How did the son of Kentucky tenant farmers, raised in a fundamentalist household without running water, become internationally (in)famous as the first openly gay clergyperson of a major Christian religion? The Rev. Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, has no clear answer. Instead, he offered the packed house of about 200 at Tuesday’s Religious Colloquy his reimagining of the parting of the Red Sea.
Forget the Cecil B. DeMille version of the Ten Commandments, where Moses (aka Charlton Heston) parts the Red Sea, creating a wide boulevard for the fleeing Jews to march effortlessly across. It’s not that easy. Instead, imagine that Moses tentatively stuck his left foot in, and found just enough dry land to proceed. Then, he placed his right foot in. (No, he didn’t then do “the hokey pokey,” at least as far as Biblical scholars can tell.) He proceeded this way, one step at a time, until the arduous journey was complete. This repurposed parable stands both for Robinson’s own journey and for the slow but relentless push of the GLBT community toward equality, dignity, and justice. (Don’t expect to see the “other side” of that struggle, he opined.)
In this engaging, often amusing, and always insightful way, Rev. Robinson (with the aid of local lesbian Rabbi Linda Holtzman, who played the tricky role of interviewer exceptionally well) held the dais with ease for almost an hour and a half. Holtzman, informed by Wikipedia — an admission that drew laughter from the audience and an uneasy silence from your humble blogger, who’d also boned up on Robinson via the same “peanut gallery” — asked a series of open-ended questions about his childhood, his faith, his relationships, and his well-known struggles with the Anglican Church. Along the way, we learned the limits of a Wikipedia education; plenty had been left out.
Robinson’s gift, as I see it, is the ability to connect spirituality with the coming-out struggles faced by every sexual minority, and to do so in a way that’s both deeply insightful and extremely accessible. For example, even as a kid he wasn’t able to relate to a stripe of religious fundamentalism that declared certain questions off limits; and as a youth realizing at about age 12 or 13 that he was different (and that he’d better not say anything about it), questions he had in ample supply.
These questions led him, on the religious side, to find a mentor who introduced him to the theologian Paul Tillich, for whom questions and answers exist in an endless dialectical relationship. On a parallel course, his relentless uncertainty about his sexual identity (or, perhaps more to the point, what to do about it) led him to try a sort of conversion therapy (he “wants his money back”), then to a sort of panic shortly before his wedding, and then into, and finally out of, marriage to a woman with whom he had two children.
Throughout these stories, Robinson’s thoughtfulness emerges. I was especially taken by his description of how he and his wife unravelled their marital vows in a church once he came to accept his sexual identity: They released each other from their vows, mutually returned their rings, wept, and then took communion together. This seemed to me a very healthy and honest willingness to confront what they were doing, and what they had, irrevocably, already done.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion centered around Rev. Robinson’s ordination as bishop, and the still-evolving schism in the Anglican communion that it ultimately spawned. Here, the relentless questioner gives way to a man convinced that he’s done the right thing, and who will not “take the bait” of answering this question: “How does it feel to be the one who has caused the break-up of the Church?” Well, the Anglican Church hasn’t “broken up,” and in any case, Robinson sees himself as at the eye of the storm: calm amid deadly winds. Every step was “by the book,” he says. It’s other people’s actions and beliefs in response that have caused the problem that some have sought to ascribe to him.
“But why not wait until everyone was ready, and everything was in place?” the former Archbishop of Canterbury once asked him.
“When has anything significant ever happened in a way that was neat and tidy?” was essentially Rev. Robinson’s response, pointing to the controversy, some thirty years earlier, over the ordination of women. He also noted that many of the same people who were the most vocal in opposing that change have also led the campaign against him. It’s really about the slow crumbling of patriarchy (what isn’t?), and “they don’t like it.”
Gene Robinson was born for this role. He’s comfortable and consistently amusing before a large crowd. He also has the kind of deep confidence needed to tack through the storms that his ordination has generated. Yet pain, humiliation, and disappointment have been inescapable. It’s by now fairly well known that he wasn’t invited to the Archbishop’s Lambeth Conference last year. But it’s worse than that. In a separate interview, I asked the lawyer’s question: By what authority did the Archbishop exclude you? It turns out that the conference, held decenially since 1867, is the Archbishop’s “party,” and, to paraphrase Lesley Gore, he can “exclude whom he wants to.” It also turns out, according to Robinson, that he was the first duly ordained bishop ever to be excluded from the conference since its inception.
Admittedly, the Archbishop has a terribly difficult line to walk these days. (For evidence of how difficult, read this article in the March issue of The Atlantic.) And with specific reference to the Lambeth conference, this difficulty had reached a boiling point: Many prelates boycotted the conference because of the church’s evolving view of sexuality. Whatever the Archbishop Rowan Williams’s difficulties, though, the reality was a personal affront to Bishop Robinson. Not only was he excluded, but pictures of him were placed at every entrance, so that security could identify and bar him if he showed up. The conference concluded with unintentionally cruel irony: The final blessing was “All Are Welcome.”
Of course, Rev. Robinson wasn’t about to venture where he wasn’t welcome. As a pretty cool consolation prize, he was invited to dinner with Sir Ian McKellen, the great Shakespearean actor now best known as Gandalf and Magneto. “Gandalf is cooking me dinner,” thought Robinson, incredulous. But his brave journey has taken him to fabulous places all over the world, none more so than the Presidential platform; on Inauguration Day, sitting some 20 feet from the about-to-be President, Robinson had a thought that neatly captures both his own struggle and that of the oppressed more generally: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
I might end this long post there (look for a separate post on the National Racial panel later today), except that I can never resist Shakespeare. Robinson learned from McKellen that the only surviving work in Shakespeare’s own hand comes from Sir Thomas More, a train-wreck of a play that was written by committee. But scholars now generally agree that some three pages were indeed the immortal’s work. In his scene, Londoners were rioting over the presence of foreigners in their midst, demanding their expulsion. Sir Thomas More then addresses the mob, offering a dramatic metaphor that stands as a rebuke to all efforts to create and then demonize the “other”:
- “For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
- With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
- Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
- Would feed on one another.”