Thoughts about a gay bishop

Ruth Gledhill of The Times (London) has published the full text of an interview with the controversial gay bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA, Gene Robinson. The interview is in fact by Andrew Collier from Scotland, and is the basis of an article in The Scotsman which John Richardson calls “Quite possibly the most stupid piece of journalism yet about Gene Robinson”. John’s comment is justified because of editorial gems like

Yet millions of Christians the world over are convinced – absolutely assured – that this man is the Antichrist.

Well, if anyone really thought that, their assurance might be dented if they actually read what the man has to say about himself.

Bishop Robinson comes across as a very genuine Christian man, who says:

I come out of evangelical roots and see my ministry as one of evangelism. When I speak to gay and lesbian groups I don’t talk to them about gay rights, I talk to them about their souls. My goal is to get them to church and bring them to Jesus.

I hope all my Christian readers would agree that this is a good goal. He certainly seems a much more acceptable person than the Church of England’s own candidate for a gay bishop, Jeffrey John, whose candidacy was later withdrawn, for the now Dean John appears to be militantly anti-evangelical (see also Bishop NT Wright’s comments).

Bishop Gene has been through real soul-searching about his sexuality, and genuinely tried to become “straight”. But after 13 years of marriage the strains became too much. He and his wife divorced, and soon after he started a homosexual relationship which has now lasted 20 years. It is hard not to feel sympathy for a man who seems so genuine; but see my comments below.

In some ways I feel that Bishop Gene is out of touch. His claim that:

If all the gay people stayed away from church on a given Sunday the Church of England would be close to shut down between its organists, its clergy, its wardens.

is quite frankly absurd. There may be a few congregations which would have to shut down, and some others which would have to find a spare organist. But the great majority of Church of England congregations would be unaffected. This is perhaps sad, because it implies that few gay people are in churches, because they don’t feel welcome. Gene’s suggestion that most congregations rely on gay people for their week by week functioning is ridiculous. Obviously he has contacts among the gay clergy in England, but he should not think they are typical of the whole church.

But I must agree that it would be hypocritical for a bishop to accept in private that certain clergy are gay while threatening not to support them if this becomes public.

Here is what I wrote in response to Ruth, awaiting moderation as I write:

Thanks for this interview. I am now much more sympathetic than I was towards Bishop Gene.

But when it comes down to it he is a divorced person who is living in an ongoing sexual relationship outside marriage. Would that be acceptable for a “straight” bishop? I hope not, because it completely undermines the church’s, and Jesus’, teaching that sex before marriage is wrong. But if not, why is it acceptable for a gay bishop?

Well, the reaction to the Lydia Playfoot case suggests that not everyone, not even every Christian, is happy with those who promote abstinence from sex before marriage, even among teenagers. Even Girl Guides want advice on safe sex rather than on abstinence. But is the church to be forced to abandon all of its stance on morality to accommodate a gay bishop? Sex outside marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is not the worst of sins, but must it be accepted as not a sin at all? I don’t think Jesus and the apostles would have agreed.

I suppose this raises the issue of whether Gene Robinson’s behaviour would have been acceptable if he had “married” his partner in a same sex ceremony. Well, he would still be divorced and remarried, and that would in itself have been a problem for some in the Episcopal Church, but not a complete barrier. (There are apparently no divorced bishops in the Church of England, but there is one in the Church of Wales.)

The open issue here is of course whether same sex marriage can ever be acceptable. It is certainly not God’s ideal intention for marriage. But God, through Moses, allowed divorce, which was less than his ideal for marriage, because people’s hearts were hard (Mark 10:2-9). Perhaps by analogy he would accept same sex marriage, for those whose “hearts are hard” and cannot accept his ideal, at least as better than gay or lesbian couples living together outside any kind of formalised relationship. I would not think it appropriate for the church to formally accept such arrangements or offer its own gay wedding ceremonies, but I would not object to secular ceremonies being allowed, as long as this is not seen as the state promoting homosexuality.

To get back to Bishop Gene Robinson, it seems to me that he has become caught up in something much bigger than himself. The real issue in the Anglican Communion is not so much about a gay bishop as about whether the Episcopal Church of the USA is to be allowed to behave exactly as it pleases, even going back on its own commitments and persecuting those within its ranks who dissent, without any kind of accountability. Bishop Gene says that:

the whole notion of punishment being meted out to provinces of the Anglican Communion that are somehow non-compliant is somehow antithetical to the whole Anglican tradition

But if a church body allows anything to go for the sake of its tradition, even wholesale abandonment of that tradition by one of its members, that body has become meaningless. The Anglican Communion can survive only if it can set for itself certain boundaries. That is what it has tried to do over the last few months, for example with the Dar es Salaam Communiqué. The issue of gay bishops has been chosen as that boundary for pragmatic reasons, although fundamentally it is much less important than some of the other issues which could have been chosen.

The Episcopal Church now needs to decide whether to stay within those boundaries or put itself outside them, and so outside the Communion. This is not a matter of punishment but of choice, whether to remain in a group and accept its rules, or leave the group.

And if anyone is to take the Anglican Communion seriously in future, it needs to stand firm on the boundaries it has set. If it doesn’t, it will lose the Global South, and possibly a large part of the Church of England. This seems to be a case of having to accept the loss of a large part of the Communion, the Episcopal Church of the USA, in order to save itself, and also perhaps the Church of England, from dissolution.

0 thoughts on “Thoughts about a gay bishop

  1. Equivalent morality would be giving gay people the right to marry in church and then asking them as well as straight people to live in life-time monogomous relationships.

    But it seems philosophically absurd to me that demanding the same behaviour of gay people as of straight people makes all morality go out the window.

    Indeed, Pam. My position is not entirely “Equivalent morality”, and that is why I am not suggesting gay weddings in church, while accepting civil ceremonies. But what “makes all morality go out the window” is gay Christians demanding the right to sleep around indiscriminately when this is not allowed for “straight” Christians. If Bishop Gene has indeed been faithful to a single partner for 20 years, then (if he is in a jurisdiction which allows this) he should seek a gay wedding or “civil partnership”, and then present his case as equivalent to someone who is divorced and remarried. Of course that will not overcome all of my objections to his consecration. But it will overcome my objection that acceptance of him undermines the church’s teaching against sex outside marriage.

    As for Jeffrey John, I think the reason why Bishop Wright and I (if I may presume to pair my name with his in this way) rejected his teaching, but not that of Steve Chalke, is that we perceived John as mocking the entire doctrine of penal substitution, but Chalke as only mocking a distorted version of it. Concerning Chalke, see many of my posts on atonement.

    But on rereading John’s talk, just now, I realise that it is not as bad as I had remembered. The view of the atonement which he mocks is not my own one, but the same distorted version which I have been arguing against. But that doesn’t mean that I can accept his positive teaching. While I appreciate his balance to some conservative evangelicals’ fixation with the wrath of God, I don’t think it is possible to do away with the concept entirely, as John wants to, and remain true to the Bible. The apostles teach us of God’s wrath, and, as Wright points out, we cannot simply erase these verses from Scripture while relying on other verses in the same paragraph.

  2. As a ‘pro-gay’ person, I don’t actually think that the moral demands the church now makes of gay and straight people are equivalent.

    The church already has two moral standards: it demands celibacy from all gay people in every and all contexts. Equivalent morality would be giving gay people the right to marry in church and then asking them as well as straight people to live in life-time monogomous relationships.

    I grant that the ‘gay acts are sinful’ position can be defended by a straight-forward reading of the bible and that many people genuinely and sincerely see the matter in this way.

    But it seems philosophically absurd to me that demanding the same behaviour of gay people as of straight people makes all morality go out the window.

    Gene Robinson’s comments about ‘staffing’ may very well be accurate for the US Episcopal Church, I don’t know. I do know that a number of friends of mine in the US have joined the Episcopal church precisely because they wanted to belong to a theologically liberal congregation.

    I’m a great believer that an outworking of Christian discipleship is one’s ability to agree to disagree and reconcile with those with whom we disagree, but I’m beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t actually be best for everyone for ECUSA to leave the Anglican communion.

    I’m still very puzzled at the evangelical Anglican reaction to Jeffrey John’s Lent Talk. Especially as I’ve heard evangelicals themselves use the technique that JJ did (e.g. ‘I went to strict church when I was a lad and thought God hated me, but then Christ came into my heart.’) I’m not familiar with JJ, so I do have to say that I wonder if it’s based on other experience of JJ being anti-evangelical. I totally do not understand Tom Wright’s support for Steve Chalke and his ‘condemnation’ of JJ; to me, they both used the same technique for apparently similar reasons (to disabuse people of the idea that being a Christian is about having bad news for humanity.)

  3. If Bishop Gene has indeed been faithful to a single partner for 20 years, then (if he is in a jurisdiction which allows this) he should seek a gay wedding or “civil partnership”, and then present his case as equivalent to someone who is divorced and remarried. Of course that will not overcome all of my objections to his consecration. But it will overcome my objection that acceptance of him undermines the church’s teaching against sex outside marriage.

    Unless I’m completely misinformed, no jurisdiction of ECUSA allows gay relationships to be blessed in church. Wracking my brains to try to remember if I’m completely misinformed, I thought the latest decision in ECUSA was that they would not allow same-sex blessings in church although they recognised the legitimacy of same sex blessings.

    Could he really do anything by way of marriage that would satisfy? Have a State civil partnership (if he lives in a State that does) and then a Christian blessing outside of Church whilst representing a Church that forbids Christian blessings in Church but recognises them outside of Church?

    One of the first televised Civil Partnerships in the UK (I think it was actually the first CP ceremony that took place) was of a lesbian minister in The Metropolitan Community Church to her partner. I believe that this was then blessed by a Methodist minister (off of Methodist church premesis!) That MCC minister was, in my view, free to do the right thing because her denomination supported her. Could Gene Robinson really do that? Could any Anglican or Methodist minister in this country? Not in my view.

    That’s why I’d personally like to see ‘committed monogomy’ as the standard for everyone ASAP.

  4. Pam, I was thinking of a state gay wedding or civil partnership, perhaps followed by some kind of church blessing – perhaps similar to what is sometimes given (or perhaps used to be given, before the rules were relaxed) in the Church of England to divorcees who are not allowed to remarry in church. What Gene Robinson could get away with now, in the current climate and with him being such a public figure, is very uncertain. But if he had done this a few years ago, before he was consecrated, that would have been one less argument against him. Of course this would by no means satisfy all the objections.

  5. Peter, I can see what you’re saying. I think you’ve got rather a unique viewpoint that I’ve not heard many people express.

    There have been so many expressions of outrage from sections of the communion about the idea of gay clergy let alone gay prelates. I doubt that any gay clergy in a relationship could take any step without getting someone outraged and viewing it as an attack on conservatism.

    Robinson’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Imagine the position that Rowan Williams would be in if Robinson ‘got married’ tomorrow?

    Anyway, I sincerely doubt that there are very many individuals who believe that homosexual relationships are sinful who would prefer Robinson to enter into a civil partnership and have a Christian ceremony.

    As something of a diversionary aside, Christians should not assume that gay and lesbian people in general are any more happy to have their friends’ partnerships blessed by a Christian minister than are some Christians. Imagine trying to give the sermon at a ceremony of blessing where over half the congregation thinks that you (the minister) are the scum of the earth. (Although then maybe the minister knows what it feels like to be a gay person in church.)

  6. I think you’ve got rather a unique viewpoint

    Thanks, Pam! I take that as a complement, but of course only if my position isn’t shown to be logically fallacious. My point is not really to suggest a practical way forward now, more to suggest what might have been a morally more consistent course of action in the past or in an ideal world.

    If a public blessing of a gay partnership would cause more problems than it solved, then I see no reason to insist on it. In practice the church recognises the validity of state weddings, and that should include gay weddings or civil partnerships. Or there could be a small private ceremony of blessing.

  7. My remark isn’t really a compliment or a criticism. I’m in favour of gay marriage for lay people and for clergy/prelates, so it’s hardly an insult.

    What I find unique is saying that you think that gay sexual acts are sinful but that you’d expect Robinson to be married/blessed.

    The Anglican church, as I understand it, condones Civil Partnerships for clergy only where the clergy person promises that the relationship is celibate. (Most of evangelical friends say ‘Do you think we’re stupid?’ to that compromise.) If you believe that homosexual acts are sinful, why not just leave it at that?

    Most US States do not have civil partnerships anyway, so it’s a bit of a jump to demand that Robinson enter into such a relationship. There are small legal and taxation advantages to being married in the US in many circumstances and many gay people would love to have those benefits, but can’t.

  8. In practice the church recognises the validity of state weddings, and that should include gay weddings or civil partnerships.

    This is why so many of the States of the USA have taken advantage of the recent political climate to write, push and pass legislation that officially bans gay and lesbian marriages of any kind, including civil unions. I’m in Israel now (as a new immigrant), and the law isn’t even so severe here. The State recognizes marriages performed outside of the country and put into legal writing, whether of straight or gay couples — though such marriages cannot be legally performed within the borders of Israel.

    I agree with Pam that your view is seemingly unique, at least as I’ve seen it expressed in this blog article. It’s definitely short of the common Christian view that I’ve seen — that non-heterosexual impulses need to be completely suppressed and gay individuals stripped of sexual identity. Yet, it’s also something shy of the more liberal view to completely incorporate gay people into regular society with full rights with regard to childrearing (which the more conservative band would like to strip from gay parents, citing false psychology), marriage, inheritance, etc.

    Have you, per chance, read the book Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition by Rabbi Greenberg? I enjoyed reading your perspective on the issue.

  9. Jason, thanks for your comment. I am deliberately trying to find a middle ground between trying to ban all homosexual activity and giving it equal validity with heterosexual activity. This, it seems to me, would be a typically Anglican compromise on such an issue, which would not satisfy anyone but might allow the Anglican Communion to survive. Whether this particular mediating position might help is an open question. So is whether such a compromise would actually be the right thing to do in God’s sight.

    I haven’t read the book. Thanks for the suggestion.

  10. One difficulty with the Moses argument is that Jesus seems to be saying that God allowed it under Moses but isn’t allowing it anymore. At least that’s how I’ve usually taken it.

  11. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Has God stopped allowing divorce?

  12. In an article entitled ‘It is painful to be treated as less than human, says Gene Robinson’ on p. 6 of The Church Times, it’s mentioned in the penultimate paragraph that Robinson has set a date for a civil partnership.

    Quoting the article: He denies that choosing a date three or four weeks before the next Lambeth Conference for his civil-partnership ceremony with Mark, his partner of 18 years, was provocative. The date will be the fifth anniversary of his election, and a three-day week-end. ‘My critics would find any date impermissible.’

    So, he’s chosen the ‘damned if he does’ option.

  13. I have to say I find your equivelence of polygamy and homosexual-acts-if-monogamous entirely unscriptural. The Torah law never sanctioned polygamy, even if the Hebrews overlooked it–and clearly through the examples given in the OT, and the instructions in the NT, it was far from God’s ideal. The Torah though clearly prohibited any kind of homosexual acts, along with incest, bestiality and worse.

    Naturally under the New Covenant with no theocracy, we don’t enact OT/Torah penalties, however those penalties do give us an indication of how serious a sin homosexual behavior was…along with Baal worship and adultry it was a capitol offense.

    To advocate the state treating homosexual civil unions (so a person is COMMITED to performing perverse acts with another?) and the church recognizing them, at least in laity–as the better of the worse evil of promiscuous perversion–just seems totally against both common sense and scripture. There is never a civil “right” to do morally wrong acts, even if the state, for practical reasons must overlook them. Prosecute those engaged in sexually immoral relationships? No. But sanction them with state, and limited church recognition? No again.

    Polygamy was bad, and good riddence of it in the modern world. To bring back even limited acceptance–in the church or state– of worse sexual sins is serious regression.

    The bigamist (by mistake of far-reaching perportions) Abraham lived and saw the smouldering ruins of Sodom.

  14. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Gene Robinson to be a “June bride”

  15. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Good news: not that Bishop John!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image