National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: A Bishop in the Eye of the Storm

The man in the eye of the storm has written a book entitled, “In the Eye of the Storm.” The Rev. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Church Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, was in Washington, D.C. this week, hosted by the Human Rights Campaign to pitch his new book that includes a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The subtitle of the new volume is “Swept to the Center by God.”

Bishop Robinson is a bespectacled, diminutive, soft-spoken but articulate, and gentle man, just the type of devout person you’d expect a bishop to be. His discourse is laced with constant references to God and love and a puckish sense of humor.

 

It’s hard to imagine that this person is, indeed, at the proverbial center of the storm, the man that has convulsed the entire global Anglican Communion, and led to an ugly rift within the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.

           

Bishop Gene Robinson is, you see, gay. That is, he is openly gay. As he was introduced prior to making remarks Monday, he is “far from being the first or only gay bishop,” only the first to publicly affirm his sexual orientation.

           

Since he was elevated to standing as a bishop in 2003, there have been dozens of so-called “breakaway” congregations in the U.S. Episcopal Church led by conservatives and homophobic reactionaries. Most of these defectors have aligned under a new umbrella association led by the bigoted right-wing Bishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, a man who thinks that gays are an “abomination” and any gay behavior should be punishable by stiff prison sentences. 

           

The mild-mannered Robinson said that he’s heard his detractors say they wished he wasn’t such a nice guy. “It would be a lot easier for us if he wasn’t,” they’ve said.

           

Tongue in cheek, he said he first knew he was gay when, as a youth, he discerned that a painting of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus knocking on a heart-shaped door printed on the back of fans handed out during open-air summertime religious revivals was “tacky.”

           

But then he went on to affirm the truth behind that “tacky” painting, noting that Jesus does knock at the heart, and that there is only one door knob, which is on the inside. “You have to open that door. He won’t open it for you,” he said.

           

He talked about his prison ministry, and what it was like to spend Christmas Eve with hardened women convicts. “It’s a terrible night to be in a prison,” he said. “But it’s where the church should be, because these people know they’re in need of God.”

           

He also told of his travels around the Pacific Rim to learn more about the lives and oppression of lesbians and gays in the Anglican Communion. In Hong Kong, he said, gays met to worship in secret due to the harsh oppression there. But he realized that all of those assembled there were paying very close attention via the Internet to the struggles for equality and affirmation within the Episcopal Church in the U.S. “They’re all following our debate. They know their liberation is tied to ours.”

           

“Everyone around the world is paying attention to us,” he said. “We are animated by hope, which is better than optimism, because it affirms what the outcome will be in the long haul. We have to toughen up as a community and not let setbacks discourage us.”

           

Citing the positive reception he got from speaking to the Black Justice Coalition days before, and Bishop Tutu’s foreword to his book, he said that as “a child of the civil rights movement of the 60s,” he knows the key to progress is to “connect the dots.”

           

By that he meant to imbue with the same hope all the “discounted, despised and marginalized” people of the world. He cited one prisoner, a straight person who’d committed a heinous crime, who chose to worship with a lesbian group. “This is the only community that could love me despite what I’ve done,” she said.

           

That involves a resolve not to walk away from our enemies, he said. “Don’t just go home. The truth will prevail if you just hang around long enough.” There are parts of the world, he said, where they’ve never sat with unashamedly gay people.

           

“They want to leave the table, and we can’t make them stay. But we have to have the courage to stay at the table of our enemies. God won’t end his work until everyone’s in.”

             

He cited the transformative effect of Bishop Tutu’s foreword, where Tutu wrote, “May I wholly inadequately apologize to my sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered for the cruelty and injustice that you have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of us, your fellow Anglicans; I am sorry. Forgive us for all the pain we have caused you and which we continue to inflict on you.”

 

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