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acceptable person than the Church of England’s own candidate for a gay bishop, Jeffrey John, whose candidacy was later withdrawn, for the now Dean John appears to be militantly anti-evangelical (see also Bishop NT Wright’s comments).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.