Person of the Year: V. Gene Robinson

As the renewed debate over equal marriage rights has shown, at the root of all opposition to gay and lesbian rights lies religious conviction. In 2003 one gay man stood resolutely at the center of the contentious battle to shift religion away from hatred and exclusion and toward love and equality. V. Gene Robinson—elected bishop in June by the Episcopalians of New Hampshire, confirmed at the church’s national convention in August, and consecrated November 2—has handled the resulting anger from conservative Christians with poise and eloquence. For his grace under the pressure of a worldwide debate and for his steadfast focus on his mission to open God’s church to all people on the margins, Bishop Robinson is The Advocate’s Person of the Year.

BY Advocate.com Editors

December 09 2003 1:00 AM ET

On his first full
Sunday as bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New
Hampshire, V. Gene Robinson returned to the Peterborough,
N.H., church where he married Isabella
“Boo” McDaniel 31 years ago. Then he was a
divinity student determined to wrestle with his
homosexuality in the context of a marriage. Now
he’s the openly gay bishop—divorced from but
friendly with McDaniel—who’s the focus of
millions of Anglicans around the world, many of them
wrestling with the morality of homosexuality,
especially in the context of an ordained religious leader.

Much has changed
in 31 years.

What has not
changed is the Peterborough church itself. A compact but
stunning stone structure enclosing a soaring, cross-shaped
sanctuary, All Saints’ Episcopal Church
resembles an English country church, nestled against a
tree-covered hillside. On this record-cold November morning,
Robinson arrived early to preside over services at 8 and 9
a.m. and an informal 10 a.m. community meeting before
the main event—an 11 a.m. mass.

Robinson, 56,
isn’t a local boy—he grew up in Kentucky and
now lives in Concord—but the congregation
treated him as family. During the formal processional
that started the final mass, for which he wore brand-new
bishop’s vestments, Robinson was greeted by several
thumbs-up signs from the pews. He smiled proudly in
acknowledgment.

Family was a
recurring theme that morning. As he introduced Robinson, All
Saints’ interim rector, the Reverend Bruce H.
Jacobson, recalled the bishop’s November 2
installation ceremony, which took place before 4,000
people at a Durham, N.H., hockey arena. Robinson’s
ex-wife was there, along with his two grown daughters,
Ella and Jamee, and his partner of 14 years, Mark
Andrew, who was also present at All Saints’.
“I watched closely Gene and his partner, Mark,
and his daughters,” Jacobson said. “They
were and are a most wholesome example of a family.”
After Jacobson formally presented Bishop Robinson to
the congregation, a few random claps grew into rousing
applause from the nearly 150 seated in the
church’s wooden chairs and choir stall.

It was one of few
disruptions of an otherwise traditional service.
Robinson delivered his sermon, devoted to that
morning’s Gospel reading, standing on the steps
between the congregation and the choir, at the very
center of the church rather than at the pulpit.

He finished his
talk with a favorite anecdote: Four American soldiers
become best friends in the trenches of France during World
War I. When one of them is killed, the others vow to
give him a proper burial. But when they ask a priest
to allow them to bury their comrade in the parish
cemetery, the priest denies their request because the men
can’t guarantee that their dead friend was
baptized. Instead, the men bury the soldier just
outside the graveyard. After the war, when they return to
visit the grave, they can’t find it. When they
ask the priest what happened, he explains, “I
felt bad about my decision. Why should this man not deserve
the same status before God as all these others who have gone
before him? Who am I to judge him? So I moved the
fence.”

Moving the fence
to encompass more people “from the margins” is
central to Robinson’s mission as bishop; he
mentions it often. But the fence had long since been
moved in Peterborough. These mostly white, middle- and
upper-middle-class churchgoers take seriously the
“Live Free or Die” motto inscribed on
their license plates. Theirs is a libertarian bent
that has less to do with proclaiming diversity in order to
embrace it than with quietly assimilating cultural
progress. They believe, as one church member put it at
a reception after the service, that “we don’t
have all the answers” and that worship is about
finding the answers together.

Robinson was at
home here. The eloquence he demonstrated on the Today
show and countless other national forums, discussing the
issue of homosexuality and the church, he now bent to
the service of issues more specific to his diocese:
the social needs of New Hampshire (a topic central to
his sermon), the health of the Episcopal clergy (he’s
already a national leader in creating workshops and
support groups for Episcopal priests), and the
well-being of the generations to come (youth is a
special concern).

The “baby
bishop,” as he dubbed himself with a smile,does not
condemn his critics. While he may refer casually to
how God speaks to him and guides his life, he’s
not inclined to tell others what God wants for them. Asked
by a church member about how he’d respond to those
Episcopalians who are threatening to leave the church
in protest of his consecration, Robinson simply
offered, “Are you going to let a little guy like me
run you off from your church?”

That seemed to
make perfect sense to those gathered this Sunday. At All
Saints’, as several out-of-town visitors quickly
understood that day, church is family, in the most
inclusive sense. And the All Saints’ family
turned out in force November 9 to greet and support its new
bishop. “It’s only this crowded at
Christmas and Easter,” one latecomer whispered after
taking a seat in a rear pew. As the service neared its end,
she whispered again: “Look! Look at the
window.”

The window above
the altar had suddenly lit up—with beams of sunlight
illuminating the stained glass—as Robinson joined the
congregation in singing the final hymn. All
Saints’ isn’t the kind of congregation to
expect overt visitations of divinity. Still, eyes from all
over the sanctuary were glancing up at the influx of
light, split by the window’s design into a
rainbow of colors.

On this Sunday,
it made sense.

As aware as
Robinson is of the hullabaloo surrounding his consecration,
he’s equally aware of the platform it has granted him
to do God’s work. “Moving the
fence” to embrace gays and lesbians is a big part of
that, but so is promoting the Episcopal Church that he
loves and that has been so good to him. “As
long as I’ve got the attention of the world’s
media,” Robinson said in one of a series of
conversations with The Advocate,
“I’m going to use it for the church and
I’m going to use it for God.”

How does it feel to be bishop?
It’s still surreal. People are addressing
me as bishop and I have to resist looking over my
shoulder and wondering whom they’re talking about.

Your consecration certainly attracted a lot of attention.
It was very interesting what was going on outside. We
had the Fred Phelps group from Kansas out there. There
were maybe a dozen antigay protesters. The students at
the University of New Hampshire had gotten wind that
they were going to be there, and the week before the
consecration they gathered all kinds of people together.
There were between 200 and 300 of them in a
counterprotest. It’s important to note that the
day before the consecration I received a note from Matthew
Shepard’s mother, which was just so meaningful to
me.”In it she said, “I know that Matthew
will be smiling down upon you tomorrow.” I think of
that in relation to what the Fred Phelps group was
doing.

How did the consecration itself go?
It was just astonishingly beautiful and moving. We had
lots of non-Episcopalians there who were just swept
away, not so much by the pomp and pageantry but by
this historic thing that we were doing.

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