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

Wow. What a thing to learn about yourself. But now your
focus must be on your congregants. What’s
first on your “to do” list as bishop?
My first order of business is visiting congregations.
And in addition to doing what I would normally do,
such as worship services and preaching, I’m
holding forums so that people who are uncomfortable with
my election or angry about it will have a chance to ask any
questions of me that they want.

A bishop holding forums so that congregants can express
their anger about his election sounds like a
radical new thing.
Yes. But what’s so great about it is it becomes a
substantive discussion about what makes us a church.
These are fantastic discussions. Frankly, because of
my election and the controversy around it, there is
not an Episcopal congregation in the country that
isn’t asking that. This is an enormous
educational and spiritual opportunity. It’s not a bad
way to begin an episcopate. Rather than everybody
standing around drinking tea and making nice,
we’re having these remarkably deep and meaningful
discussions about what we really believe and why we really
believe it.

How are you going to handle all the conflicting things
that surround your new position, such as being a
role model and a bishop, and the potential church schism?
They do amazingly dovetail. They’re not separate
things. How I go about answering tough questions in a
congregation says a lot about the kind of person
I’m going to be as a bishop. And the people here at
the diocese have just been absolutely wonderful about
understanding this historic role that I’m
playing. I joke with them about all the news coverage.
We couldn’t buy this kind of publicity for the
Episcopal Church.

What have you personally been hearing from the gay community?
My mail, my e-mail, and my phone calls have probably
been running about 90% positive. People are saying
things like “Thank you so much for doing
this”; “Thank you for standing firm”;
“Please don’t back down now”; and
“You can’t imagine what this means to me
living in this tiny town in Georgia where it’s
not safe to come out.”

Speaking of not backing down, you have taken a defiant
stance, given the magnitude of the potential schism.
I have always taken seriously the pleas that have come
my way for me to go slow or be careful. But
I’ve never wavered in my understanding that God
was calling me forth to do this. Some people would have
called Moses defiant when he led the Hebrews out of
Egypt. Some called Jesus defiant when against all the
Jewish law he touched and treated with respect lepers
and women and tax collectors. Martin Luther King and many
others were accused of being defiant while doing what
most of us believe to be God’s will. I would
like to think that I’ve just been resolute.

You have compared this crisis to past crises the church
has weathered, such as the ordination of women. Do
you still think it will eventually blow over?
This is not unlike the controversy over the ordination
of women. There were great threats of schism back
then, and it really never materialized. With every day
that passes, and people see that life within their
congregation hasn’t changed because New Hampshire has
a gay bishop, there will be fewer and fewer people
interested in doing something about it.

But throughout history, many churches have split.
Ultimately, a church based on unhappiness and anger is
not apt to succeed. Who would want to belong to a
church whose raison d’être was
displeasure?

Is there any level of damage to the church caused by your
election that would cause you to step down?
I can’t step down now. I’m a bishop until
the day I die. Someday I may retire, but the fact that
the church has done this cannot be undone. If it were
possible? No, I don’t think so.

Do you feel any responsibility to the gay Episcopalians
who are members of a church threatening to break
away because of your consecration?
I can’t have any responsibility for them other
than in hoping that the things I’m saying and
doing are encouraging to them. I cannot act in any
other diocese without the bishop’s permission. I
worry about them. I pray about them. But I
can’t be responsible for them, and I agonize over
that.

If we could magically take the controversy away, what
would you like to be talking about?
I’ll tell you what I’m going to be talking
to the diocese about. There’s a passage in
Isaiah that Jesus read in his hometown synagogue. It
goes something like, “The spirit of the Lord is upon
me to preach good news to the poor, to set captives
free, to restore sight to the blind, and to proclaim
the year of the Lord’s favor.” I’m
thinking that passage is going to be the centerpiece
of my episcopate here. I want my ministry to be about
noticing people on the edges and bringing them into the
center of the church.

When you talk about people on the edges, I automatically
think of gay people.
Absolutely. But it’s more than just gay people.
Three days after my election I got a letter from a
woman in the state prison here who wrote, “I am
neither gay nor Christian, but your election makes me think
there might be a community out there who could love me
despite what I’ve done.” I went down and
played softball with the women at that prison, and I met
this young woman. She turned out to be 18 years old. She
looked about 15—very quiet, shy, sort of a
wallflower. She had killed her mother when she was 14,
yet she saw hope for herself in my election.

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