August 5, 2008
It's 8:30 Tuesday morning. I'm having coffee and conversation with an affable chap. He's laughing, eyes behind glasses, almost twinkling, as he talks of his three-and-a-half weeks of travel in the UK. Somewhat animated, the cadence of his speech is relaxed. My new friend looks as if he's ready for a brisk walk, green and white stripped polo shirt, workout slacks and running shoes. Truth be told, he's out of uniform, yet just as comfortable as the night before when he addressed a capacity crowd in the sanctuary of St. John's Scottish Episcopal Church.
Very few would recognize this man, vilified by some, praised by others. This same man was jokingly introduced by the rector of St. John's, the Rev. Dr. John Ames, who said, "He wasn't born notorious."
Ames also asked: "Do you consider yourself to be a liberal?"
His guest roared with laughter. "That's one of the nicest names I've been called in a long time. In fact, compared with the other names I've been called, liberal sounds delightful!"
The man I'm talking with is the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay man elected and consecrated bishop in the Episcopal Church of the United States.
Gene Robinson was the only American bishop Archbishop Rowan Williams did not invite to the recently concluded Lambeth Conference. Robinson did make the pilgrimage to Canterbury, however, hovering near Lambeth, talking with his fellow members of the House of Bishops and many other participants from around the world.
"It was more painful than I expected, to tell you the truth, especially the first few days." His lament continued, "When I saw the 10-foot chain-link fence around the Big Top (the name given to the large tents erected for daily worship) and saw my picture posted to make sure I would be ID'd should I try to enter."
As his eyes drifted, I interjected, "That must have stung."
"It did, it really did when I saw my fellow bishops, and they told me how much I was missed. It was also a constant reminder of what the people of New Hampshire were missing because I couldn't take part and bring the experience and knowledge back to them."
In case you've been in a coma or living on another planet the past five years, it was the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop and the 2003 consent of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church that led to his morphing into a lightening rod, a transformation he thought would be short lived.
"Three months. I knew it would be controversial but only for about three months, and then I'd get on with my work as Bishop." Five years later he's still waiting for the day people will refer to him differently.
"Someday," Robinson sighed, "I won't be called the gay bishop but simply the Bishop of New Hampshire." He spoke of the turmoil and his fierce commitment to wiping out fear. "Fear is at the root of all the terrible things that have been said about me and the Episcopal Church," as he says, fear of the unknown. "When people get to know me, they see me as a likable, normal person, who happens to be gay. It's the getting to know me," he smiles, "they fear the most because it brings them to the point they fear most because they must then let go of all the hate and bitterness."
He leans forward, eyes of steel. "You know what they would learn if they took the time to get to know me? I'm orthodox! My belief in the authority of scripture is rock solid. Authority," he explained with dignified confidence, "is not interpretation, and that's where most of our disagreements rest."
Those disagreements have brought great pain to Robinson and the Church as a whole. Some had predicted the Anglican Communion might split or dissolve over the issue of the ordination of gays as bishop as well as the church's spoken and unspoken stance on the blessing of same-sex unions or marriages.
Robinson says, "I'm not what's wrong with the church; the problems didn't begin with me although they've seemed to have attached themselves to me. The Anglican Communion is not broken, and everyday we stay together is another good day." This from a man whose spirit has not been broken even though bent and strained many times.
Somewhere in the lobby where we are having coffee and conversation is a security guard. His security protection is 24/7. Security concerns were so heightened on the day of his consecration Robinson wore a Kevlar vest (bulletproof) under his robe. That was the first of many steps to keep him safe. He wasn't the only concern.
"There were two medical teams on site, one for me, one for my partner," Robinson remarked. There were heightened concerns for his time at the altar. "The Deacon assisting me was a big, burly man who was told if a bomb exploded to push me down, cover me and protect both of us." And this sobering thought: "If I were shot or seriously wounded, three attending bishops would ride with me in the ambulance to the hospital. Three existing bishops have to lay hands on you in the ordination process," he explained, "and the plan was, before I died that would happen. The ordination process would be complete, and those who wanted me dead and wanted this not to happen would be denied."
One brief security issue popped up as Robinson was preaching in a small parish in Putney, a community just outside London. During the homily, a man jumped up and began railing, "Heretic!"
Church workers and Robinson's guard quieted the man who turned out to be physically harmless. Even so, there were some tense moments. Robinson described, "He was carrying a large hat that he kept to his side, and there was no way to tell if he had anything hidden. Everything was fine and again I was reminded of God's profound grace in the midst of my life."
I asked if forgiveness looks or feels differently than it did five years ago. "Well, my capacity sure seems deeper," he laughed. "Seriously, we, all of us, seem to make forgiveness far more difficult than need be. Returning evil for evil takes work, and lack of forgiveness eats away at our being. For me," he said, "it's an easy choice because it's my only choice. There is no other option."
The bishop paused for a moment, looked off into the distance, then turned to me and added, "I've lived on the fringes for a long time. I know what it is like to be marginalized. That knowledge in and of itself requires a forgiving spirit. That marginalization happened again at Lambeth. Again, forgiveness was the only option." "Understand," he emphasized, "and this is going to sound arrogant and in no way do I wish it so, but I feel sorry for those who persecute me and who are afraid to get to know me. How sad for them and for me. But I can't and won't live there."
Robinson told me people often ask if he's living God's will, if he's 'doing the will of God.' "I tell them, we spend a lifetime of discernment trying to get our egos out of the way and listen. Sometimes you just know you are doing the right thing, and sometimes you pray you're on the right path. None of us get it right every time."
That leads me to a question about the future. What does Gene Robinson believe he sees on the horizon? "One of the wonderful things about the Episcopal Church is we know when we have made progress we cannot turn back," Robinson states. "We understand criticism. We understand people who threaten to leave, to withhold money and the people who actually do both." He reminded me, "This is our heritage that was so powerfully strong during the civil rights movement. Oh yes," he remarked, "Whether it was integration or women's ordination, we had people crying, 'this is not the church I grew up with, you're tearing us apart, please...'" Then he said, "But David, thanks be to God we've stood where we need to stand and done the right thing."
Gathering my thoughts I said, "If the church moves forward with more ordinations of gays as bishops and anything that resembles a blessing of a same sex unions, there are plenty who will consider another grenade rolled into the crowd waiting to blow with a mighty and destructive blast."
"I understand that. More importantly, David, is the stance we must take to be inclusive and loving of ALL people, no matter where they may or may not be in their lives."
I wanted to know, "And those who say, 'Where will it stop, if we move this direction, what in the world is left?' What do you say to them?"
"We must have the courage to do the right thing." He began to close our time by saying, "If we do, only God knows who will be revealed as marginalized. We must bring all people, ALL people, to the community of the Episcopal Church. No one can be excluded."
Before he finished, this bishop whose love of Christ, the Episcopal Church, humankind and even those who reject him was brilliantly clear when he said, "You know, those who vilify and reject me are welcomed at the altar in my church. I would love to have them join me in communal worship. I have made it clear they are welcomed anytime. The sad thing is, I am not welcomed at their altars. Maybe one day I will be."
What did and did not happen at Lambeth 2008 will be debated for months, if not years to come. Both sides have staked their claim. Blogs are buzzing and websites are spewing interpretations
"Love your neighbor as yourself," he reminded me. The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson appears to want to live that life daily, as best he can. He is calm in the midst of the storm. "Sometimes, my friend, God calms the storm, and sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms the child."
His last words to me: "Go, in peace."
Just a bishop ... someday
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