It was less than a month ago that V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, appeared in a YouTube video assuring gay and lesbian teenagers who were "in a dark place" that their lives would get better.
"I am an out and proud gay man who is also the bishop of New Hampshire," he said, staring into the camera, dressed in the purple shirt of his office. "And I am living proof that it gets better."
On Saturday, Robinson stood before a shocked diocesan convention and delivered a different message. Citing the strain of constant controversy, including death threats, he said he had decided to step down in January 2013, when he will be 65, seven years younger than the usual retirement age for an Episcopal bishop.
"The fact is," he said, addressing his parishioners, "the last seven years have taken their toll on me, my family, and you."
In the aftermath of that announcement, Robinson insisted in an interview Monday that he was not throwing in the towel, and hadn't been defeated by the detractors who blamed his election for widening a rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion over homosexuality.
"In no way am I being run off by those who opposed me or the positions that I take," he said. "If death threats were going to scare me off, I would have left in the first year of being bishop when they were coming at me all the time."
Rather, he said, he is resigning — not retiring — as bishop of New Hampshire at a normal age for someone to scale back, and he intends to be active in some role he has not yet defined. He will still be a bishop, he said, just not the leader of a diocese.
"There's no question that I will continue to be active in trying to achieve full and equal rights for gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual people, and I'm also very interested in how religion intersects with public policy," he said.
Meanwhile, he said, he would remain "absolutely focused" on his ministry in New Hampshire. "I have never been discouraged by any of this," he said.
"It's a terrible thing that some people feel so angry and so hateful," he added. "But that's between them and God, and I have been able to keep my faith intact and have never wavered in loving this ministry."
Those who know him say Robinson may have been feeling the strain of doing, in effect, two jobs: one as the head of a diocese of 15,000 people and one as an international gay rights icon who was a lightning rod for criticism.
"Gene initially simply wanted to be the bishop of New Hampshire — that was his vocation, his call," said Bishop Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles, who in May became the Episcopal Church's second openly gay bishop. "And I think he had to wrestle with the fact that the [gay] community worldwide had some expectations of him that he then had to consider … as he became a symbol and an icon for other communities around the world."
"Certainly," she said, "the stress of that, in and of itself, can wear you down."
Robinson "paved the way for me and for others like me," Glasspool added, noting that unlike him, she did not wear a bulletproof vest to her consecration ceremony and had never received a death threat.
Robinson's election as bishop in 2003 was a seismic event in the worldwide Anglican Communion, whose U.S. branch is the Episcopal Church. It prompted dozens of U.S. congregations and several dioceses to leave the church and affiliate with more conservative Anglican churches overseas.
Christopher Sugden, a British Anglican who is executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream, a group that promotes orthodox teachings, said the communion remained divided by the decision to consecrate gay bishops.
"His retirement doesn't change anything," Sugden said. "The issue is the refusal of the Episcopal Church to adhere to the agreed doctrinal standards of the communion, and their leadership's determination to promote, and in North America to enforce, ethical and doctrinal standards that are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture as received by the universal church. They have chosen to walk apart."
To Robinson's supporters, that break is a badge of courage. Margaret Porter, moderator of New Hampshire's Episcopal Diocesan Council, said there had been little regret over Robinson's selection and much sadness over his early departure.
"I think we knew initially when we took him that we'd be sharing him with the world," she said. "That's been a very positive thing."