Gene Robinson: 'Is the issue of my sexuality bigger than everything that holds us together?'

The Monday Interview: Bishop-Elect of New Hampshire
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Gene Robinson wants to be clear: he will go forward with his consecration next Sunday as Bishop of New Hampshire, regardless of the furore over his homosexuality.

"The only thing that will stop this happening is if I am not around any more." He smiles as if he has made a joke. Then he adds: "Actually, we have to take that seriously." Which is why bodyguards trail him everywhere he goes.

But he does not seem to be a man in fear of his life. He has other things to worry about, for example which of the two sets of vestments given to him for the ceremony he should wear. He must choose between the strikingly colourful robes made by a gay artist friend or the other, more sober, set. He rules out switching robes mid-way. "I can't do a Barbra Streisand with eight changes of costume."

Indeed, for a man under so much pressure, he appears strikingly cheerful. But talk with him a little longer and you find seams of anger and frustration beneath the smiling composure. After all, his election as the Bishop in New Hampshire has triggered a crisis so great it is threatening to split the Episcopal Church in the United States as well as the wider Anglican communion. But he is a man evidently without doubt about his destiny, which gives him some peace in the middle of the storm.

"I really do feel God is calling me forward to do this," he told The Independent in a Manhattan hotel last week. "I am always listening to God's voice. I would be very surprised if that voice should change now after so long. I have felt this call for a long time. A good 10 years."

But what of earthly voices? After an emergency meeting of 37 Anglican primates in London 10 days ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, publicly said he thought Canon Robinson should withdraw.

In reality, the primates have no power to intervene. Canon Robinson was elected by the Episcopalian flock in New Hampshire and his election was confirmed, amid fierce argument, by a general convention of the Episcopalian leadership in Minneapolis in August. "If the Archbishop of Canterbury calls me, I am going to take his call," Canon Robinson says. "If he asks me to stand down, I will listen to what he has to say and think about it very seriously. But I don't think there is much that would change my mind."

The bishop-elect is sympathetic to some of those opposing his consecration in places such as Africa or Asia, where the social context is far removed from his own in the United States. "I am sure New Hampshire must seem like a different planet to them." But his sympathy goes only so far. "No one is asking them to go out and find gay bishops for their dioceses. But this does happen to be right for New Hampshire." Canon Robinson has no doubt the crisis will happen, with conservative bishops in the US and especially Africa and Latin America threatening to break away from the Anglican union if the consecration goes ahead.

There will be trouble, he says. "But what will we do in response to that crisis? What would be the standards by which we fight? Are we going to be Christian to each other? There are some folks in this argument that are not striking the world as being terribly Christian at present."

For example, there was the one American bishop at the Minneapolis convention who put it about that Canon Robinson had abandoned his family 16 years ago when he moved out and set up house with Mark Andrew, who remains his partner. "It was patently untrue," Canon Robinson says, citing how he continued to be part of his children's lives. "My bishop corrected him personally three times. But then he went home and wrote a letter stating again the same thing." He says that bishop also circulated another falsehood at the convention that almost derailed his confirmation. It purported a connection between the canon and a gay youth website allegedly linked to pornography. "We can disagree about this, but you don't have to do that kind of stuff. It's patently unchristian."

At the end of the Minneapolis convention, Canon Robinson felt confirmation by the Episcopalian leadership in America would put an end to the controversy. But that was when the storm became a tempest. "The pressure has been increasing, building from both sides. I've been getting strident voices saying, 'For God's sake step down'. Other voices saying, 'If you step down I will never forgive you'."

But if he was to withdraw, would that mean the argument would go away? Of course not, he says, adding that he knows many openly gay priests awaiting nomination to be bishops. "Do you think by me stepping down this is going to stop? Or do you think we are all going to go back to being nice and pretty again? That is fantasy land."

That there should be so much focus on his sexuality in the first place infuriates Canon Robinson. "No one seems to be much interested in anything else. I mean, is this one issue bigger than everything else that holds us together? This is more important than the creeds? More important than our baptism? The document of the Trinity or the divinity of Christ? I mean, this one thing is bigger than all of that? It doesn't make sense to me. I think that's idolatry."

And if there is a crisis in the Church over his consecration, it will hardly be the first. "Hello. What's new? The Church has always been in crisis." He cites as examples the battle over the ordination of women priests and even the battle between Peter and Paul over whether Jews should be allowed in the Church. "Name me a time when we weren't in conflict."

As for the notion that his consecration will threaten a thawing of relations between the Protestant and Catholic Churches, highlighted after the meeting between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope, Canon Robinson scoffs. "It is ironic anyone could say the Anglican Church worldwide and the Roman Catholic Church were on the verge of reunification, except that Gene Robinson came along.

"Give me a break. The Pope doesn't even recognise we are priests. We were no more close to reunification than when Henry VIII was around. That [notion] was very tiresome."

Already, Canon Robinson has been invited to join parades in almost every gay pride celebration next summer. The organisers of the San Francisco Pride Week have even said he can ride in an open-top limousine of the colour of his choice. He turned them down. "You know what would happen. The car would be surrounded by the most outrageous leather boys or something. So I can't do it." That would seem a smart decision.


BORN: 29 May 1947, Lexington, Kentucky

FULL NAME: Vicky Gene Robinson (father thought he would be stillborn and gave him girl's name); raised in Disciples of Christ Church (Protestant)

EDUCATION: Graduated from University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, 1969. BA in American Studies/History

HOME: Weare, New Hampshire

STATUS: Met present partner, Mark Andrew, in 1989

1973: Completed the M Div at General Theological Seminary in New York; after ordination he served as curate at Christ Church, Ridgewood, New Jersey

1975: Moved to New Hampshire

1978-1985: Youth Ministries Co-ordinator for New Hampshire

1983-TO PRESENT: Executive secretary of the Episcopal Province of New England


Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire (assistant to Bishop of New Hampshire)