By Laura McSpadden
Empty Closet, June 2010
On the evening of April 29, New Hampshire’s Bishop V. Gene Robinson spoke at Rochester’s St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene Episcopal Church (“Two Saints”). During the Evensong service, Robinson preached a sermon; afterwards, he answered questions from the congregation. Rochester’s Bishop Prince Singh also took part in the service.
Bishop Robinson is the first openly gay, non-celibate Bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church.
His precedent-setting election as a Bishop is only one of the ways he has made history. For instance, he delivered a prayer (unfortunately not televised) during the lead-up to President Obama’s inauguration; has spoken widely about the importance of extending authentic respect to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people; appeared in the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So and has served as a public embodiment of the faith of many queer people and a reminder that they do not have to choose between their faith and their sexuality.
Robinson’s sermon unfolded the theme of shepherding in John 21:15-18. The Bishop spoke about how that scripture reveals our need for a shepherd, but that it also calls upon us to become shepherds for others.
“People can be a bit like sheep,” he said. “Sheep are self-absorbed, they don’t see the big picture, they tend to be blind to the suffering of others. They will keep on eating while their brethren in the flock get slaughtered.” Robinson said that we must allow ourselves to be humbled by the ways in which we focus on our own comforts and desires rather than seeing what is going on in the world around us.
Robinson acknowledged that it is not easy to open our hearts and lift our heads in order to witness the suffering of those around us, but emphasized the importance of doing so anyway.
“The greatest danger facing the church today is the tendency for people to become admirers of Christ instead of followers of Christ,” he said. “We need to rise up to care for the needs of others. Jesus is more interested in what we do than in what we say we believe.”
And yet, he said that it is no small thing to care for and help the downtrodden of the world, and that it is easy to become overwhelmed. “Feeling victimized is exhausting,” Robinson said. “However, when you truly know that God loves us all equally, you can do anything in the world with joy, because it is our gift back to God.”
“It is important that we find within our hearts a way to sustain an authentic generosity, a truly helpful compassion,” the Bishop said.
After the conclusion of the Evensong service, Bishop Robinson returned to answer any questions that the people in attendance had. As expected, Robinson was asked about his views regarding gay marriage: after all, he and his partner have been in a partnership for over 22 years, and were married in June of 2008.
He told the congregation that he believes strongly in the separation of church and state, and that he feels that it is important that the legal marriage process and the religious ceremony of marriage be understood as two different things. In his diocese, couples will complete the legal marriage at the entrance to the church, and the blessing of the marriage then happens inside.
Robinson was asked what can be done at the day-to-day, local level to bring about positive change for the LGBT communities. In his answer, the Bishop said that one of the main changes that need to happen is a reframing of how we think about the problems that exist.
“When you combine power and prejudice, you get an ‘ism,’” he said. “It is time to talk about heterosexism instead of homophobia, to acknowledge in how we speak about the problem that power is a component of what is happening. Right now, heterosexuals have the power and the system is set up to favor heterosexuals.”
And yet the imbalances of the power structure are only one aspect of the change that is needed. “Legal change is just a start,” Robinson said. “The work will be long and difficult. And yet, the more people who are out, the more people who know they know someone who is gay, the more heterosexist comments will be challenged, not only by voters, but by people’s own experiences.”
Robinson also answered questions about his own personal struggles with honoring both his faith and his sexuality, as well as how he has been impacted by some of the backlash against him from within the Anglican Church.
“For me, it was a huge and long struggle to reconcile my spirituality and my sexuality,” the Bishop said. “The hardest person for me to come out to was myself. But so many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have had to struggle with rejection, self-directed hatred and depression. We have had to struggle with spiritual issues just to survive.”
Although he has been legitimately upset by situations such as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to invite him to the 2008 Lambeth Conference and the Global Anglican Future Conference’s call for the expulsion of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States as a result of his consecration, he has not allowed these situations to deter him in expressing and embodying his faith. (A second openly gay bishop, the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool of Baltimore, was ordained in California on May 15.)
It was an inspiring message to all the people there, whether Episcopal or not, whether Christian or not, that we always have the option to focus on opportunities for education and a deepening of faith, rather than on negativity and hopelessness. The greater Rochester community is fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend this event, and those who did attend were gifted with a thought-provoking and spirit-lifting evening.