Bishop Gene Robinson is retired.
On January 5, Robinson retired from his position as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. In 2003, he became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. His election triggered a worldwide debate about the role of gays and lesbians in the church. In 2004, a group of conservative Anglican and Episcopal leaders went as far as to form a new religious organization (the Anglican Communion Network), partly out of response to Robinson’s election.
Nearly ten years after his historic election, Robinson enjoyed his retirement for all of two weeks before beginning his new role as senior fellow for the Washington D.C.-based Center for American Progress. The think tank was founded by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. The center’s stated goal is “improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action.”
On February 3 at 5 p.m., Robinson will appear via webcast at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific St. to conclude Darkwood Brew’s six-part series about the Bible and homosexuality. Robinson’s trajectory from being a controversial choice for a leadership position within the Anglican church to his retirement (and the relatively low-key appointment of the first open lesbian bishop of the Episcopal church in 2012) reflect a decade’s worth of changing attitudes toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community – both within the church and in the secular world.
When Robinson was elected bishop in 2003, 39 percent of Americans polled in a Gallup survey said same-sex marriage should be recognized by law (the number of those in favor jumped to 49 percent when the term “civil union” was used instead of “marriage”). In 2012, 50 percent of those polled in a similar Gallup survey believed the law should recognize same-sex marriage. Though the number of those supporting gay marriage fell by three percent from the year before, it was the second year in a row where there were more of those in favor than opposed. Robinson said the key reason for the shifting support was the number of gays and lesbians who have come out.
“So many people now know our relationships and our families … and they’re just simply no longer willing to believe the awful things said about us by our detractors,” Robinson said in a phone interview from Palm Springs, Calif., on Jan 14.
One of the reasons Robinson chose to retire was the election of another openly-gay bishop. In 2010, the Rev. Mary Glasspool was ordained as suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Glasspool’s election reflected a decade-plus movement within the Episcopal church for full inclusion of LGBTs in the church, Robinson said.
“There was all of this tremendous controversy – both national and international – about my election and consecration; and there was hardly a ripple related to her (Glasspool) election and consecration,” he said.
Proudest Accomplishments as Bishop
Robinson’s new role at the Center for American Progress will have him traveling back and forth from Washington D.C. to his home in New Hampshire. It will be the first time in 27 years where he’ll be working out of a different office. Robinson described the time between his decision to retire and his actual retirement date as “a huge grieving process.”
“I end my time as bishop of New Hampshire loving it even more than when I started,” Robinson said.
During his almost ten years as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, Robinson said his church tried to focus on local-level outreach. He said virtually all of the Episcopal congregations in New Hampshire had both a feeding and clothing program, which came in need after the economic collapse of 2008. While doing these initiatives, Robinson felt – at least in his diocese – his sexuality was not at the forefront of attention.
“The Diocese of New Hampshire was the one place in the world where I wasn’t the gay bishop. I was simply the bishop,” Robinson said.
“And that’s how life for LGBT people should be.”
Robinson was born in 1947 in Kentucky. His early life could have served as a backdrop for a William Faulkner novel. His parents, Imogene and Charles, were sharecroppers. And for nearly a month after his birth, Robinson was paralyzed and lived in an incubator.
“He (Robinson’s doctor) was so sure I was going to die that he was trying to protect my mother from seeing me so disfigured in my little coffin that he mushed my head back together in a reasonably round shape,” Robinson said.
It wasn’t until Robinson turned 13 when his doctor finally told him that he didn’t expect him to live those first few weeks.
Robinson’s family went to Bethany Christian Church, which is a member of the Disciples of Christ. After graduating valedictorian at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky., Robinson went to a small, private college owned by the dioceses of the Episcopal church: the University of the South (better known as Sewanee). That was where Robinson first encountered the Episcopal faith and fell in love with it.
“It had both a sense of history and a beautiful liturgy to what I already believed,” Robinson said.
The Episcopal faith receives a high number of adult converts from other denominations, Robinson said. Describing the faith as “advanced placement religion”, Robinson said the Episcopal church gives its followers scriptural and historical tools to make their own faith-based decisions. Sometimes, the church holds equal opposing views to an issue. For example, on the issue of abortion, Robinson said the Episcopal church’s stance is that “all life is sacred and holy and worthwhile.” At the same time, it believes that women should have control over the decisions about her own body, he said.
“It’s not for everybody,” Robinson said. “It’s comforting to a lot of people to be told what’s right and what’s wrong.”
The Inclusion Factor
While Anglican church and other religious denominations grapple with the issue of gays in the church, another problem has surfaced in many North American churches: declining membership. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center reported one-fifth of the U.S. population claimed no religious affiliation; the highest percentage ever reported by the center. At the same time, the number of those identifying themselves as Christian has fallen five percent since 2007, from 78 to 73 percent. Robinson said one of the reasons for both the decline in religious affiliations and the rise of those choosing “none of the above” is more young people are choosing not to associate with an organization that demonizes their friends who may be gay or lesbian. Another reason is the church’s failure to nurture peoples’ quest for spirituality, Robinson said.
“People belong to a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque in order to facilitate their relationship with God. And instead of giving them God, we too often just give them religion, and that’s a poor substitute,” Robinson said. “They (people who identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious) still are interested in God… but organized religion is one of the last places they would look for help in that.”
At the same time membership numbers are declining in the U.S., the Christian church is seeing its largest membership increase in Sub-Saharan African countries. A Pew Research report released in 2010 listed the Christian population of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region as 800 million; roughly the same number of followers in North and South America.
Some countries with the fastest-growing Christian populations have been condemned by human rights organizations for treating homosexuality as a criminal offense. In Uganda, parliament member David Bahati proposed a bill that originally advocated the death penalty for some homosexual acts. While the death penalty was removed from the bill, penned the “Kill the Gays Bill,” a tabloid magazine in Uganda called The Rolling Stone (no relation to the music magazine) went as far as to publish the names and addresses of gay citizens. After its publishing David Kato, one of the most vocal gay rights activists in Uganda, was bludgeoned to death in what police there described as a robbery.
Robinson said almost every Episcopal diocese in North America has a relationship with a third world developing diocese. Robinson wouldn’t disclose which diocese his church worked with because that diocese would be looked down upon by their colleagues in the African church (partly because of their association with Robinson). However, some African church leaders have confided in Robinson that other problems are of more paramount importance, and are willing to work with churches that do not share their conservative interpretation of the Bible.
“They (other bishops) told me and told others that ‘We just don’t get this gay thing, but we got people dying of malaria, and AIDS and civil war. We’ve got women and children being abused. Let’s work together in getting clean water to that village over there, and somewhere down the line, we’ll probably find out that some of the people who were helping us most are in fact gays and lesbians’,” Robinson said.
Dealing With Threats
Threats to Robinson’s own life were common following the events leading up to his election. At his consecration in New Hampshire in November, 2003, Robinson wore a bulletproof vest. The threats didn’t stop after the consecration.
In an interview broadcast Jan. 14 on NPR’s Fresh Air, Robinson recounted an incident after President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration where a man was arrested after shooting out the windows of an unoccupied police cruiser in Vermont. Inside the person’s car were maps to Robinson’s house, a sawed-off shotgun, and a note that read “Save the church, Kill the bishop.”
“Had he not been in a rage and shot out the windows in this parked police cruiser in Vermont, it would not have been discovered,” Robinson said.
From Union to Marriage
Robinson’s own path to marriage was in large part a reflection on his own state’s changing attitudes toward the issue. In 1972, Robinson married Isabella McDaniel (now Isabella Martin). In the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, Robinson said he told Isabella he struggled with his attraction to men, but the two still married. They had two daughters, Jamee and Ella. In 1987, Isabella and Gene decided to end their marriage amicably in the most appropriate place for a future bishop: the church. After partaking in a communion service, Isabella and Gene gave their wedding rings back, apologized to each other for any harm they caused one another, and jointly agreed to continue raising their daughters.
That same year, Robinson met Mark Andrew while vacationing at St. Croix. The two have been together since. In 2008, they were joined in civil union after the New Hampshire governor and legislature approved civil unions. Two years later, when gay marriage was approved in the state, the two married. The difference between civil union and marriage is vast both on a legal and spiritual level, Robinson said. First off, more than a thousand rights are accrued to a married couple that are not automatically accrued to a civil union couple, including end of life health care decisions and tax ramifications.
“But on a more spiritual level, to have churches affirm the relationship as being a spiritual one, and to bless those relationships puts it on a spiritual plane … that is enormously helpful,” Robinson said.
When President Obama referenced Stonewall and advocated for equal treatment under the law for gays and lesbians, it was the first time any president included gay rights in an inaugural address. Robinson was sitting below Obama’s podium as he delivered his address. In an email, Robinson said Obama outdid himself for the LGBT community and he couldn’t overstate the impact of such an address.
Since 2009’s inauguration, President Obama has come out in support of gay marriage. Though Obama’s support didn’t surprise Robinson, he said the president’s support was tremendously important, especially for the African American community, where churches with predominantly African-American members tend to be more socially conservative. After President Obama expressed his support for gay marriage, a Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed 59 percent of polled African Americans supporting same-sex unions, up from 41 percent in the weeks leading up to Obama’s announcement.
“They (African Americans) all didn’t change their mind when the president announced his support,” Robinson said.
“What it did was give them some cover for the progress they have already been making.”
Robinson’s appearance at Darkwood Brew concludes the Countryside Community Church’s six-week series “For the Love of God: A Conversation About the Bible and Homosexuality.” The series, partly funded from a grant by the Sherwood Foundation, features a one-hour discussion from a speaker and then a 30-minute small group breakout session. During the talks, people are encouraged to participate in a chat room. Previous speakers included Rev. Dr. James Forbes, who was listed in Newsweek as being one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, and Sue Fulton, who was part of the first West Point graduating class that admitted women. Eric Elnes, senior pastor at Countryside Community Church, has showcased the documentary For The Bible Tells Me So. A second film, Love Free or Die, focused on Gene Robinson’s time in the New Hampshire diocese. That film won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
“He’s a great Christian leader, extremely well-respected all around the world by all kinds of people who agree or disagree on homosexuality,” Elnes said.
The Role of the Church
For almost every modern-era human rights issue, the church has played an integral role, notably in the modern civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. But in terms of LGBT civil rights like marriage equality and employment discrimination, the issue takes on a more complex air because many who oppose such rights cite biblical passages as a reason. But Robinson believes the church plays a central role in terms of the discussion on LGBT civil rights.
“We still have people using scripture to subjugate and denigrate women,” Robinson said. “Changing the way churches, synagogues, and mosques think about this issue is enormously important.”
Robinson said even conservative-leaning denominations have begun to recognize the shifting tide in public opinion. He cited the most recent presidential election, where LGBT issues were hardly mentioned in the presidential debate. And in states where the issue was on the ballot, Maryland, Maine, and Washington voted to legalize gay marriage.
“It seems to me that we’ve reached a point that even conservatives share, that there is an air of inevitability about the full inclusion of LGBT people. And all we’re arguing over at the moment is timing.”
Gene Robinson will speak via webcast for Darkwood Brew’s “For The Love Of God” series on Feb. 3 at 5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific. It can also be viewed by going to www.darkwoodbrew.org.