Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson | Book Excerpt

Listen to the podcast interview with Bishop Robinson

Excerpt from the end of Chapter Five, “Preparation and Call.”

In spite of the rise of the Religious Right as a political force in both church and secular life in the United States, the decades of the 1980s and 1990s had seen slow but incremental progress toward equality for gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church. As Bishop Theuner described, progressive bishops were ordaining homosexuals, and, by the late 1990s, allowing priests to perform same-sex blessings (not marriages, but blessings.) Some priests were living in open, committed relationships with their partners, known and accepted by their parishes. Most of those ordinations and blessings took place quietly, and did not receive much attention in the media, after the first few “test cases” which had been highly publicized.

A good deal of the progress was attributable to the election of Rev. Edmond L. Browning, who served as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church from 1986-1997. In 1982, the Bishop of Louisiana had denied Integrity permission to use any Episcopal Church during General Convention in New Orleans. But in 1986, at his installation as Presiding Bishop, Ed Browning made his now-famous statement that the Episcopal Church was open to all, and that “There will be no outcasts in this church.” After being left out of churchwide discussion initially, Integrity complained, and then began to meet regularly with Presiding Bishop Browning. The organization gradually developed its organizing and networking skills to become much more effective on the national level, while attracting more members and supporting them in their parishes and dioceses. By 1995, Integrity membership was larger than all other Protestant lesbigay caucuses combined.

In 1984, a group of conservative bishops, adamantly opposed to the ordination of lesbians and gays and to same-sex blessings, which they saw as threatening the institution of heterosexual marriage, met to discuss how they might organize a so-called “revitalization” within the Episcopal Church. In 1985, this group became known as Episcopalians United for Revelation, Renewal, and Reformation (EURRR). Two major events took place in 1989. That year, Barbara Harris, a black woman priest, was elected and consecrated Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts, making her the first female bishop in Anglican history. Her race was not an issue, since there were already twenty-eight black bishops at that time. What caused the firestorm of controversy was the fact that she was female, and, worse than that, liberal, having directed a coalition of progressive Episcopal organizations including Integrity, the Union of Black Episcopalians, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, and the Urban Bishops’ Coalition. But the main objection was simply that she was female, and the episcopate – that final bastion of male power within the church – had been breached. The formal objections made during the liturgy at Harris’ consecration were numerous and vicious, citing the same arguments that had been made in Philadelphia fifteen years before.

At the end of 1989, the Rt. Rev. John Spong, Bishop of Newark ordained the Rev. Robert Williams, a gay man, and commissioned him to head Oasis, a ministry of the Diocese of Newark for lesbians and gays. This ordination was immediately attacked by Episcopalians United, who said that sin was taking over the church. The following year, Bishop Walter Righter, Bishop Spong’s assistant, ordained an openly non-celibate gay man who was involved in a committed relationship. The House of Bishops disassociated itself from the actions of Bishop Spong and Bishop Righter.

By that time, opponents of gay and lesbian ordination realized that closeted homosexuals had been, and were being ordained and serving as priests. As in England, there was a grudging acceptance of admitted homosexuals who said they were celibate. What incited the greatest anger and revulsion were non-celibate homosexual ordinations, which the conservatives insisted went not only against Scripture, but against the church’s position on the sanctity of marriage, and the prohibition of sexual relations outside it. Of course, it was also true that heterosexual clergy – like Gene Robinson’s rector in New Jersey – had been having extra-marital affairs forever, and in most cases the church had simply pretended not to notice. The hypocrisy of this double-standard for heterosexuals and homosexuals was not lost on either progressives or the media; neither was the hypocrisy of condemning openly gay persons for their honesty, while turning a blind eye to gay clergy who were in the closet.

At the General Convention in 1991, the conservatives proposed a resolution that “All members of the clergy of this church….shall be under the obligation to abstain from sexual relations outside holy matrimony.” That resolution failed. Progressive bishops continued to quietly ordain known gays and lesbians to the priesthood, and more gay and lesbian clergy felt free to publicly come out. In 1993, the Rt. Rev. Otis Charles, retired Bishop of Utah and former Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, admitted his homosexuality.

The opposition continued, however, to pursue Bishops Spong and Righter, and in 1996, in a highly-publicized ecclesiastical trial, the Episcopal Church tried Bishop Righter for heresy. The trial, taken with deadly seriousness by all levels of the church, was viewed by the media and many outside observers as a medieval farce. Seven of the nine bishops on the ecclesiastical court – one of whom was Bishop Theuner of New Hampshire – voted to dismiss the charges against Bishop Righter, writing that “neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church currently prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship.”

Clearly, the center of opposition to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church was not holding. But just as Barbara Harris’s election as bishop had re-ignited vehement opposition to women’s ordination, the church did not seem ready to accept an openly gay bishop.

In New Hampshire, Randy Dales was also watching Gene’s progress through the various diocesan elections and the struggles of the national church with homosexuality, and he was concerned. “It was no secret,” he said, “that many people were upset that he was considered for bishop by the Diocese of Newark, Vermont, and Rochester. I thought he would be elected in Newark – a very liberal diocese electing someone to succeed John Shelby Spong. And he did very well in the election in Rochester. So I thought several times he’d be elected in other dioceses, and I worried about it – because he’s my friend. I worried about what kind of personal attacks would come his way, and toward Mark as well.”

He voiced some of his concerns to a diocesan search committee from Vermont that came to New Hampshire to interview some of the leadership when they were considering whether or not to put Gene on their ballot. “I said to them at the time, ‘I hope you’re willing to stick with him all the way through to the end about this, because I am not sure that he would be confirmed by the national church, and you have to be prepared for the possibility that your choice might be rejected, and then you will have to care for your diocese, and care for him, and go back and redo the process to select someone else.’ I’ve always been aware that the first openly gay person living in a committed relationship who gets elected bishop would face the slings and arrows of whatever fortune was out there.”

Furthermore, the last thing either Gene or the Church needed, as Louie Crew pointed out, was for a diocese to elect him and say, “This is a wonderful service you’re doing to the world, then when it’s all over we can get a real bishop.”

“Gene needed to become a bishop in the right way,” Louie stated emphatically. “Not as a gay bishop, but as a bishop of the whole church.”