Mixed Reaction to New Hampshire Bishop Election

News release

Reaction to the June 7 election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest who is living in a committed relationship, as the ninth bishop of New Hampshire has ranged from joy to outrage. Yet all parties have one thing in common — concern for how the election is handled at this summer’s General Convention in Minneapolis.

That’s where Robinson’s election may be either ratified or rejected, first by the House of Deputies and then by a subset of the House of Bishops composed of bishops “with jurisdiction” — those who head dioceses in the Episcopal Church. Both houses must concur for the election to be validated and the consecration to proceed this fall.

Robinson’s will not be the only episcopal election coming before the triennial convention. Nine other episcopal elections occur within 120 days of the convention. That triggers a provision of the church’s canons that requires ratification of the election by the House of Deputies rather than the standing committees of each of the church’s dioceses, plus a majority of all diocesan bishops.

Failure to ratify a bishop’s election is a rare event in the history of the church. In 1874, George Franklin Seymour, the Anglo-Catholic dean of the General Theological Seminary in New York, was elected third bishop of Illinois. Seymour was widely perceived as a “ritualist,” introducing what were then considered “dangerous” Roman Catholic liturgical innovations, such as candles on the altar, into what was then a very Protestant-oriented denomination. According to historians, his election was refused by a technical majority of the House of Deputies during a vote by orders, although the numerical majority was favorable.

Another “ritualist” whose election was denied, and who is now commemorated on March 22 in the church’s yearly calendar, was the Rev. James deKoven, nominated as bishop for the dioceses of Massachusetts and Wisconsin and elected bishop of Illinois in 1875, just one year after Seymour. His election was not confirmed by a majority of diocesan standing committees.

Two years later the diocese of Illinois was split into three: Chicago, Quincy, and Springfield. Seymour was unanimously chosen bishop of the new Diocese of Springfield and his election was confirmed by the diocesan standing committees and bishops. But Seymour declined the election. The next year, 1878, he was again unanimously chosen in Springfield and became its first diocesan bishop.

‘A fine bishop’

“Canon Robinson is a fine priest and, we believe, will make a fine bishop,” said the Rev. Michael Hopkins, president of the lesbian and gay affinity group Integrity, in a statement released by email shortly after the news of Robinson’s election broke. “We do not believe it was primarily about sexuality. Nevertheless, we rejoice that this threshold — the election of an honest and open gay person living in a committed relationship — has been crossed. The emphasis should be on the words ‘honest and open.’ Canon Robinson will certainly not be the Church’s first gay bishop.

“We regret that this election is the source of pain and controversy to some in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion,” the statement continued, but it called on the leadership of General Convention to “enable a fair process for the confirmation hearings and votes in the two Houses of the Convention.”

The president of Province I, Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine, described Robinson as “a man of prayer who lives intimately with the Good Shepherd to whom he has given his life. God has blessed him abundantly with gifts of wisdom, skill, vision and courage. His extensive experience in parish, diocesan and national church ministry has repeatedly revealed his greatest gift: that of drawing people together in the mission of Jesus Christ. Reconciliation happens when Gene is present; the movement of grace is apparent in every dimension of his ministry.”

‘Holy Spirit moment’

From the opposite coast, the first to welcome Robinson’s election was the first openly gay priest elected dean of an Episcopal cathedral. The Rev. Robert Taylor of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle called it “a Holy Spirit moment.”

“Our God is a God of generous love and hope, always embracing those who the Church might not fully embrace. While the institution of the Church has often battled over who to keep out, the story of God is a different one — God is always inviting, including, and celebrating the richness of all people, be they black, white, gay, straight, rich, or poor,” said Taylor, who was an anti-apartheid activist in his native South Africa.

Robinson’s election will cause angst on the part of some in the Episcopal Church, Taylor acknowledged, but will also be celebrated by many as a sign of God’s mercy, hope, and love for all people and their gifts. He noted that there have always been gay priests and bishops throughout the history of the Church, and said Robinson’s election means that there will come a day in which no one in the Church feels they have to deny the God-given gift of their sexuality. He added, “Robinson was not elected because of his sexuality but because of the gifts he has been given by God and the depth of his ministry as a pastor, reconciler, and proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ.”

A dangerous man?

Those accolades for Robinson were sharply contrasted by the statements of conservative renewal leaders and advocacy groups.

The American Anglican Council (AAC) issued a statement declaring itself “deeply saddened” by the election of Robinson, calling it “a clear illustration of the deep dysfunction in our “anything goes” Episcopal Church, and is a witness that is not consistent with the global Anglican Christian Church. It also shows us again just how far much of the Episcopal Church has moved out of the thriving mainstream of worldwide Anglicanism… We would strongly urge Convention to act in accordance with scripture, tradition, reason and the mind of the Anglican Communion and withhold consent.”

The Rev. Todd H. Wetzel, executive director of Episcopalians United, said, “Several years ago, I called the Rev. Gene Robinson ‘the most dangerous man in the Episcopal Church.’ I did so, not because Canon Robinson was inept or because he was lacking in compassion. On the contrary, he is one of the most talented clergy in the church and a powerful candidate for Bishop in any diocese. Were it not for the fact that he is engaged in an immoral lifestyle and openly displays his commitment to another man, he would in all other areas be qualified.” Wetzel argued that Robinson’s “exemplary capabilities do not warrant an exception to 2000 years of the teaching of Scripture … Clearly, Canon Robinson’s behavior is a scandal, not only to the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world, but to Moslems as well.”

Wetzel concluded by urging the General Convention to “override sentiment and refuse to certify the election” of Robinson, while at the same time asking conservatives to avoid “rancorous debate. The arguments are clear on both sides.”

Change in doctrine

In another statement entitled “Grave Concern over a Great Crisis,” the bishops of the Diocese of South Carolina seemed to turn the focus of their objection from Robinson’s sexual orientation to the fact that his 13-year relationship with partner Mark Andrew is “outside the bounds of marriage.” The statement was signed by Bishop Edward Salmon, Jr. and Bishop Suffragan William Skilton.

While acknowledging that “to his credit, Canon Robinson made no secret of his involvement in a relationship with his same sex partner, whom he named but didn’t make a focus of the election process,” they warned that if the church ratifies Robinson’s election, “we would clearly be approving of the relationship in which Gene Robinson is involved. This is not about a person or a diocesan election process; it is about a radical change in church doctrine.

“The union in which Canon Robinson participates is not Holy Matrimony but an intimate relationship outside the bounds of marriage. This would be true whether he were cohabiting with a man or with a woman,” the statement said. “For the church implicitly to sanction such a partnership will be a clear repudiation of the teaching of Holy Scripture and the tradition of the church; it also would signify a massive overhaul of the Christian theology of marriage by the Episcopal Church.”

An approval of the election, they said, would fly in the face of the will of the Anglican primates expressed in a recent pastoral letter, as well as “a whole host of General Convention resolutions on this subject dating back several decades. If Gene Robinson’s election is confirmed by General Convention, it would bring through the back door a practice that the Episcopal Church has never agreed to approve through the front door. How can this be considered doing justice?” said the South Carolina bishops. “We do NOT have a theology for same sex relationships, and to agree to the Robinson election would be tacitly to sanction relationships still searching for a theology. We do not believe such a theology is possible without doing violence to Holy Scripture.”

‘A grievous wound?’

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh issued his own statement terming the election a “grievous wound” to the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and to “Christians everywhere, though some wholeheartedly rejoice, and many others are uncertain.” But Duncan called for restraint and understanding on both sides of the issue.

“My prayer is — and my efforts will be — that the election not be confirmed,” Duncan said. “I have, quite carefully, used the adjective ‘well-meaning’ about those who have (and who will) support this election. Equally true is that most Christians desire to love and to serve those with whom they disagree, even on something as basic as the boundaries of human sexual expression. Actions which are body-rending can still be actions that both sides meant for good. However this present drama plays out, we need to continue to see these values in each other.”

Internet busy with reactions

As news of the election spread, reactions also began to sizzle across the Internet. A Midwestern man announced that the election was “the last straw” and he was leaving the Episcopal Church immediately. A man from Florida said that “a queer is a queer and always will be,” charging that the election proves that Episcopalians don’t believe in God’s teachings and “you are deserting God.” On the other hand, a woman said, “You are a forward-looking religion, not dwelling thousands of years in the past, as so many religions seem to do.”

Another called homosexuality “unnatural and wrong,” pleading for the church’s leadership to block the consecration. Those sentiments were echoed by a General Convention deputy from California, who asked if it was possible for “sinful human wilfulness, either personal or collective, to thwart the leading of the Spirit?” But a man from Michigan asked, “What has this world come to? It’s a pretty sad day in the church.” A church member from Tennessee was “thrilled” to hear of the election and said that “gay Episcopalians everywhere will see hope for the church in this small glimmer of light.” A Roman Catholic said that he welcomed the election “with hope for my own faith. This is a brave and inspirational step, and it can serve as a message of inclusion worldwide.”

Others said they were “so proud to be an Episcopalian.” One reported, “I just called my gay son and he wept when I told him the news. He even said he might come back to church.”

By Jan Nunley and James E. Solheim. The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service. Mr. James E. Solheim is director.