Bishop Gene Robinson Extended Interview

Read more of Kim Lawton’s April 22, 2008 interview with Bishop Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire and author of IN THE EYE OF THE STORM: SWEPT TO THE CENTER BY GOD (Seabury Books):

Q: Why a book? Why now?

A: This was a book that was dying to come out of me, and I was afforded the opportunity to do it because of a sabbatical leave that I had. I receive so much e-mail all the time, and I try to answer all of that e-mail but never get a chance to really follow through on things, so this gave me the opportunity to say in kind of a longer form what I really wanted to say, and also about issues other than lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgendered issues. You know, I’m passionate about a lot of things, and my LGBT work is only one part of that. So I was persuaded to write this book because the publisher allowed me to talk about my full passion, not just one issue.

Q: One thing that really struck me was the broader lessons about spiritual strength that can come in the midst of difficulties and hardships over the storm, as you put it. What have you learned? What have you seen in your own spiritual life, having gone through all of this?

Bishop Gene Robinson

Bishop Gene Robinson

A: This last five years has been incredibly stormy, and, you know, at the time that the General Convention was meeting to give consent to my election was when the allegations of sexual misconduct and being linked to a pornographic Web site came forward in an effort to derail that consent. And it was during that time someone came to me, one of the priests of my diocese, with a piece of calligraphy that said, “Sometimes God calms the storm and sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms his child.” And that’s really been my experience during this last five years. Indeed, another priest in my diocese sent me a photograph taken from outer space of an enormous hurricane in the Atlantic, and so there’s this mass of swirling clouds and right in the middle of it was a little pinpoint of blue, and I use that in my prayer life. I try to put myself in that calm place. So I did entitle the book IN THE EYE OF THE STORM because that’s where I feel like God has allowed me to live in this last five years of storm.

Q: Have you felt that calming presence or assurance?

A: I don’t remember a time in my life when God seemed any more present, almost palpably close. Prayer has almost seemed redundant to me, because God has seemed so close during all of this. And I must say that when people ask me, “Well, do you regret this?” or “Has it been so hard?”, you know, my response to them is, you know, when God comes closer to you in your life because of something how could you ever regret that?

Q: You have heard from many people inspired by your life and what they have learned from you. How meaningful is that?

A: It’s what really keeps me going, and it’s also what teaches me about the larger ramifications of what I’m doing. You know, while I do hear from gay and lesbian people from literally around the world, I also hear from so many people who find themselves on the margins, on the fringes — people who are dispossessed because of one reason or another, and they get it. They get the connections between what I’ve experienced as a gay man and what they are experiencing either at the hands of the church or the hands of the culture, and so when they write and see this broader application, these connections, it’s very inspiring to me, and it helps me know that what I’m doing is not just a kind of outreach to the gay and lesbian community but, indeed, to all those who have been on the fringes, and, let’s face it, that those are the people that Jesus always spent his time with. He was always reaching out to lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans and all manner of people who’ve been marginalized, and we forget that the gospel, the good news, sounded good to them. It did not sound so good to the religious powers that be. He was always in trouble with the people who were running the religious establishment of his day. And so it helps me reconnect with what I believe we’re called to do as Christians in following Christ, which is always to reach out to those on the margins.

Q: You mention in the book that you expect some people might be surprised at how orthodox you sound in certain parts of it. Do you consider yourself orthodox?

A: Absolutely. I think I say in the book that it will surprise both conservatives and liberals how orthodox I am, and here’s the important part of that I’ve learned from some of my conservative brothers in the House of Bishops. They have told me that their people are fearful about this issue of inclusion because they are fearful that if they give one inch on the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church, it will be the first step in deconstructing virtually everything we believe. So they think if we let the nose of the camel get under the tent around this issue, that the next thing we’ll be doing is denying the divinity of Christ or the Trinity or the resurrection, and they see this sort of whole house come tumbling down, and so it’s really helped me in speaking to groups that are more conservative so that I can be sure and speak about my faith, which is incredibly orthodox and quite traditional. So I think it’s that I’m coming to think that that fear may be the greatest block we have to full inclusion.

Q: Many say they don’t see this as just an issue of sexuality, but it’s about scripture and how they look at scripture. How do you assure them that moving in this direction isn’t going to throw away huge parts of the scripture they so love?

A: I usually start by reminding them that they too pick and choose, that there are many passages of scripture that they do not hold as being eternally true. We forget that. The most dramatic example, of course, is our changing attitude toward divorce and remarriage. The scriptures report right out of Jesus’ mouth that remarriage following divorce is adultery. Now the church has come to a different place about that, partly because we’ve seen second marriages be a blessing both to the couple and to the community around them. But also we’ve rethought our notion of excommunicating, that is, not allowing someone to come to Communion who has been divorced, at the very time they need Communion the most. And so their attitudes have changed about this. Many of the people who bring up the scripture question are themselves divorced and remarried. They’re not repentant about it. They, you know, they may be sorry for having hurt their partner, or they may be sorry indeed that they’re divorced, but they are not repentant about their new marriage. So I try to point out to them that, you know, the church changes its mind about things, and indeed in John’s gospel Jesus says this amazing thing. He says there is much more that I would want to share with you, he’s saying to the disciples — this is at the Last Supper — but you are not able to bear them right now, and so I will send the Holy Spirit to lead you into all truth. And that’s exactly what I think we see happening. We’ve seen the Spirit lead us into the truth. For 18, 19 centuries we use scripture to justify slavery. We use scripture to justify the degradation and the suppression of women, and certainly with gay and lesbian people. We’ve changed our minds about those things, and I would say that’s because the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit moving amongst us, is alive and well and interacting with us all the time and, I would say, leading us into all truth.

Q: During the height — well, I don’t know if we’ve reached the height yet — of all of the conflict, church structures both at the international level, the Lambeth level, as well as the U.S. church, promised a listening process as people move forward. How do you assess where that listening process is right now within the Anglican Communion on these issues?

A: The Anglican Communion — and certainly in its meetings of the bishops every ten years for the last three Lambeth conferences — has called for a listening process. I don’t see much evidence of it — a little more since the last Lambeth conference, but not really, and I was very discouraged this past year when I had my sabbatical. I did a 30,000 mile trip around the Pacific Rim to speak with members of the Anglican Communion in lots of different places, and I have to say the willingness to talk about this issue was hard to find. And I think the American church may have been under the impression that it was going on and that if we just held on a little longer this listening process would allow us to move forward. I must say I’m a bit discouraged by the lack of the listening process going on, and I think we may be coming to a time when the Episcopal church just has to do what it feels it’s being called to do by God as it has tried to discern God’s will, and move forward even if parts of the Communion don’t understand.

Q: How are you feeling about Lambeth right now and your own participation there?

A: I’m really looking forward to going to England this summer. I’ve not been invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to be a participant in the conference, but I will be there because I believe this listening to be so important, and I know there are so many bishops around the world who have never had the opportunity to sit and talk with someone who is both openly gay and Christian, people who have put together their sexuality and their spirituality. And I want to be there to talk with anyone who’s willing to listen to share my own journey about how God has come to let me know that I am loved. You know, God loves all of God’s children, including God’s gay and lesbian children, and I just want to share with them my story. If that moves them in some way, I will be very grateful for that. But I’m going to make that witness and let the light of Christ that is within me shine. It has also occurred to me since the invitation was denied that perhaps if Jesus were to be in England this summer Jesus would be spending his time amongst those on the fringes and not necessarily in the seats of power. So if that turns out to be true, then I will be in good company.

Q: What does it say that a bishop of the church wasn’t granted this invitation? What does it say about where the Communion is right now?

A: I think it’s very troubling that the Archbishop of Canterbury would not issue an invitation to a duly elected and consecrated bishop of the church, and this is why at our meeting of bishops last fall in New Orleans the bishops said, you know, this is just not an issue between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of New Hampshire. This is an issue that affects all of us in the House of Bishops, because if you disenfranchise one of us, that affects the integrity of our house. And so the bishops have committed themselves to staying in touch with me so that this doesn’t divide me off from the rest of the bishops. We’re planning two evenings when all of the bishops at Lambeth will be invited by the American bishops to come and meet me and hear my story and ask me any question that’s on their mind as a way of trying to bridge that gap.

Q: Is it still possible that this crisis can be resolved in a way that keeps everybody together?

A: I’m very hopeful about the Anglican Communion. We’re in a bit of chaos at the moment. I don’t think anyone has the answer. Probably there isn’t one answer, but I believe at the end of the day we will so value our heritage as the Anglican community and the kinds of gifts that we bring to the Anglican community and to Christianity — this enormous umbrella beneath which all kinds of diversity and toleration can exist. I believe people won’t leave it. They will realize that raising this one issue above all of what we believe in common is bordering on idolatry. We agree about so much. The ancient creeds and our baptismal covenant — we all hold that together, and I believe we don’t need to — and I believe in the end we won’t allow this one issue to divide us. Are there some people who have a mind to leave? Yeah. They do. And I must say it was somewhat shocking to me. About two-and-a-half years ago I was at a meeting with some of the very most conservative bishops of the American church who announced that they were no longer interested in reconciliation. All they were interested in was how the divorce proceedings were going to go. You know, who was going to get the house and who’s going to get the dog, and up until that time I thought we were all working for reconciliation, and we just hadn’t been able to achieve it. But I heard out of their own lips that they were no longer interested in that. So if there are people who mean to leave either the American church or the Anglican Communion, you know, we can’t stop them. But what we can do and what I intend to do is to stay at the table, to keep talking, to keep reaffirming all those things that we hold in common and do everything I can to hold us together and see us through this particular storm.

Q: How key will this Lambeth meeting be in all of that? How important is what happens there? Will it signal the future in some way?

A: Without denigrating the conference at all, I don’t think it will matter much. And I must say it’s to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s credit that there will be no legislation, no resolutions, no big reports coming out. This is going back to, really, what Lambeth has always been, which is just an opportunity for the bishops of the worldwide church to gather and talk about the issues of the day. The themes and the workshops and so on will focus on how can we be better bishops in mission, and the focus will not be on declarative statements or official acts of any kind. So I think anyone who is looking for this Lambeth conference to settle the issue is going to be very disappointed. It’s not designed to be that. The schedule is very clear that it’s not about that. There won’t be enormous plenary sessions, you know, with a gallery for people to observe the bishops making legislation. It just won’t be about that. The real story or stories that will come out of this Lambeth conference, I think, will be the relationships that are built, the greater understanding about what’s going on both in the American church and in the worldwide church, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for Christian brothers and sisters to gather and talk about what it means to be a bishop in the 21st century. I think that’s a great agenda.

Q: Last fall, at the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans, I know you were a little frustrated with the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. You spoke pretty frankly with him publicly about his leadership and how you felt he was treating the gay and lesbian community. Are you still feeling that?

A: I will always speak out when someone says that a principle or a rule or a tradition trumps people. You know, I think Jesus was famous and also in a lot of trouble because he always chose people over sort of established procedures. He would always say, “Well, wouldn’t even you pull an ox out of the ditch on the Sabbath, even though that’s work and violates that rule?” You know, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, and the priest and the Levite who leave the injured man on the road are doing so for very good reasons. They’re on their way to serve the temple in Jerusalem, and if they touch this man and he turned out to be dead they would be ritually unpure and unable to serve. But [Jesus] points up that the Good Samaritan is the one who stops, despite all the rules, to take care of this man. So he was always choosing people and the needs of people over established rules that might keep us from reaching out to those in need. So I will always speak out against choosing a tradition or a rule over the lives of people, and our treatment as gay and lesbian people in the worldwide church is pretty awful. And I’m so blessed that Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose to write the foreword for my new book and in it apologizes, just flat out apologizes, to gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people for the way they have been treated by members of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I think that’s just an astounding admission of what has been true.

Q: You write about your personal life and upcoming plans. Why have you and your partner, Mark, chosen to have a public civil union ceremony and blessing?

A: Well, we’re going to keep this as private as possible. I’m not publishing the date. It’ll be by invitation only, so there’ll be no press involved — no reporters. I mean, they might be outside the church, but they won’t have any access to me or the people attending our service, which would be limited to just family and friends. So I’m trying to be as low key about that as I can possibly be. The reason for doing it now is quite simple, really. I may be in considerable danger going to the Lambeth conference. Violence against gay and lesbian people continues around the world, and frankly a legal civil union, which the State of New Hampshire has allowed as of January 1st, gives my partner and me some 400 of the protections out of 1,100 that are accorded to heterosexual couples. And frankly I’m just not willing to go to Lambeth and once again put myself potentially in harm’s way without protecting this person I’ve been with for 20 years as best I can. I think it’s something any husband or wife would do, and so we want to accomplish that before Lambeth. God forbid that something should happen, but that’s — I do that out of my love for him and for my kids.

Q: You talk about the fact that this is not something to hide away and do in a back room. It’s also a proclamation, isn’t it?

A: It will certainly be public that it has happened, I mean, and while we keep the service itself private and not in the eyes of the public, you know, my hope is that it will give young gay and lesbian kids the assurance that, at some point in their future, their relationships can be affirmed not just by the culture, but by the church — something that I never had growing up, and it was unimaginable. None of us, people my age, could imagine that we would be where we are with this issue right now. And so I will be public about having done this in the hopes that it will give all kinds of people hope.

Q: You talk about separating the civil and religious responsibilities for marriage.

A: In preparation for this law in New Hampshire I did testify before the state legislature, and one of the things I tried to say in that testimony is that it’s really important that we separate civil rights from the religious rites for this reason: One is that I believe that we all deserve equal rights as citizens of this country, and the fact of the matter is heterosexual couples have about 1,100 rights that come to them the minute they say, “I do.” I mean, Britney Spears, who has a wild night in Las Vegas and decides to get married just like that — she has all 1,100 of those rights. Yet my partner and I who’ve been together 20 years don’t have those rights. So on the one side we have those civil rights, and so I believe we should all have those. On the other hand, because we have separation of church and state, denominations will take varying amounts of time before they make the decision whether or not to bless those relationships, and that’s become very confused in this country, because clergy act as agents of the state in performing that civil right of marriage, and so my assertion is that the church ought to get out of the marrying business. We ought to let marriage be a civil act, and let’s say holy matrimony be the church’s blessing and giving thanks for that relationship, and if we could separate those two I think there are many religious people who are not quite ready to give the church’s blessing to a same sex union could support the civil right to marriage that gay and lesbian people seek.

Q: The Episcopal Church’s bishops and others have voted to exercise restraint in blessing same sex unions, although allowing for pastoral care. What position does that put you in as a bishop with the blessing of your own union?

A: The statement that the House of Bishops has made about this is to exercise restraint and to not make such a public show of this, while at the same time responding to the pastoral needs of our parishioners, and indeed in my own diocese we have had written guidelines from the bishop for same sex unions since 1996. That’s seven years prior to my election as the bishop there. So our policy of allowing this for pastoral reasons predates my coming to be the bishop. So in that spirit we’ll keep the service private. It will not be in your face, so to speak, and yet at the same time I deserve the same kind of pastoral care from the church that other couples do in my own diocese. So I’m trying to walk a fine line there and, you know, my partner and I have felt blessed for 20 years, and now that we have this chance for the civil right it seems appropriate for the church community, gathered around us as we do that, to offer its blessing. And, you know, I take the Hebrew scriptures’ notions of blessing very seriously. In the Hebrew scriptures it is God who is blessed. That is, we give thanks to God for showing up in this relationship or this thing that we’re blessing, you know, a cross or something of that sort. We thank God for the opportunity for — for God’s opportunity to show up. And so as the community gathers around us at the service of Holy Communion following the civil ceremony, we will be giving thanks to God for having shown up in our relationship, in our relationships with the wider community, and I think that’s an appropriate thing to do.

Q: In the book you briefly refer to your time in recovery and seeking out rehab. How is that going for you, and what have you learned because of that?

A: My experience in dealing with my addiction to alcohol has just been such a blessing. God has been so intimately involved in that. You know, anyone who has the disease of alcoholism has to come to the point where they admit, not just to God but to everyone else, that they can’t do this by themselves, and that’s certainly been my experience. Any 12-step program begins with acknowledging your lack of the power to do this on your own and your submission to God. You know, it’s important to remember that — Islam means a submission to God, and so that’s what it’s been for me. It is a submitting myself to God and God’s will and allowing God to work in my own life. And, you know, two-and-a-half years out, having not had a drink even of communion wine in that two-and-a-half years, I can’t tell you what a blessing it is.

And if you had told me that I could go for weeks at a time without ever remotely thinking about alcohol, I would have thought you were crazy, or hopelessly Pollyannaish. And yet God has worked in my life one day at a time to take care of this, and I’m so grateful to God, and it’s just another example of what happens when we put our trust in faith and our dependence on God in the forefront. And I’ve been public about it, not only because I tend to be fairly transparent in my life, and so I want to continue that, but, you know, there are lots of people out there who need to stop drinking. They have bodies that are allergic to this substance, and it’s no different than being allergic to peanuts, you know? If you put peanuts in your body, you’re going to break out in hives. And for other people, when they put alcohol in their bodies, the brain takes over and you cannot stop. And so I’m hoping that by my own public example it will encourage people to put themselves in God’s hands and respond to this terrible and debilitating illness.

Q: What is your biggest spiritual challenge in living through all of this day to day?

A: You know, there’s a medieval spiritual mystic by the name of Meister Eckhart, and he said, “God is the newest thing there is.” And I love that because it means that God is always doing a new thing with us and always calling us somewhere else, and that’s what I experience right now. This — my ministry and my calling to the office of bishop — feels as new today as it did five years ago when I was elected. And God is always calling me to open myself to all kinds of people that I’ve never thought about before and also calling me on this inward spiritual journey. Again, just because of all the stuff that comes my way, all the negative stuff, God is always offering God’s self to me as a way of staying calm and focused and centered, really putting myself back in that eye of the storm and not being swept away by all the winds around it. And I find that journey to the eye of the storm a daily task, because it’s so easy to step outside the eye and get swept up by the winds, and I can’t keep myself in that calm center of the storm. I am every day relying on God to sweep me back to the center, and so every day when I experience that I am once again reminded of God’s goodness and God’s unfathomable love for me when I so don’t deserve it. I’m not worthy of this office. I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. But every day God reminds me that that’s irrelevant, that what is relevant is God’s love for me and new life that can start any day, any hour, and so this feels incredibly new to me. People say, “Well, are you thinking about retirement?” And I’m thinking why would I think about that? This is too good. It’s too much of a blessing, and I’m continuing to learn so much about God and God’s will for all of us that I’d be hard pressed to give it up.

Q: Do you have a routine for discernment when you have to make a decision?

A: Discerning the will of God is a very tricky thing, partly because, you know, the little voice in my head can either be God’s voice or it can be my own ego doing a magnificent impression of God’s voice. I don’t think you can ever discern the will of God by yourself. I mean, I think that’s why community is so important in the church. We can’t trust the voice inside our head to be the voice of God until we test that out with other people. So I work with a spiritual director who helps me discern which voice it is that I’m hearing. I have close and valued colleagues that I talk with about this and, you know, God doesn’t just speak directly to me. God speaks to me through people and through their judgments about something I’m going to do or something I’m going to say, and so I work very, very hard at that. And I’m very nervous about people who claim to know what God wants. I mean, I try never to act as if I believe that I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that this is what God wants. I think Saint Paul was right in saying that we must work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. And I think you discern and pray as much as you can, and then you do have to decide, or you do have to act, but always in humility and always understanding that we can never be absolutely sure. And perhaps it’s only in retrospect that we see, yes, that did seem to be God’s will, or maybe I jumped the gun. And so I try to be very careful about that and use the resources that are around me, the people resources, and certainly use my own prayer life to make the decisions that confront me every day.

Q: Have you become more public recently?

A: Certainly the publicity about Lambeth and my not being included has put my name out there a little bit more. I must say that not being included in Lambeth has freed me in a kind of way. When I was thinking about going to be a participant, I would have just been one of 600 or 800 bishops going to the small group sessions and just adding my own contribution along with all the other bishops. Now that I’ve been denied that opportunity, I think my audience somewhat changes. The group of bishops can’t be my colleagues, in a sense, not in a formal way as a participant, and so I think I go with a greater sense of focus on gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people around the world. I think they are looking to me to represent them and be their voice in some way, and in an odd sort of way not being included in the official meetings gives me that greater opportunity to focus on that, and I think I probably will speak more about that than I would have had I been invited to be a full participant. I’m sure that’s not what the Archbishop of Canterbury was hoping for, and I suspect he would prefer me not to come at all. But I think for me to be silent or to be not present when this big elephant is in the room, when indeed there are threats of the Communion coming apart over this issue, for the one openly gay bishop not to be included just seems to be the antithesis of listening and process and fellowship in the body of Christ. So I will go and make whatever witness I can, but particularly around providing the voice of gay and lesbian people at the table. In 1998, one of the big things to come out of Lambeth was the so called Resolution 110. It was about human sexuality and basically declared that homosexuality was incompatible with scripture. I think the Archbishop of Canterbury rightfully has discerned that that sort of legislating, those sorts of resolutions actually cause more division than they heal. And indeed those kinds of proclamations, those kinds of resolutions will just simply not be allowed at this conference. So instead of trying to craft some sort of statement and wordsmithing and trying to figure out how to say it and how strongly to say it, and this word rather than that word, there will just be conversations, and what will be reported is the fact that conversation took place and that people were all over the map about that. Interestingly, at the 1998 Lambeth conference the working group on homosexuality and on human sexuality met for three weeks and issued a really wonderful report, and what it said was we are not of one mind about this, and some of us feel this way and some of us feel that way and kind of laid out the various positions around the Communion. When the bishops got together in a legislative session they completely dismissed that report and substituted this resolution that declared homosexuality incompatible with scripture, and a majority of bishops voted for it, and we have reaped the negative rewards, the havoc that such a resolution caused. I think Archbishop Rowan Williams has made absolutely the right decision to say you know what? We’re to be about conversation here, not about resolutions, and besides which those resolutions and those proclamations have absolutely no binding authority on any of the member provinces of the Anglican Communion. So why would we put forward yet another proclamation or resolution which would again not be binding and which would again probably drive us further apart?