Theo Hobson meets Gene Robinson, the only openly gay Anglican bishop, who says that homosexuals are more open to the Christian ‘message of radical change’
I am sitting in St Mary’s church, Putney, home of right-on Anglicanism. Bishop Gene Robinson — the gay American whose election nearly split the Anglican church — is seeking reassurance from his fans. He’s had a grilling from our nasty press, he says, and is relieved to be among friends. I get out my pen and prepare to dip it in poison. I feel deeply ambivalent about Gene — not hostile, but very much in two minds. And I think he may hold the future of the Anglican communion in his hands.
‘The Anglican tradition is uniquely capable of holding two seemingly contradictory ideas together,’ he says. ‘Its position on abortion, for example, is that all human life is sacred [he stretches out his right hand, as if to seize this principle, then continues]. And, that no one has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body [the left hand shoots out]. Both are true.’
Well, my position on Robinson is that he is right, that the Church’s official discrimination against homosexuals is an absolute sub-Christian disaster — and that he is guilty of making a quasi-Christian sect out of gay rights. Both are true.
He is, for this audience, a cult figure, a symbol of the change it prays for. And he fully accepts this role. As the only openly gay bishop of the Anglican Communion, he is the one-man vanguard of a revolutionary cause. In as far as he is accepted by his fellow bishops, the Church is choosing reform over reaction, light over darkness. It seems pretty intent on choosing darkness at the moment. He has been excluded from the forthcoming Lambeth Conference in July, though he will attend fringe events.
He tells us that he has some fresh news for us: he received an email from Lambeth Palace that very morning. He pauses for effect, while we half-wonder whether Williams has relented, seen the light. But no: the Archbishop has refused him permission to preach or preside at the Eucharist while in England. An indignant tut goes round. ‘I must say it seems unnecessarily harsh if not cruel to me,’ he said. ‘Surely it wouldn’t be too much to offer gay and lesbian Christians, here in England and around the world.’
Once Robinson has finished, the point is taken up by Putney’s thrillingly radical vicar, Giles Fraser. His voice falters with emotion as he insists that in this church, where English democracy was born during the Civil War, Robinson would never be seen as a second-class bishop, but would be welcome to preach or officiate any time. The audience claps.
The gay issue makes liberal Christianity into an urgent, edgy cause. It brings bracing conflict, the holy smell of danger, and various strong emotions. Introducing Robinson, Fraser had cited Luther: when we Christians are getting close to the truth, then the devil gets busy. Because of this cause in our midst, Anglicanism is not harmless cultural wallpaper for the pushier parts of the middle class but a truly radical movement — vulnerable, raw, joyous, suffering, history-making, authentic.
Another London vicar wraps up the event, thanking Robinson ‘for all that you are, and all that you represent for us’. There is a standing ovation, which I’ve never witnessed in a church before — except on TV, at Princess Diana’s funeral. Come to think of it, the late Princess is not irrelevant to all this. The Anglican gay cult is all about vulnerability, emotional honesty, siding with the marginalised. Robinson invests these gentle virtues with prophetic force. In his talk he cited the passage from John’s Gospel in which Jesus tells his disciples that they’re not ready for all of Christian teaching, so the Holy Spirit will add further instalments, at a later date. ‘That’s what’s happening in our lifetime. What this is all ultimately about is patriarchy — the beginning of the end of it. The strength of the resistance tells us we’re on to something.’
His book, In the Eye of the Storm, is pinch-yourself bold in its association of homosexuality with authentic Christian faith. Being gay, he says, is his ‘little window into some of what it must be like to be a woman, or a person of colour, or a person in a wheelchair — and countless other categories the dominant culture has controlled, diminished and oppressed’. So being gay enables Christian empathy. No wonder I’ve always found it so tough. He repeatedly speaks of coming out in conversion-experience terms. He was able to accept his true self when he realised that his gayness was OK with God. ‘Just as surely as Jesus called to his friend Lazarus to “Come out!” of his tomb, Jesus called me to come out of my tomb of guilt and shame, to accept and love that part of me that he already accepted and loved.’ The Exodus story is ‘one of the greatest coming-out stories in the history of the world’. The book has its virtues — there’s a frank freshness you don’t find in much British Anglican writing — but sometimes it feels like a series of camp puns, turned into an existential theology.
The next day we talk on the phone. It seems that coming out was closely related to a deepening of his Christian faith, I suggest — does he look back on it as a sort of conversion experience? ‘Well, I think if you’re taking action to become more fully yourself, it’s always a religious event, isn’t it? And what I recall about that very traumatic time is that God was feeling so close to me — when I first came out I was convinced my life as an ordained person was over, but God called me to a new life.’
Is the struggle for homosexual equality a central part of what the Gospel means for us today — is it a sort of new reformation? ‘Well, it’s part of a wider movement. I see LBGT [lesbian-bisexual-gay-transgender] rights as part of a theology of liberation, which of course also includes the civil rights movement and other struggles for equality.’ Can someone who disagrees with the gay lobby, and colludes in the marginalisation of homosexuals, still be an authentic Christian? ‘Oh, of course — you see, this movement takes a long time, we probably won’t see it achieved in our lifetime, just as it took a long time for slave ownership to end — and I want to be in a church in which all the different opinions are included.’ Does the gay Christian community have a special role in communicating Christianity in our day? ‘Yes, I think so — if you look at the Gospels, it tended to be the marginalised who “got” Jesus’ message, who had an instinctive affinity with it. Because gay and lesbian people experience victimisation they can be open to this message of radical change, in a way that those who are more secure and comfortable, part of the ruling structures of society, cannot.’ But presumably it’s also possible for a straight person to sympathise with the oppressed? ‘It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.’ So before he acknowledged his homosexuality, was he less sensitive to the marginalised? ‘Well, part of me always feared I was gay, and I was never unmindful of the issue. In fact, I somehow knew instinctively that the women’s movement was tied to my own liberation.’ So the Christian part of him and the gay part of him were always very closely linked? ‘Yes they were.’
Does he accept that the Church’s rules, as they presently stand, make his exclusion inevitable? ‘No. I was duly elected according to the rules of the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire.’ But after that election the Anglican Communion made new rules that put his legitimacy in doubt, didn’t it? ‘Yes, and it’s questi
onable whether it had any legal right to make such rules, contravening my legitimate election as bishop.’ But if he belongs to a Church, doesn’t he have to accept the right of its hierarchy to make the rules? ‘But we don’t have a curia like in Roman Catholicism — that’s never been the Anglican way.’ But Anglicanism seems to want to move in that direction, with more top-down control. Does he accept that the Archbishop of Canterbury has authority over all Anglican bishops? ‘I acknowledge him as the spiritual head of our Church, but he has no authority over the American Episcopal Church. I very passionately believe in the Anglican Communion, but as a series of loosely structured relationships. And I think that view will prevail.’
How does he understand his strange, high-profile role — does he feel that God is using him as a sign, a sort of representative of the changes that must come? ‘God has always used unlikely people to further his will,’ says the bishop modestly. ‘I’m very far from perfect, but if you look at the Old and New Testaments you’ll see that all sorts of frail human beings are called to do surprising things.’