have been puzzled by a strange fact – that a largely conservative, rural
small-town diocese such as New Hampshire should have elected a man in an
open, monogamous relationship with another man.
The words of Archbishop Desmond
Tutu, who is never slow at coming forward in support of equality and
acceptance of gay men and women both within the Christian church and in
society in general.
These words form the first sentence
of a powerful foreword of Bishop Gene Robinson’s new book, In the Eye of
the Storm., a reflection on his journey of faith, his life
experiences, the concerns that matter most to him as a bishop and the
controversy that has rocked the church he loves and to which he is
The book itself is equally powerful
as the foreword. The openly gay Bishop of New Hampshire sets out his values
– and offers a way forward in the equality battle faced by Christian gay men
Reading the book, one gets an
impression of a really pleasant man. This was confirmed at a meeting.
The opening gambit: “What is the
correct way to address a bishop of the American Episcopal Church?”
“Gene would do very nicely,” the
The conversation soon drifted into
the subject of marriage – same-sex marriage and the machinations of the
all-powerful conservative Religious Right who “thump the pulpit” at every
opportunity about what they call ‘the gay agenda’, which includes marriage
equality for same sex couples.
They scream about “the sanctity of
marriage”, yet not a murmur when a pop star goes to Las Vegas for a weekend,
gets married in a civil ceremony and then has it annulled after a couple of
“At the moment, Britney Spears
[goes the pop star in question] says ‘I do’ – and receives some 1,100 rights
and protections,” the Bishop says when asked how he felt about that
“Yet my partner and I who have been
together for 20 years do not receive those same protections,” he continues.
“In New Hampshire, we have a new
civil union law which my partner and I will take advantage of in early
summer. The law only provides some 400 of those rights and protections.
But it certainly isn’t equality.”
Bishop Robinson insists that the
New Hampshire civil union law, which came into effect at the beginning of
the year, is a “move forward” in the right direction.
“It’s an interim step until we
provide marriage as a civil right for all citizens.
“I do think it is important for us
to separate the issue of civil rights from religious rites.
“I think it will take the various
denominations of the Christian world a very long time to decide whether or
not to pronounce God’s blessing on those unions,” he predicted.
“In the meantime, it is my great
hope that we will provide equality to gay and lesbian families that are
equal to that for heterosexual families.”
He pointed out that it was not
unusual for some Christian denominations in the United States to either
officially or unofficially to bless the relationships of committed same sex
In his book, Bishop Robinson says
that when he and his partner, Mark Andrew, register their civil union in
June, they will walk across the street to St. Paul’s Church, ”where we will
give thanks for our union and will ask God’s – and the gathered community’s
– blessing on us”.
But he added that no matter what he
and his partner did, the union “would be pitched as and international
affront” to the Anglican Communion.
Bishop Robinson said that he was an
advocate of going back to the days when couples got civilly married in a
secular ceremony, and then, if they wanted to, went to their church for the
“Technically speaking, what makes
the marriage is the signing of the marriage licence (certificate in the UK)
by the officiant. Though I think most of the our congregants would not
understand the distinction,” he admitted.
Of course, the most widely used
quotation used from the Bible to condemn homosexuality is Leviticus 18:12,
with the fundamentalists quoting from the King James Version.
What would the fundamentalists say
if they were told about the sexuality of King James – in today’s terminology
he was gay and had two known love affairs with men?
“I think they would be shocked –
simply horrified,” the Bishop said.
He went on to say that, indeed,
there have been, over the centuries, translation difficulties over the
centuries from ancient ‘classic’ languages.
“”It’s all about context,” he
said. “Even the most profoundly literalist approach is really about
interpretation. No one interprets every word of scripture literally,
otherwise we would all be eating kosher and we would follow the other
proscriptions in Leviticus which no one follows as eternally binding.
“So, it’s all a matter of
interpretation. I think one of the gifts that the Anglican Church has to
offer Christendom is that we have always seen scripture taken in its
context. We ask the question what did the writer mean, and what the people
for whom it was written understand it meant.
“Only then can we ask the question
is it eternally binding upon us. The more literalist approach is something
that is really quite modern – and terribly against the tradition of the
The book has a number of “gems”,
like the Bishop’s Christmas present to himself – a visit on Christmas Eve to
the New Hampshire women’s prison.
“I love my ministry with the women
at the Manchester Women’s Prison – I visit them often,” he said.
“I find it just so refreshing and
encouraging – and challenging.
“It’s always a challenge to think
through what the ‘Good News’ sound like to someone in prison,” he said.
“They can hardly believe that I
would choose to spend Christmas Eve with them. They feel abandoned and
forgotten. And so when I come to be with them, they tell me that they are
Clearly, Bishop Robinson is beloved in his diocese –
and he was chosen from a wide selection of candidates (the election was
entirely proper and the result clear cut).
Yet his appointment in 2003 sparked a hurricane storm
of controversy that has polarised religious opinion on five continents – and
still rages five years on.
In the Eye of the Storm,
by Gene Robinson, is published in the UK by
Canterbury Press (£12.99). It is available online from the Book Depository
in the UK for £9.18 (including shipping). Click
HERE for details
It was published earlier this month
in the USA by Seabury Books ($25 hardcover) and can be ordered online from
Amazon at $16.50 (plus shipping).
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Licence.
Posted: 29 April 2008 at
20:00 (UK time)