Talking with Bishop Gene Robinson

What it’s like after the firestorm.

Thirty or forty people shuffled back into the room where the Wednesday night Eucharist had just been held at Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, CT. The room had been packed to the gills earlier with students, faculty, and community members all eager to hear the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, the recently ordained Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire, preach the sermon. As Bishop Robinson returned to the room an hour after the service, the crowd had thinned some, but the energy was still high.

“We can talk about anything you want,” said Bishop Robinson. “Anything from theology to what Matt Lauer‘s hair looks like up close.”

For the next hour, he proceeded to answer questions candidly about what his life has been like since he became Anglicanism’s first openly gay bishop in a committed relationship. He spoke slowly and pensively about the death threats that he and his partner, Mark Andrew, receive on a daily basis now. His pace and his enthusiasm picked up when he talked of a women’s prison facility which he now occasionally visits.

“A woman from that prison wrote me a letter after I was elected,” he said. “She said, ‘I am not gay, I am not an Episcopalian, I am not even a Christian, but seeing what has happened with you has given me hope that there’s got to be a community out there somewhere who will accept me for who I am.’ ”

Bishop Robinson has become a lightning rod of controversy. He has been denounced by Christian conservatives as someone who will lead the Church into unparalleled sin and praised by liberals as a man who has broken through a senseless boundary and given the Church a new life. Robinson accepts that people are divided on how they feel about him. But that does not mean that he is willing to apologize for it.

I spoke with Bishop Robinson by telephone on January 27 as his state scrambled to pick a winner in the nation’s first primary. He said that he had already voted, but that he has been careful not to publicly endorse any of the Democratic candidates. “Although,” he laughed, “most of them have tried to get me to do so.”

Jonathan Ratican: How has the media attention that has been swirling around you changed your life?

Gene Robinson: Unlike before June 6th, everything I say now I can assume is going to show up somewhere around the world in an article or a news program or whatever. So, I think it makes me very aware that what I say matters and will be widely reported and will probably be widely misused as well as used.

The second thing is that I have decided that if I’m going to get this media attention, then what I’d like to do is to use it for the sake of God and for the sake of the Church. So I have been trying to respond to the questions of the various media in a way that points to God and not to myself. I think that there’s no way we could buy this kind of publicity for the Church, and I’m glad to use this to help build up the Church and to reach people who may be very hesitant to walk into a church on a Sunday. I’m hoping to intrigue them with the possibility that the Church of today is something they might be interested in.

JR: What kind of religious life did you grow up with, and how does that affect your life today?

GR: Well, I grew up in a reasonably fundamentalist congregation of the Disciples of Christ. It’s a denomination not very well-known here in the East because it was founded in one of the great spiritual awakenings back when Kentucky and Ohio were the frontier. And so that denomination turned westward from that point but never seemed to turn around and come eastward. My family was extremely devout, and religion was something at the very heart of our existence.

On my office wall, I have my perfect attendance pin which goes for 13 consecutive years without ever missing a Sunday. They were so strict about that that if you were sick and missed a Sunday, then that was too bad and you had to start all over again. So I think there were a couple of times when I probably went to Sunday School with measles or something and probably infected the whole class, but I meant to get my perfect attendance pin. (laughs)

I went to Bible school in the summertime, revival tent meetings also in the summer, and we just went to church school and worship every Sunday. It was a very important part of my upbringing, especially in my high school years. I began to read some theologians like Paul Tillich. I had a wonderful English teacher in high school who put me on to him. So I began to toy with some of the larger religious questions.

By the time I went off to college, I had found my particular congregation’s expression of that denomination very confining and narrow. I was asking questions like, “Do you mean to say a good and fine Buddhist is going to Hell because they don’t subscribe to Jesus Christ?” And I was told that there were certain questions I shouldn’t ask. While I suspected that there were some questions that had no good answers, I didn’t think there was any question that shouldn’t be asked.

So when I got to college, I ran into a chaplain who, instead of chastising me for asking those kinds of questions, actually applauded my asking and said, “Well, let’s work together to see if we can find some answers.” That was really my introduction to the Episcopal Church. By the end of my senior year in college, I was actually confirmed in the Episcopal Church and went on to seminary that fall.

JR: How has your family felt about your life and ministry throughout this time, and how do they feel about it now?

GR: They were initially horrified that I was leaving the Disciples of Christ. My family had been in this particular congregation back seven or eight generations to its founding. And because they didn’t know anything about the Episcopal Church, and assuming that the Episcopal Church was an awful lot like the Roman Catholic Church, they were surprised and, I think, disappointed initially. It’s a fairly anti-Roman Catholic part of the country in Kentucky.

But once they got to know the Episcopal Church, they certainly rejoiced in my being a part of it and were very, very proud of my ordination and so on. That positive attitude of theirs towards my ministry has continued right up to the present.

When I came out to them when I was 39 years old, it was very difficult for them and it’s taken them a considerable period of time to come to terms with that and to embrace me. But it’s never really affected their feelings towards the Episcopal Church, which have always remained very positive.

JR: You have children, correct?

GR: I have two daughters. Our older daughter, Jamie, is 26 years old and just had our first grandchild about six months ago. Our younger daughter, Ella, is 22 and she’s just begun a career in public relations in New York City.

JR: So how do your children feel about your ministry and about the media attention that’s been swirling around you?

GR: They have been extraordinarily supportive from the time they were small. They have been supportive of my ministry and my own personal life and my choice of a partner and all of that. They were four and eight when I came out and separated from their mom. But we’ve had joint custody all this time. So we have a very, very close relationship.

Our older daughter was, of course, about to have a baby this summer, but our younger daughter, Ella, came with us to the General Convention for the consent and worked very hard on all of those preparations for that big vote. So they have been completely a part of all that. And again, our younger daughter has done her own interviews with the media and appeared with me and Mark there at the convention. And she came on the Today Show with me and Mark for one of the four appearances that I did. So they just could not be more supportive.

JR: Now that you’ve been doing this for a little while, what does your everyday life as a bishop look like, and how does that seem to differ from what you did before?

GR: It differs in several ways. My life right now is extremely busy. While I was always busy before, working out of this same office, it is truly amazing the number of things that come across your desk as a bishop, things that need to be acted on or responded to. And then you add on top of that for me probably five requests a day to do a speaking engagement somewhere in the world. And so handling all of that, the paperwork and the office work, is fairly overwhelming.

But every weekend, I’m out in congregations, making my visitations. The bishop is required to visit every congregation in the diocese at least once every three years, but here in New Hampshire, we’re able to do it once every couple of years. But the fact of the matter is since I was elected on June 7, I’ve been in thirty-five of our forty-nine congregations for one kind of an event or another. So I’m really getting out and around the diocese. I’m meeting with all kinds of folks, doing all kinds of worship services. I spend a lot of my time being a pastor to the clergy. One of the main responsibilities of a bishop is the pastoral care of clergy and their families.

JR: Why is the fact that you are now a gay bishop garnering so much more attention then when you were a gay priest?

GR: I honestly don’t know. To be consistent, you would think that my being an openly gay priest would have been as offensive to those people who oppose it as my being a bishop, except for the fact that by being a bishop, I’m one of the bishops for the whole Church, not just for New Hampshire. So I think in that way someone sitting in Arizona or Montana or Florida feels as if this is perhaps more of a reflection on them than just my being a priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire.

JR: Now, you are, if I understand this correctly, the first openly gay bishop in a committed relationship.

GR: Right, and the first openly gay bishop who was open about his orientation prior to being elected. We have one bishop in the House of Bishops who came out after he retired.

JR: Ah, okay. This is the former bishop of Utah, is that …

GR: Correct.

JR: Okay.

GR: And, of course, we’ve always had gay bishops. That’s nothing new. It’s just that no one talked about it.

JR: Do you know bishops who are not out?

GR: Absolutely. Both in this country and overseas.

JR: Do you feel that sexuality and spirituality are linked in any way?

GR: Well, that’s a question that would take us days to answer. And frankly, I think it’s something that the Church needs to explore and has done a very poor job of exploring. I think it’s particularly hard for men to put those two things together and not nearly so hard for women, which is why most of the really good writing on this topic has come from women theologians and particularly feminist theologians.

Sexuality at its very best is an expression of what’s going on inside us. So for our intimate sexual relationships to be an expression of the kind of love that we have for the other person is to sort of make the words and music go together. What you’re doing with your body is an expression of what you’re feeling in your heart. I think the Church takes it seriously and believes that it is sacramental because it is an opportunity we have to catch a glimpse of how much God loves us.

JR: Do any of the women theologians you mentioned come to mind off the top of your head?

GR: The one that comes to my mind most is Carter Heyward. She taught at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and is now, I think, at least partially if not fully retired down in North Carolina. I think she’s probably still writing.

JR: What is the biggest issue facing Christianity today?

GR: (long pause) Can I pick two?

JR: Sure.

GR: One is that I think that Christianity, certainly in this country, is so bought into the status quo. That is to say, we are so supported by the federal government through our non-profit status, our tax-exempt status, and so on, that it’s very difficult for us to be prophetic when we are called to be. It’s very difficult to bite the hand that feeds you. Since Constantine in the fourth century made the Church the official state religion, we have been less and less willing or able to criticize the prevailing culture.

I think that’s a real big problem, especially given where we are politically in this country right now and how, I think, the Church should be critical of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And you just don’t hear a lot from the churches about that. I think that’s a sad statement.

The other big problem, I would say, is similar to what’s going on in every world religion — certainly in Judaism and Islam — which is this great divide between, for lack of better terms, conservatives and liberals, or fundamentalists and progressives. There are those who take a narrow reading of the holy texts, and if they had their druthers, they would enforce what they understand to be the meaning of those texts. Whereas the other side takes a more contextual view of scripture and is able to believe that different people of faith can come to different conclusions about the various issues that face us and still hold together as a faith. Karen Armstrong has written some really terrific books around those issues.

JR: Do you think there will be a split within the Episcopal Church here in the United States because of your ordination to the episcopate?

GR: No, I really don’t. Already we’re seeing the lines being pulled back. You know, the conservative groups said that they would leave the Episcopal Church if I were elected. And then I was elected. Then they said they would leave if I was consented to by the General Convention. And then I was consented to. Then they said they would leave if I was consecrated. So I was consecrated. And their latest statement is that they’re staying. They’ve decided now, no, they’re not going to leave. They are going to try to become a church-within-a-church and form this network.

And they’ve pulled back from trying to take their property with them because their lawyers have figured out that all of the precedents are in favor of the Episcopal Church and that they could not leave with their property. Then they said they were going to break canon law and engage in acts of ecclesiastical civil disobedience. And now they’re pulling back from that and saying, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to operate within the letter of the law.” So, one wonders what they have left.

I do believe that we will spend a great deal of time and energy dealing with these issues and learning how to live with one another. But I don’t believe that it’s going to result in any kind of schism. I also believe that it won’t result in what they are hoping for, which is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the wider Anglican Communion would recognize this small — very small — network within the Episcopal Church as the true Episcopal Church and throw the rest of us out. It’s just not going to happen.

JR: What do you like to do in your free time?

GR: What free time? (laughs) I can tell you what I used to like to do. (laughs) I love to garden. Mark and I both do. We’ve got our outdoor perennial garden and we’ve got maybe 300 bulbs that we put out every spring and then dig up and bring into the basement every fall because they won’t make it through the winter. I also love nothing better than sitting on a beach and doing nothing. I love to read. I love music. I love the theater. It’s nice having a daughter in New York, because every time I go see her, I get to do those things.

JR: A lot of young people, straight and gay and anything else, who have been alienated or felt alienated from the Church in the past, have found something healing in what you’ve become. Crunchable is read mostly by young people, many of whom have no relation to the Church whatsoever or have strayed away from it because they feel that it’s become irrelevant to them. So, you have an open forum here to say something to those people. What would you like to say?

GR: Well, I might start out by quoting a commercial from not too long ago: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” I hope that people will give the Episcopal Church a second look or a second chance because it is trying, I think, in every way possible to open its doors, to make the sign out front which says “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” a statement of fact no matter who you are.

Certainly there are going to be congregations that are more or less open and welcoming, but I believe that you won’t find a denomination anywhere in the United States more resolutely trying to live out the justice of the Gospel. And just as Jesus spent all of his time with people on the margins and on the fringes, not with churchy types, so I think the Episcopal Church is learning to live out that kind of Christianity.

Even amongst the cynical press that have been following me around, you wouldn’t believe the number who’ve said, “You know, there’s a little Episcopal church around the corner from where I live in New York. I think I’m going to go there on Sunday.” It’s really been an amazing opportunity for us to welcome in people who, for one reason or another, have not been treated very well by the Church. I think the Episcopal Church at its very best is saying, “You know what, you’re right, and we’re sorry. Let’s build a new Church together.”

Also: Check out interviewer Jonathan Ratican’s earlier essay about his reaction to Bishop Robinson’s election.

Article © 2004 by Jonathan Ratican