Adventures in Seminary: God Bless You Please, Bishop Robinson

The separation of Church and sex.

We sit in groups of six or seven in the dining room, huddled over our bowls of chili. It’s the second day of our Anglican formation retreat for first-year students, most of whom are headed towards ordainment in the Episcopal Church. We had been making mostly polite chit-chat with each other ever since we got here. At this particular moment, Dean Joseph Britton is telling us about his recent experiences serving as Canon Missioner of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.

“How do people in Europe perceive the situation with Gene Robinson?” asks Anne.

Dean Britton is quiet for a minute. He appears uncharacteristically shaken by this new turn in conversation. But to his credit, he responds candidly.

“People in Europe are aware of the situation,” he tells us, “but it’s not a paramount concern. I don’t think we realized over there how big this was becoming.”

I had known right from the start that the church was in for a bumpy ride. When suddenly a denomination that claims fewer active members than the Hair Club for Men is making headlines on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times, obviously some kind of a major conflict is brewing.

At the time that Gene Robinson was elected to become a bishop, I was working in the admissions office of a community college in Maryland. I’d already been accepted to Yale and most of my co-workers were aware of my vocational direction.

“So, what do you think of this gay bishop thing?” people would ask. And, in 20 words or less, I was expected to give an answer that encompassed the entire history of Anglican decision-making, apostolic succession, Canon law, human sexuality, and American religion. At least, I assumed that’s what I was supposed to say. Really they just wanted me to say one of two things:

  1. “I am totally against this outrageous idea. Imagine, a gay man wearing a purple shirt! Next thing you know they’ll be taking over our musicals, piercing our ears, and making us actually watch the Bravo network!”
  2. “I think it’s absolutely fantabulous! I love what Robinson does with his hair. And oh my, I haven’t a thing to wear to the massive orgy that’s going to take place right in the church after his ordination.”

For people outside the Episcopal Church who are consuming this story through the secular press, this is just another black-and-white battle to be exploited, a horse race between the “liberals” and the “conservatives” to see which set of stereotypes will dominate once the church fades back into obscurity. But for those of us within the church, the matter goes much deeper and the ramifications are much broader.

For those of us in formation for the priesthood, this moment is especially poignant. It could change the shape of the church that exists for us. We are personally invested and deeply divided. I’ve gone through a host of conflicting thoughts and emotions. As with Dean Britton’s cohorts in Europe, I too was caught be surprise at exactly how relevant this struggle has become to my life and to my future in the church.

When the story first broke, I saw it as a great victory for gay rights within the church, one that was a long time in coming and much deserved. I believed the election was a great victory for Christianity and a high endorsement of what can be achieved in a church that runs itself through democracy. There are many talented, wonderful gay men and women on the margins of the Church who deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated for who they are, God-given sexuality and all. To hell with anyone too stubborn to see that.

But as the months wore on and the rhetoric of those on the Church’s right wing became louder, more schismatic, and more organized, my initial unwavering support grew tepid and worrisome. In early October, the primates, executive leaders of the 38 autonomous national churches that make up the Anglican Communion, met at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of Anglicans worldwide.

The archbishop and the primates have no direct authority in what any individual church does. What keeps these many diverse churches in communion with one another is a delicate set of relationships. What became clear at Lambeth is that for the Episcopal Church — my Church — some of those relationships were about to be damaged, while others may eventually snap.

It’s difficult to be a good liberal and a good Christian, particularly in 21st century America, where Christianity is often seen as little more than an anachronism. Christian institutions have been under siege by narrow-minded literalists for so long that there seems no sense left in them anymore. At least that’s how the popular rhetoric goes in my generation, for better or for worse. That’s when there’s rhetoric at all.

More often than not, people I know have fallen away from the Church not out of a desperate ideological clash but because the church has stopped being relevant to them. The institution is so fixated on itself that people just don’t care. Much easier to sleep in on a Sunday and then wake up and smell the coffee brewing in the kitchen. Much more of God in that.

When I first began to read and listen to the angry complaints of Anglican conservatives, both inside our American church and abroad, I quickly wrote them off as hate-mongers, no better than the fools in Topeka who picket funerals with signs that eloquently state “God hates fags.” And I was not totally off-base. Many conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians are beyond the pale in terms of their beliefs about homosexuality. No doubt about it.

But what I was missing as I sat in my comfortable liberal seat of righteousness was that many of these people, my brothers and sisters in Christ and my fellow Anglicans, are genuinely hurting because of what is happening. They don’t hold their beliefs about homosexuality because they are unintelligent or mean-spirited people. They just can’t move this fast.

The world is spinning off its axis for them. They are as bewildered and frightened by the post-Christian world as liberal Christians are and they are holding on for dear life to the things that they believe are inherent to our identity as Christians. For better or worse, they’re doing what they believe is the only thing they can do. They’re doing what they believe is right.

Many churches in the Anglican Communion threatened to take themselves out of communion with the Episcopal Church in the days leading up to Bishop Robinson’s ordination. The ramifications of such a move are impossible to know. Among other things, this controversy has revealed just how undefined our relations within the Communion are. Our local sovereignty may be our strength as a denomination, but it might also be our undoing if we can’t figure out just what it was that brought us together in the first place. Our identity is on the line, just as the conservatives warned it would be.

Even scarier than the uncertainty of the ramifications for the larger world is the stirring within the American church. As soon as Robinson was approved for ordination, parishes across the country began making preparations for “realignment,” which could mean anything from putting themselves under the auspices of a foreign bishop to permanently leaving and establishing their own splinter Episcopal Church.

In which case, which church would be recognized by churches in other parts of the Anglican Communion? Which church would be truly Anglican? What does that even mean?

These are the questions that were plaguing me in the weeks leading up to Robinson’s ordination. I felt strongly that there was no good reason why this man should not become a bishop. He had been elected in full accordance with the Canons of the Church. He was the choice of the people of his diocese. I saw no reason why the man should be made anathema because of what he happens to do in his bedroom, which is frankly none of the Church’s damn business.

And yet, I knew how deeply some people were hurting because of this and how badly divided our Communion would become. Despite all my pious liberalism, I found myself wishing that Robinson would quietly withdraw his name for the good of the Church. I knew I would be relieved if he did.

“I’ve known Gene for years,” Ned, a fellow first-year student, says to the rest of us around the table. “He’s my friend. And he’s going to be my bishop.”

Ned goes on to tell us about the painful divisions he saw form in his diocese as Robinson was being considered. People became enraged, saddened, and frustrated, even within his church itself.

“But is Robinson a good man?” I ask him. “Is he qualified and capable of being a bishop?”

“Absolutely,” Ned says. “He’s my example of what it means to be a pious man, someone who truly gets it.”

A little over a week later, I’m in my car on my way home to Connecticut from Virginia. It’s the day after Robinson’s ordination. I’m listening intently to NPR for any and every tidbit of information about the event.

I hear the voice of Bishop Robinson in the pulpit in Concord, amid a very supportive crowd: “There are many faithful, wonderful Christian people for whom this is a time of great pain, confusion and anger. God is served by our being loving to them.”

Outside the arena where the ordination was held, a band of homophobic hate-mongers, the ones from Topeka, wave their signs and shout their slurs. But they are drowned out by a crowd of students from the nearby University of New Hampshire who arrived to show their support for Robinson and for the Episcopal Church. Most of these students are not Episcopalian or even Christian. More than likely, they have never spent much time worrying about the delicate structure of relationships in the Anglican Communion. They are just people, not very far removed in age from me, standing up for something that they believe in, something that resonates with them.

“I am very spiritual, but I’m not much for organized religion,” a student named Nika tells the Episcopal News Service. A reporter asks her if she’d consider going to a church that was willing to ordain a man like Robinson regardless of his sexual orientation. “Yeah, I think I would,” she responds. “Yeah, I’ll have to give it a try.”

I smile in my car as I think about those students. They remind me of who I am, or at least who I was. A few years ago, I was looking at the Church from the outside in, feeling hurt and excluded from it, feeling like there was very little redeemable about it. If something like this had happened then, I probably would have been one of those students in Concord.

Whether or not those students ever attend a church, they saw something of Christ’s love in what was happening in Concord that day. A senseless boundary was being traversed. A people on the outskirts of society were being welcomed and embraced.

I am not naïve. I know that the Church is a human institution that is wrought with flaws. I don’t expect things to change overnight. The next few months and maybe even the next few years will be difficult and uncertain. I don’t know what shape the church will be in when I graduate from Yale, and that scares the hell out of me.

But on this day, sitting in my car and realizing what has just happened in my Church, I feel a sense of pride, sinful as it is, wash over me. I’m not proud because I’m an Anglican or because I’m an Episcopalian or because I’m a liberal. I’m proud because I’m a Christian, and because I’ve been lucky enough to live in one of those rare moments where the people who make up the Church stopped thinking about their own insecurities and ambitions for one second in order to reach for something beyond themselves, something open and transcendent and holy.

Also: Read Jonathan Ratican’s interview with Bishop Robinson from a few months later.

Article © 2003 by Jonathan Ratican