Interview: Bishop Gene Robinson on prophets, Prop 8 and progress

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Gene Robinson is a calming presence. The world feels less dangerous when you talk to him, and evils such as racism and homophobia seem less threatening and somehow distant.

The Bishop of New Hampshire seems never to tire of being the gay Anglican leader, a man sought after by press and public alike because he is out on a world that seems wedded to keeping people in the closet, with their mouths shut.

Bishop Robinson may be a figure of controversy for some in the Anglican communion, but for millions of others he is an inspirational voice.

He is more than a turbulent priest or a poster boy for gay rights – Gene Robinson is a man of God.

He visited London earlier this month to collect Stonewall’s Hero of the Year Award, and found time to speak to His quiet faith was evident as he talked prophets, Prop 8 and progress. How do you feel about the election of Barack Obama?

I’m just so excited as most of America is. I actually had three one-on-one conversations with Barack Obama. I got into a world of trouble because I publicly endorsed him a year ago in June long before he was really one anyone’s radar screen.

Hillary Clinton was the presumed nominee. I think he’s the genuine article. He is who he seems to be.

And I sit on a national board with someone who has known him since he was in his early twenties and just says ‘this is who he’s been his whole life.’ It’s thrilling.

And just such a comparison with your own childhood. Last time we spoke you were talking about your autobiography. You used to go to a segregated church.


I remember a world of separate drinking fountains and segregated movie theatres and so on.

I think that Barack’s election is healing not just for the African-American community but for the white community as well. Just to see him and Michelle and the kids on that stage and imagine them in the White House is thrilling beyond belief.

Martin Luther King’s daughter said something the other day that I thought was fascinating from a Christian context, she said her father was a prophet. Do you think it’s fair to use that Biblical term about people like Martin Luther King?

Absolutely, I mean Prophets both in the Old Testament, and since, are people who tell the prevailing culture what it least wants to hear. And it’s interesting to hear you say that.

Martin Luther King is a constant presence in our culture (in the US).

Probably not a day goes by that in some context or another someone doesn’t mention him or something he’s said. You know, to see footage of the people gathered at Ebenezer Church when they got the final word that the election was called, to see that place erupt is just powerful for all of us.

And you know I think the thing people don’t remember about Dr King, is he was not just about race. At the time that he was assassinated, he had begun to make very interesting connections between racism and militarism. We were in the middle of Vietnam and poverty and he was beginning to deepen the things he was saying to include the connections between all of the ‘isms’ and in that sense was certainly in-step with a great line of prophets.

It hasn’t all been good news of late. We’ve had this Californian Proposition 8 passed, re-banning gay marriage in California. A lot of people say that this is a small set-back on an inevitable road as it were. What’s your view?

I don’t believe it’s a small set-back. Unless there’s a lawsuit underway to throw the entire proposition out, it’s very interesting that the Supreme Court that will rule on that issue is the same Supreme Court that guaranteed the people protection.

So I don’t think it’s a small setback at all because California is huge both in terms of its sheer numbers but also in the metaphorical and symbolic sense. As California goes, the rest of the country eventually goes. The question I’ve been pondering since Election Day is how related is the dramatic turn-out to vote in the African-American and Hispanic communities, related to the passing of Proposition 8.

I think LGBT issues have had a tougher time in communities of colour and this may very well point to the work that we need to do in the days ahead in terms of educating a broader population about our issues and connecting the dots between the ‘isms’.

It’ll be very interesting to see the analysis and see if there is a connection between that larger turn-out amongst African-Americans and the failure to defeat Proposition 8.

California is vast metaphorically, symbolically all those sorts of things. I guess most people in the world, most people in this country, think they have a pretty good idea of what Californian people are like. Tell us about New Hampshire, what sort of people live in New Hampshire?

New Hampshire is very eccentric and most people think of it as conservative but more than conservative it’s Libertarian.

So despite its conservativeness we’ve had probably the best gay rights laws on the books in America.

Stronger that New York, California, all of the places you would think.

Not so much because people feel positively towards gay and lesbian people but because the real bedrock belief is that government should stay out of your life and you should be able to live the life that you want to live. In the last five to ten years it has become an increasingly Democratic state.

It was one of only two states in the 2004 election that switched from supporting Bush to supporting the Democratic nominee. And at the moment we have a Democratic governor, a Democratic senator and a Democratic House. And we have two Democratic Congresspeople who were just re-elected, one of our Republican senators was unseated and replaced with a Democrat, so we’re undergoing immense change in that regard.

Interestingly enough the eccentricity of the state whose state motto is ‘live free or die’ – New Hampshire was settled largely by second sons. So if you look at Massachusetts, the first son got the farm because it could only support one family.

And so the second son, undoubtedly angry at the historical accident of being born second, moved to New Hampshire to make it on his own and I think brought with him a cantankerousness that continues to this day.

You’re the Bishop of the whole state. How do you find the balance between your national and international profile and your pastoral work?

I spend about 90% of my time in the diocese of New Hampshire where I’m not the gay bishop at all. It’s the one place on earth that I’m not the gay bishop, I’m just the bishop.

And that is simply wonderful for me because I can just be about the business of being a bishop. Of all the places in the Anglican community worldwide, we probably talk about sex less than anywhere. And that is perfectly delightful. Then when I go outside the diocese of course I become this other thing.

Last time we spoke you were over here for the Lambeth conference. We’ve had the conference now. What’s your view on (Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams’ attempts to try and steer a middle path?

Well I…what can I say about that? I was very disappointed in Rowan’s, Archbishop Williams’ persistent and intentional exclusion of me at the conference.

And I think the conference did a lot of really good work but I believe that Archbishop Williams tried at the very end to tell the conference what it had done. And I think that the experience of most of the bishops there, by their own telling, was much more complex than that.

I wish that that complexity had just been allowed to stand rather than trying to impose an order on it that I think probably wasn’t there.

Do you have any sympathy for him, in his role, in his difficult role? And would you take the job if I was to turn round and say, ‘right here you go, pull these people all together.’

Oh, like being President of the United States, it’s an impossible job and I not only don’t envy him that but clearly do not want to be that.

But as a bishop of the church, I think it’s the role of a leader to lead and not just to manage and I think Rowan in his heart knows where this is headed and rather than try to manage the church, I would prefer he led the church to where I believe he feels it will eventually go.

Where is this headed? You said: ‘Rowan in his heart knows where this is eventually headed’, is it schism that it’s headed towards?

No, where it’s headed is the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life and ministry leadership of the church. I think conservatives would tell you that.

They think that’s eventually where it’ll go?

I think if you pushed them hard enough, they would tell you that we know that’s where it’s going to end up and all we’re arguing over right now is timing.

Right okay, that’s interesting because I assumed there…

A schism or maybe some sort of division may be in the future. It doesn’t have to be and it’s not anything that I want. But in the end I believe that, I think it was Dr King who said, you know ‘the arc of history is long and slow but it bends towards justice.’ And in that sense I think we know where it’s going to end.

You live within an Anglican Church that went from being segregated in some areas to not being segregated. How did that journey happen? If you get my point, obviously there were priests, there were bishops who in 1950 were saying, ‘there’s no black people in our churches,’ later on there weren’t. You know how did that change come about?

I do believe that was true of Anglican churches, I just will say, I did not grow up in the Anglican church.

I actually grew up in a very conservative Protestant church. You know, a very interesting thing happened in the Civil War, in our civil war, not yours.

Which is that most denominations in the United States split. The Episcopal church never split and we held our general convention in the middle of the war and there were places set for every bishop and the Southern bishops were just not in their seats.

And after the war all they had to do was to come back and sit down.

I think that’s some wisdom that we might profit from in this present time.

I would like to see the Anglican Communion hold … well first of all I would like to see the Anglican communion give everyone a seat and second I think we ought to hold seats for everyone.

Because I think it makes coming home easier. I think the way that transition in terms of race, is the same way the transition is happening for LGBT people.

Which is over time with regular exposure to whoever the other happens to be. Eventually it eats away at the stereotypes and prejudices that one holds about the other and in the end they are trumped by our common humanity.

That’s what you see in the election of Barack Obama, that’s what you see in the ordination of women.

In the early days just before the ordination of women passed, we had a woman deacon in the first parish that I served in and the older women of the parish were absolutely opposed to the ordination of women, except for Louise.

And they were enraged that Louise couldn’t become a priest and you know, for a while you hold these conflicting opinions. The ordination of women is wrong but we love Louise and she ought to be a priest.

And then eventually you figure out that if it’s all right for Louise to be a priest, then why not any women. And I think that’s what we see happening with race and LGBT people.

I would contend that the situation in the Church of England and especially amongst the hierarchy of the Church of England is slightly different. Because they know gay people, they know lots of gay priests, they just don’t want to admit them in a wider sense.

Absolutely, you know the thing that I would say to the people in the pews of the Church of England is: ‘When are you going to stand up for your gay priest?

‘Whom you know and love, you know his partner, you adore his partner, when are you going to demand of your church leaders who also know the sexual orientation of their priests and who will go to dinner at his house with his partner.’

‘When are you going to demand that they support publicly what they support privately?’

One of the frustrating things about pronouncements from the Church of England for us in the States, is you would think from those statements that there are no gay priests or gay-partnered priests in the Church of England.

And that’s a kind of living death for those priests.

It must be very difficult to feel any sort of worth if the church will let you work for them but not acknowledge you.

And let’s remember that priests are called to get into the pulpit every Sunday and call people to a life of integrity. To not allow the priests themselves to live such a life of integrity is tragic.