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Person of the
Year: V. Gene Robinson

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.

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'etre 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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