"New Hampshire is the one place I’m not the ‘gay bishop,’ I’m just the bishop." said Gene Robinson, in Windsor, Ont., for a joint meeting of Canadian and U.S. bishops.
One bishop called the sexuality issue “the elephant in the room,” because it was never on the agenda and was discussed only informally in a hotel hospitality suite. But the “elephant” question was very personal for one bishop at the meeting – Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, whose election in 2003 marked the first time the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) elevated to the episcopate a person living openly in a same-sex relationship. He was one of about 30 U.S. bishops who joined their Canadian counterparts here for a recent meeting.
“New Hampshire is the one place I’m not the ‘gay bishop.’ I’m just the bishop,” said Bishop Robinson in an interview. A compact, energetic, outgoing man, Bishop Robinson said that being present at discussions concerning church turmoil resulting from his election is “very surreal.” However, “most of the time I’m able to hold on to the fact that this isn’t about me. But it does get through to you,” he added.
The U.S. house of bishops meeting in January, 2005 in Salt Lake City made him “so painfully aware of being at the centre of this painful situation. I was moved by how difficult this made it for even people who were supportive,” he said. However, the most recent ECUSA bishops’ meeting in Camp Allen, Tex., in March, 2005 (at which the bishops cited a new “spirit of co-operation and collegiality”) was different, Bishop Robinson said. “I felt that many of the reasonable conservative bishops are ready to move on, that the mission of the church is too important,” he said.
However, he meeting (which was closed to the public) was marked by a sharp exchange between Bishop Robinson and a well-known, hardline conservative bishop, Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and ended with the two of them sitting down together in a group with about 10 other bishops. “We spent the morning on truth-telling and we will devote some time in the fall to that – how we can be honest and respectful with one another,” Bishop Robinson said.
The meeting also resulted in a moratorium on the consecration of any new bishops in response to a request from the international Windsor Report that the church consecrate no new bishops in same-sex relationships. “I proposed it. I thought we needed to do something dramatic to respond to the Anglican Communion, within our own polity but not on the backs of gay and lesbian folk,” he said.
He spends the majority of his time in his office in Concord, N.H., on day-to-day diocesan affairs, he said. “I spend almost none of my time on this issue,” he said. Several of the U.S. bishops at the joint meeting were from states that border Canada, and New Hampshire has a companion diocese relationship with the Canadian diocese of Quebec (as well as the Irish diocese of Limerick and Killaloe).
Looking back on his election, he “had no doubt” that it would be controversial, but did not think it would be “as wide or deep” or of “international proportions.” One difference between his consecration and that of Barbara Harris (the first woman bishop in the American church) in 1989 is the presence of the Internet. The ability to communicate worldwide instantaneously “mitigates against thoughtful reflection,” he said.
His support system, he said, comes from Bishop Thomas Ely of Vermont, his spiritual “coach,” a clergy group that regularly goes on retreat and an active prayer life that has been “enormously helpful.” In addition, he and his partner, Mark Andrews, “have a lot of friends outside the church.”