we really are on the inside. I know from my own experience, and from that of countless others, that this is an exercise in self-alienation.”
He said “This may not sound like oppression – it’s not the same as being thrown into prison or burnt at the stake – but it’s one of the silent, painful results of oppression. The result of any oppression is living in fear – fear of discovery, rejection and retribution. It’s what most gay and lesbian people live with every day, all over the world.”
He added poignantly: “It takes a toll on our souls.”
Gene Robinson’s book “In the Eye of the Storm” is published by Canterbury Press.