A Church’s Choice: First Openly Gay Bishop
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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Episcopal Church of the United States comes together every three years for a general convention that mixes pomp, prayer and politics. This service, for example, was part of a seven-year-long campaign to create a new rite, or official blessing, for same sex unions.
It was also to support this man, V. Gene Robinson.
CONGREGANT: An advocate for justice for all, not just for himself, who is living his faith and his life truthfully in New Hampshire.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: If confirmed at this convention, Robinson would be the first openly homosexual person to serve as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The 56-year-old Robinson was elected by his New Hampshire diocese in June. That has prompted a heated debate at this convention about the role of gays in the Church.
MARY HAYS: The scriptures, the word of God which we vow to uphold are clear. Homosexual behavior is wrong.
REV. RANDY DALES: We were led overwhelmingly to call Gene Robinson for his humanity, not his sexuality.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today debate over Robinson’s appointment went before the church’s Consecration Committee: A rare occurrence since the national church almost always goes along with the local community vote.
An overflow crowd heard detractors and supporters of the bishop-elect, including his 21-year-old daughter, Ella who read a statement from her mother, Robinson’s ex-wife.
ELLA ROBINSON: Gene Robinson is a good man, a good priest, a good husband and partner and good father.
That’s my mom’s story and here’s mine. Divorce is never a good time but it was through love and dedication that both my sister and I were able to come away with more happy experiences and memories than sad ones.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For his part, Robinson emphasizes he would minister to all congregants, including the minority in New Hampshire who opposed him.
BISHOP-ELECT V. GENE ROBINSON, Diocese of New Hampshire: The very first thing that I said after my election, and I was called forward, the first thing I said to the convention was, please join me in being as gentle and kind and compassionate with those who will not find this to be good news. We need to reach out to those folks.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The committee voted to confirm Robinson, sending the measure to two governing bodies for their approval in coming days: The house of deputies and the house of bishops.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s a process modeled after the American system of government. Like many Episcopalians, Reverend Susan Russell, a southern California pastor, is proud of the Church’s connection with American history.
REV. SUSAN RUSSELL, Pasadena, CA: The very framers of our Constitution, many of them while they were working on creating the new American government, were walking down the street to Christ’s Church Cathedral in Philadelphia and creating a governmental structure for this church in 1789.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And like the nation itself, she says, the Church has long grappled with issues of rights, voting in 1976 to ordain women priests.
Reverend Russell, who heads a Gay and Lesbian Caucus, says the issue of gay rights is now front and center in the church, just as it is in secular society. She cited the Supreme Court’s recent rejection of the Texas sodomy law.
REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: The Lawrence v. Texas decision which came down recently, the movement in Canada on issues of gay marriage, I think that’s all sort of linked in terms of — we’re sort of a pace as a church with the culture in terms of working out how we really celebrate diversity.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But Bishop Jack Iker, who heads the diocese of Forth Worth, Texas, takes fundamental issue with that reasoning.
BISHOP JACK IKER, Diocese of Ft. Worth, TX: Are we a culturally conditioned church, trying to keep up with the times and changing practices and teachings to conform with the times, or are we a part of the historic, biblical church of the ages?
And I think it is the latter. The founding fathers of this church were not the founding fathers of this country, but Jesus and the apostles.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Bishop Iker says a vote to affirm Robinson could splinter the Church. He and other conservatives fear many foreign church leaders, particularly those from more conservative congregations in developing countries, will break with the American church.
Episcopalians belong to the so-called Anglican communion, an affiliation of 38 national churches headed by the archbishop of Canterbury in England.
Although foreign members do not vote in the U.S. Church, last week many gathered together with their conservative counterparts in the U.S. to send a message to this week’s convention. Peter Jensen, the archbishop of Sydney, Australia, expressed grave concern about a pro-gay vote.
ARCHBISHOP PETER JENSEN: We’ve called it a ‘salvation issue,’ because it puts souls at risk. It is something that we cannot afford to allow pass. It’s not simply a matter of sexuality; it is a matter of the authority of God in his own church.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But neither U.S. nor foreign leaders in this group would say if they would break away from the Church if Robinson is confirmed.
Kendall Harmon is a theologian in the South Carolina diocese.
REV. KENDALL HARMON: We are trying to preserve an element of surprise. We do not know what is going to happen. But we are going to wait and see what happens, but when it happens and if it happens, we wish not to spell out all the specifics, because this is a strategy and it involves an element of surprise.
BISHOP-ELECT V. GENE ROBINSON: If those people choose to leave, it needs to be said that this Church will have a division because they have chosen to leave, not because someone has wanted them to leave or asked them to leave or made them leave. And I pray every day that that will not happen.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many of Robinson’s supporters say they don’t think the split will happen.
REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: It was with great fear and trembling that this Church voted in 1976 to more fully include women in the ministry, and all the dire predictions of the rupture of the Church… I mean, we heard a third of the Church was going to leave, and our statistics tell us now that we lost between 1 and 3 percent at that time, but over the last 30 years, the Church has grown and been strengthened by the ministry of women.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But Bishop Iker says homosexuality is a far bigger threat to Church unity.
BISHOP JACK IKER: Never before has the Anglican communion spoken so unequivocally about a matter as they have on this, that homosexual practice is sinful and is incompatible with the teaching of scripture. Never has the Church said that about the ordination of women to the priesthood.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Robinson’s personal history had also become an issue.
BISHOP JACK IKER: The fact that he became a priest as a married man and then divorced his wife, many would consider a divorced bishop being inappropriate.
But to divorce his wife and leave his children and take up with another man and then purport to be a leader of the Christian Church is very upsetting.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Robinson has vigorously refuted that characterization of his divorce.
BISHOP-ELECT V. GENE ROBINSON: We ended our marriage in church. We took a priest with us to the judge’s chambers, for the final divorce decree; we went back to his church, and then returned our wedding rings to each other as a symbol of the vows that we no longer held each other to. My wife was remarried, already remarried before I ever met my partner.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In addition to Robinson’s confirmation, the convention may also next week take up the issue of creating a national liturgy, a specific prayer service to bless same sex unions.
Despite the bitter, even divisive debate heard here, Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the U.S. Church, is confident it will remain undivided.
THE MOST REV. FRANK GRISWOLD, Presiding Bishop: This church has been through many stresses and strains. We are members — like it or not — that are bound to stay together within the body of Christ even though we may disagree.
And my sense is that even though that vast and diverse center isn’t necessarily the voice heard most loudly, it is the reality of the Episcopal Church and it will continue to be the reality of the Episcopal Church as we look to the future.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many in the Church believe that that reality could be a smaller church. Conservatives say that departure from tradition has already caused a decline in membership in recent decades.
Robinson supporters, on the other hand, argued his approval would make the Church grow by opening the door to many new worshippers.