Bishop Gene Robinson, Then and Now

At Huffington Post, Rev Susan Russell reflects on the dramatic progress in public responses to gay bishops, from the time of the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, to his retirement this month, just nine years later.

2003

In November 2003 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to ordain the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. For the record, V. Gene Robinson was not the first gay bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church, much less Christendom, but he was the first one to be honest about it. And so his ordination as the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire included pomp, circumstance and metal detectors. The assembled crowd included clergy, choirs and CNN. And as we filed into the arena where the service would be held, we were greeted by ushers, reporters and bomb sniffing dogs.

Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire at Trini...

For the record, Robinson was not the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. There were many others in the early church, from Saint Paulinus of Nola in the fourth century, who wrote top quality erotic verse to his lover Ausonius, through a host of medieval bishops, including Bishop John of Orleans, who owed his appointment at the close of the eleventh century to the support of his lover bishop Ralph of Tours, to Pope Julian III, who appointed his own boyfriend a cardinal at the tender age of 16. There are many other examples of bishops and popes who were well known to have had sex with men, even if it is perhaps an anachronism to describe them as “openly gay” in the modern sense.

But even in more recent times, Robinson was not the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. That was Otis Charles of Utah, who came out publicly as gay in 1993 – but only on his retirement. In the wider Anglican communion, when Mervyn Castle was appointed to a suffragan diocese of Cape Town in 1994, he was known to be gay inside South Africa, and Terry Brown of the Solomon Islands attended the Lambeth Conference in 1998 as an openly gay man – but these simply did not attract nedia attention, probably because they were simply not well known outside their own countries.

But that’s a quibble. Russell’s main point is not that Gene Robinson was the first, just that there has been a huge transformation in public response, in those intervening nine years.

2011

In November 2012 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to celebrate the retirement of Bishop Gene Robinson after nine years as their bishop. An ice sculpture of the diocesan logo took center stage on the buffet table as ladies in plaid skirts and gentlemen in blue blazers sipped tea and munched on brie. Gene circulated around the room hugging necks, posing for pictures and receiving the thanks of a diocese grateful for nine years of work and witness together. It was an afternoon event marked by nothing so much as its quintessentially Episcopalian ordinariness — and there was not a metal detector or a reporter in sight.

Adding impact to this contrast within the church, is the change in political circumstances, so dramatically illustrated by the elections last week:

2003:

In 2003 we were a country where marriage equality was still a dream, “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was in force and the president of the United States was backing a federal marriage amendment that would write discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans into the U.S. Constitution. And we were a church with an organized and mobilized conservative bloc reaching into their deep pockets in an effort to turn the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire into the schism that they hadn’t managed to pull off in the 1970s, when they had tried to split the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women.

2012:

And in 2012 we are a country where nine states (and the District of Columbia) have civil marriage equality, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed over a year ago and the president of the United States not only has “evolved” to become an outspoken supporter of marriage equality but is leading the charge to send DOMA (the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”) into the dustbin of history. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church has come out on the other side of the inclusion wars with a robust commitment to full inclusion for LGBT people that includes a General Convention that voted overwhelmingly to support federal marriage equality and to approve liturgies for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

What a difference, she says, nine years make!

Progress will certainly continue. The election of Mary Glasspool as suffragan Bishop in Los Angeles raised far less reaction, and it is probable that the election of the next openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church will be reasonably uneventful. In the Anglican Church gay bishops remain controversial, but that is likely to change once the question of women bishops has been settled (possibly, later this month).

After last week’s success, speculation is already turning to which states will be next to approve marriage equality in the US, and internationally, at least four countries are likely to pass enabling legislation next year – Finland (including provision for church weddings), Colombia, France and New Zealand.

The times, they are a’changing.

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