First Gay Anglican Bishop Reflects on Tenure in NH
New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson says he chafed for several years at being branded the first openly gay bishop of the Anglican Church until he realized that he was wasting a pulpit from which he could advocate for equality.
"I’d been given this really remarkable opportunity and it would be selfish of me not to be the best steward of that opportunity," he recently told The Associated Press in an interview as he prepares to retire in January. "We went from my consecration, which set off this international controversy, to nine years later seeing gay, lesbian and transgender congregants welcome at all levels of the church, including bishop."
Robinson’s election in 2003 as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican church created an international uproar and led conservative Episcopalians to break away from the main church in the United States.
Robinson, 65, will hand the pastoral staff to his successor, A. Robert Hirschfeld, in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord on Jan. 5.
As he prepared to retire after nearly a decade as bishop, Robinson reflected on the crucibles and crusades of his tenure.
He was publicly shunned by church elders, targeted with death threats and says he struggled to strike a balance between being the "good bishop" and the "gay bishop." In the end, he says, they became one and the same.
He is a self-described "off-the-end-of-the-scale extrovert" who bounds across stages and television studios, whether promoting causes or his new book, "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage."
Robinson said it pained him deeply to be excluded in 2008 from a gathering of Anglican bishops and clergy that occurs every 10 years in England, known as the Lambeth Conference. He said it was the first time since 1867 that a bishop had not been invited.
He traveled to England despite the snub to make his presence known and minister to anyone who wanted his counsel.
"It was probably the hardest thing I’ve done - to go and bear up under that quite intentional exclusion," Robinson said. "It took me a long time to get over it."
A month before the conference, he entered into a civil union with his long-time partner Mark Andrew. Robinson chuckles that columnists in religious publications speculated he did it to thumb his nose at the conference.
Robinson said it was a coincidence, one he and Andrew didn’t realize until after the date was set, and said the timing of the ceremony was driven by far more somber reasons.
"The point was to put in place the protections a civil union would provide if someone made good on these death threats ... before I put myself in harm’s way," Robinson said. "I wanted Mark to be as protected as he could be."
Their civil union automatically converted to a marriage when New Hampshire legalized gay marriage in 2010.
Months after the Lambeth Conference, Robinson delivered the invocation at the Lincoln Memorial that kicked off festivities leading up to the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
"That was an enormous honor," Robinson said.
Robinson said he has learned to live with the threats he’s received and refuses to turn their rural home into a fortress.
For him, New Hampshire, where he has worked in the Episcopal Diocese for 27 years, has been a safe haven.
"New Hampshire was the one place where I wasn’t the gay bishop," he said. "I’m just the bishop. That’s been terrific and kind of lifesaving in way."
He has spent every Christmas Eve of the past decade ministering at New Hampshire’s women’s prison. He calls it his Christmas present to himself.
"I do church work 24-7, but I never feel more like I’m doing God’s work than when I’m there," said Robinson, who is giving donations he got for his retirement from the congregation to the chaplain’s program at the prison.
Robinson said he would have stayed on as bishop until the mandatory retirement age of 72 had he remained the sole gay voice in the nearly 300-member House of Bishops worldwide. Mary Glasspool, the first openly gay woman to serve as bishop, was elected to lead the diocese of Los Angeles in 2009.
"I never thought about retirement until she was elected," Robinson said. "Now I can move on to do other things."
Robinson will be a part-time senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. Robinson intends to spend two weeks a month in Washington and focus on immigration and health care reform, poverty and LGBT issues.
After a brief vacation in Palm Springs, Calif., he said he and Andrew will head for Washington to attend Obama’s second inauguration as the guest of Rep.-elect Annie Kuster.
"I leave this job loving it more than when I started," Robinson said. "I think the excitement about the future is finally outweighing the grief over the loss."