Person of the Year: V. Gene Robinson

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com December 09 2003 12:00 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.

Were you worried that the ceremony might be disrupted?
Believe it or not, shortly before the ceremony I took an
hour’s nap. That’s how Ialm I was.
Through this whole process, God has seemed so very
close by.

Was there anything about the ceremony that took you by surprise?
The moment these 44 bishops gathered around and laid
their hands on me, I was surprised at the weight
applied to the top of my head. It was really all I
could do to withstand it. It was such a powerful moment and
a physical reminder of the spiritual responsibility being
laid on me, not just in being the bishop that I am
called to be but in being in this historic
moment.

How has all of this affected your partner, Mark?
He is so rock-solid. It is amazing. He is about the
steadiest person I know. It’s been hard on us
because it’s changed our life in the sense of
how much time we have together. But we are so together on
this. He’s a very private person. For him to
agree to be in the limelight and to shoulder some of
this is just a remarkable gift to me and to the church.
I couldn’t love him more.

How did you two meet?
We met 16 years ago on the beach in St Croix. I had some
frequent flier miles that I needed to use. I actually
looked in The Advocate and found an ad for a
hotel on the western end of St. Croix. I flew down
there by myself, and Mark was there with a friend from
Chicago. Mark and I were immediately taken with each
other.

So have you always wanted to become a bishop?
No. I used to be one of those people who
laughingly said anybody who wanted to be a bishop
deserved it. It always seemed inappropriate to me to
aspire to it. But about 10 years ago, I began to literally
be pursued by God about this. It began to creep into
my prayer life. Also, my attitude changed, once I
worked for a bishop, from one of “anyone who
wants to be a bishop deserves it” to thinking that
being a bishop is so hard, you’d better want to
do it. Even on a good day it’s a tough job, and
on a bad day it’s nearly impossible. I can’t
imagine going into this sort of begrudging it. It used
to be fashionable for nominees to claim they
didn’t want it. For me, it was more complicated,
because I did know that if I was ever nominated, much
less elected, I would become a flash point for
controversy.

So how is it different than being an openly gay priest?
I didn’t have to think a lot about it. We forget
in New England what a rarified atmosphere we have
compared to most of the country. I came out in this
diocese in 1986. It’s never been a focus of my
ministry, but it’s certainly something that I
haven’t shied away from. One of the great
inconsistencies in all the controversy these last few months
is that for some reason everybody has gone over the
edge because I’m about to become a bishop,
whereas if they were being consistent at all, they would be
as outraged by my being a priest. It makes no
sense.

Did you know you were gay when you became a priest and
later got married?
Absolutely. I started seminary in 1969, two or three
months after Stonewall. I had been struggling with
this for quite some time, and all of my significant
relationships had been with men. But then I got into
therapy for a couple of years to cure myself. I really
wanted to be married. I wanted to have children. I
felt that I was in a place that I could have a mature
relationship with a woman, and indeed, I met Isabella
and we were married. But I told her within a month of our
meeting that all of my relationships had been with
men. About a month before we were married I remember
breaking down one night and crying and saying that I
was so fearful that this would raise its ugly head at some
point. Flash forward about 10 years, and it was. I was
increasingly feeling that I could not continue to deny
who I was. We made a mutual decision. We felt that she
deserved the opportunity to know a relationship with a
heterosexual man and that I deserved the opportunity to make
my life with a man.

She sounds very understanding.
We both felt that we were honoring each other by
letting each other go. In a strange kind of
upside-down way, we were honoring our marriage by
getting a divorce. We took an Episcopal priest with us to
the judge’s chamber for the final divorce
decree, and we immediately went from there back to his
church and celebrated communion together. We asked for each
other’s forgiveness, we cried a lot, and we gave our
wedding rings back to each other.

Did you enter the priesthood as a way of dealing with
being gay?
I don’t see that my being gay had anything to do
with my decision to respond to God’s call to
ordination. I have always been very close to the
church.

Even as a young boy?
I grew up in the Disciples of Christ denomination, in a
small rural church in Nicholasville, Ky. By the time I
got into high school I was beginning to question. I
was in a fairly fundamentalist congregation, and I
would ask all kinds of questions, such as “How could
a loving God send people to hell if they have never
even heard of Jesus?” The response from the
adults in my church was “There are certain questions
you shouldn’t ask.” Well, even by high
school I was convinced that there wasn’t any
question that shouldn’t be asked. When I left high
school I was looking for something more open. I wound
up at a college that was owned by the 20 or so
Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church. I was confirmed
in the Episcopal Church Easter of my senior year and
went to seminary that fall.

So what does the V. in your name stand for?
I weighed 10 pounds when I was born and my mother is a
very small woman, so the birth was very difficult.
They couldn’t do a C-section, and six doctors
failed to extricate me. At the last minute one of the nurses
called in a pediatrician, who was able to deliver me [using
forceps]. I was completely paralyzed on my right side,
and my head was crushed in. They asked my father for a
name for the birth and death certificates, knowing I
would not live. My father used the name Vicki Jean that they
had chosen for a girl, figuring it would not matter on my
tombstone. He just changed the spelling to Vicky Gene.
I was in the incubator for about a month and then came
out of paralysis. I was given to my parents, who were
poor tobacco sharecroppers and quite young, and told that I
would never walk or talk, that I would be a total
vegetable. I didn’t learn any of this until I
was 13 and my pediatrician told me. Every time I went to
see him he would say, “You sure look better than the
first time I saw you.” He told me that my head
had been so crushed in that he took his hands and
molded it back into a round shape. He knew I wouldn’t
live, but he couldn’t bear to let my mother see
me in a casket that way.

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.