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Bishop-elect Robinson shares his spiritual journey and vision for the church

Episcopal News Service Exclusive
by: Jan Nunley


(ENS) With 110 dioceses in the Episcopal Church, it seems someone is always electing a new bishop. But the attention of the Anglican world is now focused on one--the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop-elect in the Episcopal Church, whose election will have to be ratified by General Convention this summer.

Robinson, elected June 7, has been canon to the ordinary in New Hampshire since 1988 and serves as secretary for Province I, comprised of the dioceses of New England. Divorced and the father of two, he has been in a committed relationship for 13 years with Mark Andrew, a health care professional.

As controversy swirls around him, ENS decided it would be good to talk directly to Robinson about his election, his hopes for his episcopate--if his election is ratified--and his views of the church, the Bible, and the Gospel.

ENS: What was the election process like in the Diocese of New Hampshire?

ROBINSON: I have never heard of a diocese taking an election so seriously. We had three evenings of the walkabout "meet and greet" sessions, and over 700 people came out for that--in a little diocese like ours: 49 congregations; delegates, maybe 250 people. I think that points to the health of the diocese. The questions were outstanding, substantive. They were about faith and vision and direction.

It was different in Newark and Rochester, in that I was not present at either of those conventions. So this was a very much more exciting moment for me, and also dangerous, in that it was a very odd feeling sitting among your colleagues, laity and clergy, and knowing that they're voting on you. And wondering what that's going to be like if the answer is no. I would often go into St. Paul's Church where the election was going to occur and try to imagine what that would be like.

I woke up that morning and said my prayers, and from that moment until the results of the election were announced I felt incredibly calm and at peace with what was going to happen. I felt in God's care, and the love of people around me, and even had they chosen someone else to be their bishop, it was going to be okay. That was a surprise. And then of course to be greeted so thunderously÷ I think that eruption of enthusiasm was a celebration of having come to a common mind about who they wanted to be their next bishop after such a long and thoughtful and careful process.

ENS: What was the next day like?

ROBINSON: In all three elections that I've been in, I've promised the rector of St. Paul's Church in Concord [New Hampshire] to preach the next day. I said to him, "I always hate you for this on Saturday night when I'm exhausted, and then I'm always grateful after I do it."

And of course it was Pentecost. After having just had this experience of the Spirit, it was a little redundant! But the best thing about the day was the comments of people as they were leaving, saying "I'm so proud to be an Episcopalian." It was just an astounding experience for people to be so proud of their church.

ENS: How is your family reacting to the news--and the attention?

ROBINSON: They have been so supportive. They have been on this journey with me for the last 10 years and they were just speechless and in tears and overjoyed. It's a special joy that we, and now our new son-in-law, share.

Just to put all this in perspective, so people don't think this is the only important thing going on in my life: We're about to be grandfathers! Right in the very middle of General Convention, our older daughter Jamee [25] is expecting our first grandchild, and we are thrilled.

My former wife called me two days before the election to wish me well and that she hoped that I was the next bishop of New Hampshire, and she was one of the very first to call and congratulate me on my election. Our relationship has been good since we were separated and divorced. It's one of the things I'm proudest of, the way we have treated each other.

You know, a priest came with us to the judge's chambers for our divorce, and we went back to church and released each other from our marriage vows and gave our wedding rings back as symbols of those vows. We have continued to jointly raise our children. A couple of weekends ago, we together graduated Ella [21] from UMass-Amherst.

ENS: You didn't grow up in the Episcopal Church. How did you come to be an Episcopalian?

ROBINSON: I had a really good theological upbringing in the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). It is one of the few Eucharistically centered Protestant denominations--communion every Sunday. But it was the liturgy and the history of the Episcopal Church. It's important to me to have connections back to the earliest church. The apostolic succession is really important to me as a way of saying we are amongst a whole cloud of witnesses that go all the way back and it's important that we never forget our roots and as close as we can be to the early church, the better off we'll be.

I went to the University of the South [at Sewanee, Tennessee] as an undergraduate because my band leader in high school, who was an Episcopalian, said to apply there. So I won a full scholarship to Sewanee, and after four years of sitting in that chapel and singing in the choir, I became an Episcopalian, confirmed on Easter of my senior year.

ENS: How long have you felt called to the episcopate?

ROBINSON: About 10 years. God has been like a little yappy dog nipping at my heels about this, like the "hound of heaven." This is something I initially resisted because, as all of this publicity proves, it's not meant to be an easy journey for me if I were to be called to this ministry.

So I oftentimes felt like Jonah being asked to go to Nineveh and thinking, "Oh, my God, do I dare go?"--but not liking the thought of being swallowed by a whale either. I ultimately said "yes" to that, but it took a good long while before a diocese in the church could say "yes" back. We understand our calling not just to be from God but from the church, and so while I felt God's call, the church was not ready to call me. So I was in at least four processes and ultimately was not nominated in those places, before the Dioceses of Newark and Rochester did.

ENS: What kind of episcopate do you envision, if your election is confirmed by General Convention?

ROBINSON: A very hands-on, relational kind of episcopate. I said to the delegates and in the walkabouts that if they didn't want a bishop who was going to be in their face, they really ought to elect someone else.

We're going to re-imagine the Diocese of New Hampshire from the ground up. That will take about a year. We want to look at ways the bishop can be physically present and programmatically and personally involved in the life of a congregation. It will probably involve regional confirmations so that the visitation can be more than just the confirmation class. I'm hoping to do visitations that last a couple of days so that there can be substantive conversations with the vestry, with young people in the parish, and to spend some time with the clergyperson so that I have some sense of the context in which that congregation is trying to do ministry.

The reason I was elected had nothing to do with my orientation--for many people it was probably in spite of it. It was more due to the relationships that I've built with them. At the end of each of those meet-and-greet sessions I said, "What would it be like to begin an episcopate with the kind of trust and depth of relationship that we already have?" Sometimes that takes years to build between a bishop and congregations and clergy. What would it be like to begin an episcopate with that groundwork already laid and then to go deeper? That's the most exciting opportunity I can imagine.

ENS: You've done much work on clergy wellness, how are you going to continue that in your episcopate?

ROBINSON: I'll try to model wellness myself. And I'm going to try to hold clergy accountable for that. We've got clergy who are not taking proper care of themselves and not only do they pay and their families pay, but their congregations pay. I'll be proactive about that, as their chief pastor.

ENS: When [Massachusetts bishop suffragan] Barbara Harris went to her first House of Bishops meeting, there was concern about whether the bishops would accept her as a sister bishop. Are you concerned about the same kind of thing?

ROBINSON: I don't think so. It strikes me that I hadn't worried about that until you asked me the question--and I wonder if that has to do with male privilege. But I know so many of the bishops, having worked with them on any number of levels. Some of the most conservative bishops in the church have always been kind to me, knowing exactly who I am. So I don't envision that being a problem.

ENS: What about Lambeth 2008?

ROBINSON: Can't wait!

I want to say that I really do care about what they [bishops of the Anglican Communion] think and feel. It's been a big part of my prayer life about whether I should do this. There are those who would say that I'm doing this to the church or that New Hampshire is doing this to the church. It's not my goal to do anything to hurt this church, either locally or internationally.

I was in Uganda for three or four weeks helping set up a national peer education program for AIDS education. I never once mentioned being gay while I was there. It was irrelevant and I knew it would probably offend, and I was there to get a job done and to save lives from AIDS.

It's a very different context, and I have no doubt in my mind that people who disagree with me on this in other provinces of the Anglican Communion are following their call from God and their understanding of Scripture as best they know how. I just hope that they can acknowledge that I also am following God's call and my read of Scripture as best I know how.

I said to the people of New Hampshire that as long as we can continue coming to the altar rail and receiving the body and blood of Christ together, we can figure this other stuff out. We don't have to agree about everything in order to continue finding our unity and our faith in Jesus Christ.

So I would assume that Lambeth would go very well because God would have it be that way and the Spirit will be at work to make sure it's that way.

ENS: Are you what would be called "orthodox" in your beliefs?

ROBINSON: I would probably horrify many of my liberal colleagues with how traditional I am about many things. I'm very slow to throw out something that the church has believed for a long time.

I'm sort of in my 'second naivete' stage. Like most clergy, we learned in seminary all about how the Scriptures were put together, and we all go through a doubting time, and now I'm just back to believing the whole thing. I have no trouble affirming what I see as the eternal truth in the Creeds and in Scripture.

And yet I do believe the Spirit calls us from time to time to grow and to learn and to change. We did that with the ordination of women. We decided that we were going to go against centuries of tradition, and a few years later it's hard to imagine the ordained ministry without the gifts that women bring to it.

On race, we turned a corner and stopped thinking we didn't want to offend those who didn't want us to take a strong stand on civil rights. We decided we were going to do the right thing and then deal as pastorally as we could with those who didn't understand why we were doing that.

And I think we're about to turn that corner with the issue of gay and lesbian inclusion in the church. I hope that General Convention will do the right thing, and then be as absolutely pastoral as we possibly can with those who will be confused, angered, or disillusioned by that action.

But people in the church can still make statements about gay and lesbian folk that they wouldn't come close to making about women and people of color. For there to be a House of Bishops Theology Committee dealing with this issue and not have a third to half of the people being gay or lesbian doesn't seem abnormal to anyone at all. Yet you would not convene such a committee on race or the ordination of women. People would be outraged that people being talked about were not represented on the committee.

ENS: To you, what is the Gospel?

ROBINSON: The Good News that the world needs to hear is that they are loved beyond their wildest imagining. We know that because of the love affair that God has had with humankind since the beginning of creation. And our story about that love affair is the Old and New Testaments, which testify to God's love and faithfulness and initiative in loving us, even when we are not willing to love God back.

That comes to its full climax, its unique expression, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, we meet this maker of ours who has loved us from the very beginning. We no longer have to wonder what God is like. All we have to do is to look at this man.

I believe that the Spirit that works in and among us is that Spirit of God which continues to teach us that we have far more in common with one another than we have which makes us different, and continues to bring us back to God. God is still initiating.

In the little rural church in the South I grew up in, we used to use those fans from the funeral home that had the picture of Jesus standing at the door shaped like a heart, knocking on the door. It is just simply the truth--that is how much God wants to have a relationship with us.

For me, I think one of the great pearls of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is its refocusing on the baptismal covenant, which for me is the Gospel in our day and time. It's as much a purpose statement for why we do what we do as we have.

ENS: What's your relationship with the Bible?

ROBINSON: I don't believe that we can easily disregard any part of Scripture. But I do believe that there are parts of Scripture which are culturally and time-bound, and are not eternal truths that all of us must follow. The difficult part, of course, is figuring out which is which. And we all do that, even the most fundamentalist of us do that. I don't believe it's possible for us not to pick and choose.

The question is, is that a faithful picking and choosing, and do we do it in community? The way I make sure that I'm not reading Scripture through my own ego is to subject my reading of Scripture to the community of the church, for critique, for learning, for questions. Bible study always needs to be a communal activity.

ENS: In your understanding, what do you think is important to Jesus?

ROBINSON: Most Christians claim to want to be Christ-like. Yet when you look at what we do it's often not what Jesus would have been doing. Jesus spent virtually all his time with those most marginalized, at the edges of society. He spent time with lepers, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery. Like them, I know what it feels like to hear the good news that I am loved by this extravagant God of ours, and I think the church needs to be about bringing people in from the margins into the center of the life of the church. That's why people on Sunday told me they were so proud to be Episcopalian, because it was a dramatic example of the church saying Žno one is outside God's love.'

ENS: For you, what is holiness?

ROBINSON: The journey--and it is a journey, not a destination--to holiness is different for everyone. But for everyone it involves living a life close to God. For some that will involve lots of prayer time; for others more action than reflection. We each do that in a different way.

I have been sustained by my relationship with Jesus through so many difficult times. I've often felt, like the ancient Hebrews, with just enough manna on the ground every morning to get me through that day--without any doubt as to where the manna came from, and to know that you owe your very life to this living God of ours.

To me, that's holiness. Which doesn't mean you get it all right all the time, it doesn't mean you don't make mistakes, it doesn't mean you aren't a sinner and sometimes your own worst enemy -- or God's! But that we have this loving, forgiving God who's willing to stay close and stay in relationship with us even when we least deserve it. That's holiness.

ENS: What will you do between now and General Convention?

ROBINSON: I'm going back to New Hampshire. I'm taking a group to Holderness School. We have an anti-racism event this summer, and we'd always hoped that the bishop-elect could attend, and now I can assure you that he will. I'll be leading a planning session for a big fall provincial convocation on the environment. And a week from now we'll have our pre-General Convention gathering of the province.

So I am up to my eyeballs in the Lord's work!

The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service.

Send QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS to Mr. James E. Solheim, director of Episcopal News Service, or to the Rev. Jan Nunley, deputy director.

Copyright © 2003 by the author
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