Gay bishop says churches may be at crossroads

Times Staff Writer

Prepared for the worst, V. Gene Robinson wore a bulletproof vest under a simple white monk's cassock when he was consecrated as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in the history of the Anglican Communion.

A few months later, he received a postcard with a photograph of a stately English cathedral on one side and a message on the other: "You fornicating lecherous pig."

That was in 2003, when his elevation to bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire triggered a crisis in Anglicanism and transformed Robinson into a symbol of gay and lesbian rights.

The repercussions continue to reverberate throughout the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, which some fear now teeters on the edge of schism.

The Episcopal Church is a member of the Communion. Tensions heightened last month after an Episcopal bishop in Connecticut announced that priests may bless same-sex couples who have had civil unions granted by the state.

Robinson, 59, recently visited Los Angeles to receive the 2006 Family Tree Award from Family Pride, a national nonprofit group dedicated to equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families. In an interview, he talked about his remarkable career and the challenges facing the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, who this week will be consecrated as the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

There is a whole Gene Robinson myth out there. Do you think you are a lot different from that person?

At home, I'm just a bishop of a rural diocese. It's when I venture outside of it that I enter the other extremely important diocese given to me by history. In that world, I'm a negative symbol for people who would demonize me and make me into a far worse person than I actually am. But that can be less of a personal burden than the people who pin their hopes and dreams -- and sometimes their faith -- on what is happening to me.

Overall, I feel so insufficient to the task at hand. The damage done to gay and lesbian people by organized religion -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam -- is so deep and so violent that it's overwhelming. I can't make up for all of it. But I can make up for some of it. I can at least say a healing word about how God didn't get it wrong, the church got it wrong.

Of course, we had it wrong before about slavery, and about women. So the huge debate now is about getting it right about gays and lesbians.

What's taking so long?

I remind people that our detractors are only believing what they've been taught for 2,000 years. Why are we surprised this is so hard? We're asking people to change their minds about something we all seemed so sure about for so long.

Nonetheless, I love it when I'm debating someone about this. If my opponent is divorced, for example, I like to say, "I'll tell you how I deal with the seven or so verses of Scripture that seem to be talking about homosexuality if you tell me how you can have gotten a divorce and remarried in the church when Jesus said that's adultery."

Is reconciliation possible?

I'm arguing that we don't all have to be in the same place on this issue. The greatest gift the Anglican Communion has to offer is its 400 years as an enormously hospitable umbrella beneath which has existed a wide spectrum of beliefs.

We don't find our unity in a unanimity of opinion. We find it when we go to the altar rail and receive the body and blood of Christ -- then we go back to the pews and fight about everything. You'll find us all over the map on abortion, stem cell research, who should be president and everything else one can think of.

How do your efforts play in the orthodox dioceses of Africa, home to a vast majority of the world's Anglicans?

I want Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria in my church. The problem is they don't want me in their church. I believe Peter Akinola is going about his journey back to God as faithfully as he knows how. I just wish he could acknowledge that is exactly what I'm doing as well.

Nonetheless, several conservative dioceses, including one in Central California, recently voted to be placed under someone else's jurisdiction, possibly someone in Africa.

What a lousy basis for an allegiance, being against homosexuals. How far can that go? What can they really share with these far-off dioceses? Are they really going to put themselves under the authority of those bishops? What if one of them feels called by God to be ordained in ministry? Are they going to go to Africa to speak with a bishop about it? It makes no sense.

Of course, those people are more than free to leave the Episcopal Church. For their own spiritual health, that may be the best thing for them. I only wish them well. But what's wrong with staying together while we figure this one out?

Nearly every major denomination is obsessing over gay ordination and same-sex marriage. Is organized religion in the Western world at a crossroads?

This may well be the beginning of some kind of realignment of communities of faith, the ultimate shape of which is not at all clear. But it may well be along the lines separating those who see God's love extending to everyone in a sort of forgiving embrace from those who see the role of religion as setting up rules whereby you know whether you are in or out.

At its root, this debate is really about whether God is the deity that says, "I will love you if" -- you fill in the blank -- or a god that says, "I just love you."

Any words of advice for Jefferts Schori, whose election and support of gay rights have been a source of controversy?

I'd remind her that no matter how well or poorly she does as presiding bishop, she's going to heaven.

Immediately after her election, I confessed to Katharine: "I was completely self-serving in voting for you. It was the only way I could get off the front page!"

I was also the one who came up with the idea of the pink buttons passed around that day that said, "It's a girl!" over her name and the date. In fact, I had the honor of giving her my own button on the floor of the House of Bishops. She loved it.

Are there indications that your own consecration was about something more than gay and lesbian rights?

Three days after my election I got a letter from a woman in the New Hampshire state women's prison who said, "I'm neither gay nor particularly Christian. But there's something about your election that makes me feel there might be a community out there that could love me despite what I've done."

I went to see her and learned that she killed her mother when she was 15. Each year for the past three years I've spent Christmas Eve with her and the other women in there. It means a lot to them that someone like me would be with them to celebrate the birth of Jesus and sing Christmas carols together.

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