At home in New Hampshire, V. Gene Robinson is by his own description “just the bishop.” As the head of an Episcopal diocese of 16,000, he spends his days counseling priests and their families, visiting parishes, performing baptisms, attending confirmations and coordinating such projects as overseas missions and a campaign against the death penalty.
What he does is important, he says, but not “anything particularly special.”
But when he leaves the diocese, Robinson becomes what he calls “this bigger-than-life thing.” His mere appearance inspires misty eyes and standing ovations from some. To others, he is a pariah whose very identity makes him too tainted to share a pew or theological discussion. One person looks at him and sees the future of the church; another, its demise.
“I feel like a little bit like a walking, talking Rorschach,” Robinson said Sunday at a forum at a Studio City church.
Nearly six years ago, Robinson became the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. His election was decried by some in the church and in the global Anglican Communion of which it is a part. Some 700 conservative U.S. parishes said last year that they were leaving the Episcopal Church in part because of his consecration, and last summer, Robinson was barred from taking part in leadership meetings at the Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade global gathering of Anglicans.
But others have welcomed him. He has been the subject of a documentary about gay Christians. President Obama tapped him to deliver the invocation at the kick-off concert for his inaugural ceremonies. On Saturday night, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation gave Robinson an award at a star-studded show at the Nokia Theatre.
Being lauded on a huge stage in the company of celebrities (“By the way,” he told the church crowd, “Kathy Griffin is outrageous!”) underscores Robinson’s strange existence outside of New Hampshire. Some other Episcopal and Anglican leaders turn him away, but a reality star in a bikini gives him a hug and poses for a photo.
“I am neither the devil the one side thinks of me or the angel the other side thinks of me,” he told a crowd of about 80 on Sunday at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.
The bishop, a bespectacled man in a white collar and crimson shirt, drew laughs as he recounted the celebrity doors opened by his outcast status. Elton John -- to whom Robinson referred by his first name -- sang at one of his events. Actor Ian McKellen cooked him dinner and invited him and his partner to visit the set of “The Hobbit” in New Zealand.
“Welcome to my new life,” he said.
The Rev. Henry Atkins Jr., the priest of the church, worked for Robinson in New Hampshire and invited him to speak between services during his trip to L.A. About 15% of St. Michael’s parishioners are gay, and the church campaigned against Proposition 8, the state’s gay-marriage ban, senior warden Betty Ferrell said.
“We think just supporting people that are gay is just a basic issue of social justice,” she said.
In a question-and-answer session that began and ended with sustained applause, Robinson urged church members to be hopeful, despite the divide over the role of gay people in the Episcopal Church.
“This is a great time to be an Episcopalian,” he said repeatedly.
In response to a question about how the parish should respond to the passage of Proposition 8, the bishop suggested that churches could begin mending the split on same-sex marriage by having clergy get out of the civil marriage business altogether.
Robinson, who supports gay marriage, said he favors the system used in France and other parts of Europe in which civil marriage -- performed by government officials -- is completely separate from religious vows.
In the U.S., the civil and religious are often combined, with the cleric signing the government marriage license.
“In this country, it has become very confusing about where the civil action begins and ends and where the religious action begins and ends, because we have asked clergy to be agents of the state,” he said.
Last summer, Robinson and his longtime partner had their civil commitment ceremony blessed in the church. He said that “untangling” the roles of clergy and government in this country would focus the discussion of same-sex marriage on civil rights rather than religion.
“The church is infringing on the secular society and trying to enforce its beliefs onto the entire culture,” he said. “If we can get these two things separated, we can assure every religious group, no matter how conservative, that they will never have to bless these marriages.”
“I think we could actually gain some support from our detractors if we could make this separation clear,” he said.
Parishioner Margie Mullen, a lesbian, said Robinson moved her to tears because his life was a repudiation of the “internal homophobia” with which she has struggled. “That part of me that rejects my own sexuality -- he is just so out there, and his presence just strengthens that in me,” she said.
David Connors, who married his partner last year at St. Michael’s, said Robinson represents a new way of dealing with adversity.
“We don’t always get to choose when opportunities arise, but he’s become a national and international symbol by saying you don’t have to ignore it, you can use it and do something great,” he said.
Robinson was told he would not be allowed to participate in discussions at the Lambeth conference in England last summer, but he attended anyway, to try to make sure the issue of gay rights was not forgotten. He said he was banned from the buildings and church where the meeting was held.
“The level of exclusion took my breath away,” the bishop said. But, he said, he was sustained by his belief that God has a plan that includes justice for everyone.
“No matter what crap goes on here, God wins,” he said.