Déjà Vu All Over Again

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
First Corinthians 13: 12 (KJV)

Bishop V. Gene Robinson was consecrated as “the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop” on Sunday, November 2, 2003. Bishop Robinson has now received the final act of recognition that elevates him to become the spiritual leader of the Episcopalians of New Hampshire. Those within his denomination who opposed his consecration, say that his “elevation is a violation of Scripture.” Some Bishops in his denomination say they “will not recognize Robinson as a fellow bishop.” Some even predict “this will develop into the worst Episcopal split since the denomination was founded in 1789.”

As a retired African American United Methodist clergyman, I am reminded of the words of accomplished and well-known baseball player and coach as well as uniquely distinctive linguist, Yogi Berra. “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Despite the differences between racial identity and sexual orientation, those who oppose the consecration of Bishop Robinson concern me as they are reminders of the attitudes that once opposed the acceptance, inclusion and elevation of persons because they were of African descent.

Years ago it was an Episcopal Priest who provided an epiphany moment for me as he shared publicly his gay sexual orientation. Malcolm Boyd, campus minister, white civil rights activist and writer, (“Are You Running With Me Jesus?”), had a long-distance impact upon my developing ministry. His announcement pushed me up against potential tension between the rational and the emotional. Rationally, I thought of myself as inclusive of all within the human family, but I discovered that my emotions had not yet caught up with my reason and rationality. For a few moments I asked myself, “Gil do you burn Malcolm Boyd’s books, do you erase his name from your list of persons, black and white, who encouraged your tendency to “march to the beat of a different drummer”. I pondered this for a few moments and then I answered my question with a loud, “Of course not!” It is my hope that my words and actions since that time have validated in small ways, my learnings of that moment.

What, where and how is there deja vu?

1. In 1958, just after graduation from Boston University School of Theology, I became minister of two small white Methodist churches in southeastern Massachusetts. Before and soon after I arrived as their first black pastor, I discovered that a few persons, possibly a few families decided they would quietly leave their church because of my arrival. In my efforts to find out from them, (those who would talk to me), and from those who remained, I was never able to hear any rationale other than those much-quoted 7 last words of the church, “We have never done it that way.” My Episcopal sisters and brothers in Christ as they speak of Bishop Robinson as “the first openly gay man” consecrated as Bishop, admit with these words, there have been gay bishops in the past. If their church could survive and thrive with “closeted” leadership, where is the demonic in openness?

2. The words “openly gay” remind me of that racial phenomenon called “passing.” Many of us in the African American community have family members or know of black persons who because of their physical appearance were able to “pass as white.” and some of them did so. Those who oppose Bishop Robinson seem to say that “we could accept Bishops who “passed” as heterosexual, but we cannot accept those who openly acknowledge that they are.” I wonder how does the God who expressed Self in Jesus Christ, in Scripture and through the Holy Spirit, respond to a Christianity that is held together by a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” expectation?

3. The opposition to Bishop Robinson seems to be exacerbated because he is in a committed relationship with another man. Those who accept the fact that “God is love” seem to be unable to comprehend that God’s love makes no distinctions. It was this restricting of the inclusive capacity of love that motivated some persons, in and outside the church, to pass and support legislation that prohibited interracial marriage. It has only been in recent years that states erased this love limiting legislation from their books. Do those who raise their negative voices of opposition to a “gay bishop living in a same-sex relationship” understand that for reasons of race, folk have “been there, done that”. Their negative attitudes and actions are re-starting the engines of control and oppression, this time against gay and lesbian persons.

4. News reports tell us that what happened in Durham, New Hampshire, some Episcopalians say, will “develop into the worst Episcopal split since the denomination was founded.” In 1939, three branches of Methodism met in a “Uniting Conference” to unite the three branches into one denomination. Some would not consent to union if the Conference did not find a way to separate black Methodists and their churches from the “united” white structure. The compromise that emerged was the creation of a non geographical, racially-segregated “Central Jurisdiction” that embraced most black Methodist churches. That structure of compromise was merged with the white geographical Jurisdictions in 1968.

Methodism in its many denominational expressions was motivated and birthed by the faith, wisdom and spiritual insights of a priest of the Anglican Church, John Wesley who never left Anglicanism. Is it possible that as a response to the wisdom and humor of a tolerant God, I as a Methodist of African descent who began his church journey in a racially-segregated, structure of compromise, have a word to share with those of the Anglican/Episcopal communion? If it is permissible for me to share that word, I say to them, “PLEASE, DON’T DO IT!”

5. Our colleagues in Christ in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition claim to be in a state of grief because their church is in “violation of Scripture.” Are not they the sons and daughters of those who taught and preached that Scripture endorsed the enslavement of Africans? (Noah’s Curse). Are they the heirs of those interpreters of Scripture who suggested to the owners of slaves that a way to control and compel the slaves to obedience was to frequently teach and preach Paul’s phrase, “slaves be obedient to your masters”?

As I read the words of the “scripture-based” opposition to Bishop Robinson and their church, I hear the same tone in their words that I heard as their predecessors supported slavery and segregation. I hear the same self-righteous interpretation of scripture that once excluded women from ordination. I fear that when historians write of them and their opposition to Bishop Robinson in these moments, those who in that distant time will read of them and will wonder how and why they dared live with their “heads in the sand.” We do this with those who at an earlier time resisted the inclusion of blacks and women. How strange it is that “resisters to Robinson” want to leave that legacy for future generations to ponder.

6. Finally, I read of the disturbing words and actions of distinguished African Anglican Bishops as they lend their voices and their leadership to efforts to ignore, isolate and devalue Bishop Robinson and those who support him. Those strong men who live amidst the human struggles in Africa of the people of their churches and their nations, are joining in a struggle that pales in comparison to the pain and pathos of their nations. They speak of the integrity of scripture, scripture that was once used to colonize, divide and rape their nations. How do they explain the inability of their nations to reap benefits for their citizens from the rich God-given resources that are present throughout the continent of Africa? Do they not realize that many of the theological/biblical interpretation predecessors of those whom they now join in opposition, once used Scripture to do to Black persons in Africa and the Americas, what they now want to do to persons whose sexual orientation is homosexual? Those of us who know what it is to be marginalized and kept outside-the-gate, ought take no pleasure in doing to others because of their sexual orientation, what was done to us because of our racial identity.

Someone has said, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” How can the reality of poverty, illness, violence, war, and dictatorial leadership, take second place to tearing a church apart, because of biases and bigotry toward those whose expression of God’s gift of sexuality may be “different” and not understood by some?

I have lived long enough to develop a deep appreciation for the words of First Corinthians 13:12 (KJV): “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

It is my prayer that in individual and corporate readings of those words over and over again, we might re-discover the spiritual power of acknowledging that in our journey there is much that we do not yet know. May we, with God’s help be humble and courageous enough to admit this in private and in public to a world that already knows that about us.