“I have been puzzled by a strange fact – that a largely conservative, rural small-town diocese such as New Hampshire should have elected a man in an open, monogamous relationship with another man.”
The words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is never slow at coming forward in support of equality and acceptance of gay men and women both within the Christian church and in society in general.
These words form the first sentence of a powerful foreword to Bishop Gene Robinson’s new book, In the Eye of the Storm, a reflection on his journey of faith, his life experiences, the concerns that matter most to him as a bishop and the controversy that has rocked the church he loves and to which he is committed.
The book itself is as powerful as the foreword. The openly gay Bishop of New Hampshire sets out his values – and offers a way forward in the equality battle faced by Christian gay men and women.
Reading the book, one gets an impression of a really pleasant man. This was confirmed at a meeting. The opening gambit: “What is the correct way to address a bishop of the American Episcopal Church?”
“Gene would do very nicely,” the bishop suggests.
The conversation soon drifts into the subject of marriage – same-sex marriage and the machinations of the all-powerful conservative Religious Right who “thump the pulpit” at every opportunity about what they call ‘the gay agenda’, which includes marriage equality for same-sex couples.
They scream about “the sanctity of marriage”, yet not a murmur when a pop star goes to Las Vegas for a weekend, gets married in a civil ceremony and then has it annulled after a couple of days.
“At the moment, Britney Spears [the pop star in question] says ‘I do’ – and receives some 1,100 rights and protections,” the Bishop responds when asked how he feels about that particular situation.
“Yet my partner and I who have been together for 20 years do not receive those same protections,” he continues.
“In New Hampshire, we have a new civil union law which my partner and I will take advantage of in early summer. The law only provides some 400 of those rights and protections. But it certainly isn’t equality.”
Bishop Robinson insists that the New Hampshire civil union law, which came into effect at the beginning of the year, is a “move forward” in the right direction.
“It’s an interim step until we provide marriage as a civil right for all citizens.
“I do think it is important for us to separate the issue of civil rights from religious rites. I think it will take the various denominations of the Christian world a very long time to decide whether or not to pronounce God’s blessing on those unions,” he predicts.
“In the meantime, it is my great hope that we will provide equality to gay and lesbian families that are equal to that for heterosexual families.”
In his book, Bishop Robinson says that when he and his partner, Mark Andrew, register their civil union in June, they will walk across the street to St. Paul’s Church, ”where we will give thanks for our union and will ask God’s – and the gathered community’s – blessing on us”.
But he adds that no matter what he and his partner do, the union “would be pitched as an international affront” to the Anglican Communion.
Bishop Robinson says that he is an advocate of going back to the days when couples got civilly married in a secular ceremony, and then, if they wanted to, went to their church for the religious rite.
“Technically speaking, what makes the marriage is the signing of the marriage licence (certificate in the UK) by the officiant. Though I think most of our congregants would not understand the distinction,” he admits.
Of course, the most widely used quotation from the Bible to condemn homosexuality is Leviticus 18:12, with the fundamentalists quoting from the King James Version. But what would the fundamentalists say if they were told about the sexuality of King James; in today’s terminology he was gay and had two known love affairs with men?
“I think they would be shocked – simply horrified,” the Bishop says.
He goes on to say that, indeed, there have been, over the centuries, translation difficulties over the centuries from ancient ‘classic’ languages.
”It’s all about context,” he says. “Even the most profoundly literalist approach is really about interpretation. No one interprets every word of scripture literally, otherwise we would all be eating kosher and we would follow the other proscriptions in Leviticus which no one follows as eternally binding.
“So, it’s all a matter of interpretation. I think one of the gifts that the Anglican Church has to offer Christendom is that we have always seen scripture taken in its context. We ask the question what did the writer mean, and what the people for whom it was written understand it meant.
“Only then can we ask the question, is it eternally binding upon us? The more literalist approach is something that is really quite modern – and terribly against the tradition of the Anglican Church.”
The book has a number of “gems”, like the Bishop’s Christmas present to himself – a visit on Christmas Eve to the New Hampshire women’s prison.
“I love my ministry with the women at the Manchester Women’s Prison – I visit them often,” he says. “I find it just so refreshing and encouraging – and challenging. It’s always a challenge to think through what the ‘Good News’ sound like to someone in prison.
“They can hardly believe that I would choose to spend Christmas Eve with them. They feel abandoned and forgotten. And so when I come to be with them, they tell me that they are moved.”
Clearly, Bishop Robinson is beloved in his diocese – and he was chosen from a wide selection of candidates (the election was entirely proper and the result clear cut). Yet his appointment in 2003 sparked a hurricane storm of controversy that has polarised religious opinion on five continents – and still rages five years on.
In the Eye of the Storm, by Gene Robinson, is published by Canterbury Press. It is available online from Exclusive Books for R295.00.