View from the Pew
Episcopal bishop evokes ‘living God’ on gay issue
If you believe the headlines, schism is imminent in one of the oldest Christian denominations because the American branch of the church, caught up in the latest civil rights movement, approved an openly gay man as bishop.
Not so, said that bishop, who was in Honolulu this week, giving a small audience at St. Clement's Episcopal Church some political, philosophical and pastoral insights into the issue that put the U.S. Episcopal Church at odds with some other branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
"I don't think there are many bishops in the Episcopal Church who believe that 20 years from now we won't have an authorized same-sex blessing, and that the issue of an openly gay bishop won't be an issue any more," said Bishop V. Gene Robinson, head of the New Hampshire Episcopal Diocese. About 60 members of the Hawaii Episcopal Diocese and a few from other denominations attended his unpublicized appearance at a meeting of Integrity, an organization for homosexual Episcopalians.
Americans have had 30 years of social acclimatization through the "gay liberation" movement, with family, friends and co-workers gaining confidence to reveal their sexual orientation. But that hasn't happened in some other cultures. It hasn't happened in a lot of churches either, where there have, no doubt, been homosexual clergy and leaders forever, living in "don't ask, don't tell" circumstances not honest or healthy.
The divorced father of two daughters, Robinson has lived openly for years with his male partner. A priest since 1973, he was executive assistant to the New Hampshire bishop for 18 years before delegates to the diocese convention voted to make him bishop.
Clergy and lay delegates to the national General Convention, the law-making body of the U.S. church, approved his consecration in 2003. They also approved language to allow individual dioceses to establish blessing ceremonies for same-gender couples. Those actions set off the firestorm that has African and Asian branches rebuking the Americans, conservative bishops from around the world threatening to sever the U.S. branch and an ultimatum to repent from Anglican Communion primates, as the top bishops from each nation are called.
"If you just read the headlines, you would think the so-called schism is about 50-50. The fact of the matter is it's a very small group, a very passionate and vocal group," he said. "It doesn't mean the people are insignificant; it does mean we don't have to be frightened, upset and worried that somehow the church is falling apart."
The articulate and humorous cleric drew uproarious laughter for some comments including his assertion, "It continues to astound me that people are shocked that there is conflict in the church.
"We wouldn't have most of the New Testament if those early Christians hadn't been fighting with one another. Paul wrote all those letters to all those churches ... because they were disputing with one another over one thing and another."
Robinson compared the current issue with the church's evolving attitude toward divorced people. "In our lifetime, if you were to divorce, you were not welcome at communion and you were not allowed to be remarried in the Episcopal Church. Two things happened: We realized we were depriving people of communion when they needed it most. We began to see second marriages that were a total blessing, God's grace and God's love showed up in those marriages. And so we changed our minds.
"We did that even though, out of the mouth of Jesus came the words that to be remarried after divorce is to commit adultery. So how could we change something so absolutely clear?"
The bishop referred to the Scriptures during the hourlong informal talk, but not the few passages condemning homosexual acts that opponents of same-gender unions often quote.
"Jesus said this remarkable thing in John's Gospel, at the last supper on the night before he died. He said, 'I have other things I would like to tell you but you're not able to hear them right now. So I'm going to send the Holy Spirit who will lead you in all things.'
"That's a very significant thing," said Robinson, "especially if you come out of the tradition, like I did, which believes that everything we needed to know was revealed by the time the canon of Scripture was closed. There it is in Scripture. God said it, I believe it, and that's that. God did all that 2,000 years ago, said 'OK, that's all you need to know, hope it goes well.'
"But what if, instead, we worship a living God who is still interacting with us, who is still in our midst when two or three gather together, and who is actively leading us into all things. That is a God I am much more interested in than a static God who did all that years ago," Robinson told the group.
"The more I read the Bible, the clearer it becomes to me that Jesus was in trouble all the time. He was in trouble with those good people, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He was always bucking the status quo. He was always bringing people in from the margins of society.
"What happened in the civil rights movement is what I think needs to happen in this issue. A corner was rounded. On this side, clergy were afraid of making people angry, losing membership and losing money, offending people if we jumped in.
"We turned the corner and decided it was not a pastoral issue, it's a justice issue. And we decided we were going to do the right thing and then deal as compassionately as we could with those who don't understand or agree."
Robinson said, "I don't know what the answer to the conundrum is: How do you be a worldwide communion with all the cultures and values put together, with our context so different from other contexts? How do we do that? It is a matter of our survival, not just as the Anglican Communion but literally, as a world, that we figure out how to do that."