This summer, the men’s magazine GQ published a lengthy and respectful profile of Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, whose election in 2003 brought the Anglican Communion’s disagreements over homosexuality into public view. Robinson’s patience, charity and love shine out from this well-written article by Andrew Corsello.
One might expect a magazine like GQ to hold its subject’s faith at arm’s length, playing to the cynical sophisticates in their target audience. But Corsello’s even-handed writing never invites the reader to sneer that the God whose love Gene Robinson feels, and whose will he tries to obey, is an irrational construct he would be better without. Unlike many of the bishop’s conservative Christian detractors, this secular magazine accepts the genuineness of his love for Jesus and humanity–a love borne out by Robinson’s activism on behalf of the poor, and his desire to reconcile with Christians who have abused and threatened him.
By the time Gene Robinson ended his marriage and came out of the closet, New Hampshire’s Episcopalians had known him for eleven years. They were shocked but, with a few exceptions, not up in arms. The man had brought love, transparency, and the truth as he knew it to their children and their families for more than a decade. Why would he stop now?
One of those exceptions was a fellow priest named Ron Prinn, whom Robinson had known and worked with for years. “I understand you’ve done this because you’re a…what?” Prinn demanded.
“A homosexual, Ron. I’m a homosexual.”
“I just don’t understand it,” Prinn said. “Boo. The girls. I don’t understand.”
Robinson said he wasn’t demanding or even asking Prinn to understand. “Just be in communion with me. That’s all I ask.”
“I don’t think I can,” Prinn said. “I just don’t know if it’s permissible.”
Terrible words. To the unchurched, “in communion” is the kind of term that can pass through the senses without finding purchase. But to those who have grown up in the church, not to mention those who devote their lives to it, to be told by a man of the cloth that you are not worthy of sharing Communion is to be cast out by one’s own flesh and blood; it is to be told that you are unworthy of salvation.
And then there was that word. Permissible. It was a word that implied the primacy of doctrine—canons, rules, rote adherence to the letter of the law—over the kind of questing, empathetic faith Robinson had practiced all his life. Not only was Gene Robinson being told he was unworthy of communion but also that he fundamentally misunderstood what it represented….
Not long after moving into his new home with Mark Andrew, Robinson sent Ron Prinn a letter. The two had worked for several months on a committee, after which Gene and Mark hosted a dinner for committee members and their spouses. Prinn had answered the invitation with silence, so Robinson sat down and wrote everything he’d learned about fear.
“I told him what I’d learned from my own life, and from those of everyone to whom I’d ever been a pastor—that the fear is always worse than the reality. You know how when you’re a kid lying in bed and you just know there’s something in the room with you, and how frightening that is—but how the thought of turning on the light is somehow even more frightening? So I wrote, ‘Ron, I don’t think you’re afraid of what you think you’ll see if you come to my home. You might think you are—that you’re afraid of all the pictures of naked men we must have on every wall. But I think you’re afraid of what you won’t see. I think you’re afraid that you won’t see those pictures, that what you’ll see is actually quite boring. Which it is. And I think you’re afraid of what that might mean. So let me tell you now: What you will see when you come here is a Christian home. You have a standing invitation.’ ”
Prinn never acknowledged the letter, but a year later the two men met at a clergy conference. Robinson was now Canon to the Ordinary—the New Hampshire diocese’s second in command. Prinn took Robinson’s extended hand but said nothing in response to his hello. Something was very wrong—he wouldn’t let go of Robinson’s hand. Just kept it gripped while gazing into Robinson’s face. His voice trembled when he spoke.
“I have done everything the church has asked me to, I have believed everything I have been told to believe, and I am unhappy.” He seemed to be talking at himself as much as at Robinson. “And here you are living your life the way the church says you shouldn’t. And…look at you.” Before Robinson could muster a response, Prinn withdrew his hand, turned, and left the room.
“Later in the conference, the bishop got called away, so it fell to me to celebrate the Eucharist,” Robinson recalls. “I was halfway through the prayer of consecration when I realized he was going to have to present himself to me for Communion. Sure enough, I looked down and there he was in line. When he knelt, I thought he might cross his hands over his chest, so as not to receive the host from me. But then he put out his hands. Not for the host but for me. So I knelt with him, and right there at the altar rail he took me into his arms.”
Several years later, Prinn worked on a committee tasked with deciding whether the diocese’s annual clergy and spouse retreat should be renamed, with “partner” replacing “spouse.” Prinn was torn. Though he had come back into communion with Robinson, he still didn’t approve of what he saw as the man’s poor decisions—and he still hadn’t brought himself to cross his doorstep. As Prinn saw it, a gay clergyman, an individual, was one thing; the institutionalization of “gayness” in the church, even semantically, was another. Grudgingly, he placed a call to Mark Andrew.
“Would it even mean anything to you?” he asked. “I mean, you already attend the conference. It’s just a word, right?”
“A word is never just a word,” Andrew said. “It would mean everything.”
Prinn made the change.
By the time Prinn finally accepted one of Gene’s group-lunch invitations, three years ago, Parkinson’s disease had ravaged his body. He could no longer eat—liquid nutrients had to be pumped directly into his stomach through a stent—and had neared the point where he could no longer walk or talk. Another of the guests ushered Prinn and his wife, Barbara, through the garage, where Gene and Mark had installed a handicap lift years before. When he rolled his walker into the kitchen, Prinn beheld Gene with a bewildered look. A gurgling sound emerged from his throat. Barbara put an ear to her husband’s mouth, then translated.
“Ron wants to know who in your family is handicapped.” No one, Gene said.
It clearly pained Prinn to muster the words, but he managed.
“Who did you build that lift for?”
The lift had been used only once before. Gene hadn’t thought twice about installing it. His theology of inclusion had structured not only his ministry but his idea of what a living space should be; the lift hadn’t been built with anyone particular in mind.
“We built it for you,” Gene said.
Prinn began to cry quietly, then motioned for Gene to come close. When he did, Prinn whispered that he wanted Robinson to kiss him.
Barbara Prinn says that in her husband’s final months, when he could no longer speak, Robinson would sit with him in silence for hours at a time, holding his hand and, before taking his leave, kissing the dying, smiling man on the crown of his head.
I suggest reading this article for background before moving on to Robinson’s recent book, In the Eye of the Storm, which has much to recommend it, but is somewhat too reticent for an autobiography (he is Episcopalian, after all!). Inspiring but disorganized, it reads more like a collection of sermons on the social gospel than a truly systematic defense of gays in the church. I was glad to discover, though, that Robinson holds orthodox views on the Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection, contrary to the scare tactics of conservative Christians who argue that acceptance of homosexuality leads inexorably to theological liberalism and relativism.
Blogger Mars Girl has written a good review of Robinson’s book, in which she also explains why she’s such a passionate straight ally. She speaks for me when she says:
Too often, homosexuals are driven from a faith-based life because their home churches spurn them as sinners of the worst kind. It was really refreshing to read this book and get some insight to a great man who has found a way to challenge the people in his faith as well as unattached readers like me who just seek social justice for homosexual and transgendered people.
He had me at one of the first paragraphs in his book when he stated in better words what I’ve always thought in my heart:
Everyone knows what an “ism” is: a set of prejudices and values and judgements backed up with the power to enforce those prejudices in society. Racism isn’t just fear and loathing of non-white people; it’s the systematic network of laws, customs, and beliefs that perpetuate prejudicial treatment of people of color. I benefit every day from being white in this culture. I don’t have to hate anyone, or call anyone a hateful name, or do any harm to a person of color to benefit from a racist society. I just have to sit back and reap the rewards of a system set up to benefit me. I can be tolerant, open-minded, and multi-culturally sensitive. But as long as I’m not working to dismantle the system, I am a racist.
Similarly, sexism isn’t just the denigration and devaluation of women; it’s the myriad ways the system is set up to benefit men over women. It takes no hateful behavior on my part to reap the rewards given to men at the expense of women. But to choose not to work for the full equality of woman in this culture is to be sexist. (p. 24, bold emphasis mine)
Robinson goes on to equate this same argument with those who sit back and benefit from a hetersexually-centered society but do nothing to help change the system for equality for homosexual and transgender people. This argument is why I fight so hard for this cause when often times people ask–or want to ask–why I care so passionately about this issue when it’s not really my issue to fight. As a Unitarian Universalist, one of the seven principles to which I have agreed is the inarguable “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This is the only principle of the seven principles I ever remember when asked, and that’s because it’s the one that resonates to my heart the strongest.
In reading the book, you have to swallow a lot of Christian dogma and faith. For someone like me, it’s hard not to roll my eyes and squirm when he discusses how every human being is saved through Jesus Christ. This man is certainly as evangelical as any Sunday morning preacher when it comes to his love for God and Jesus, and you can feel it hitting you full blast from every page. However, you also really understand the man Robinson is and you understand how deeply he believes. You can’t help but respect that. I can see why he must be such a great priest that he elevated to bishop: This man believes and he knows he’s saved and he wants to tell you all about how you can join him on this journey. I almost did want to join him on this journey. In fact, by the end of this book, I was bound and determined to visit the Episcopal church in Kent. I thought if the people of his faith thought as he did, even a questioning, sometimes-believer/sometimes-atheist person like me could join the bandwagon without much notice.
I haven’t gone to that church just yet, not even to peek for education’s sake. I’m happy where I’m at and where I’m at gave me the ability to appreciate Robinson’s words in ways I never could have even two years ago. He made me want to be Christian like no other preacher has before….
Even as a heterosexual, I can relate on some level to being forced to hide aspects of oneself from the public eye to fit in. As a child in middle and high school, I submerged aspects of my personality in order to fit into the group mind of the adolescents in my high school. Though trite compared to having to hide your own sexuality, the toll to my mentality was detrimental. I found myself doubting my own self-worth and it took a lot of years to undo the damage I did. I guess that’s part of the reason I’ve gone the complete opposite direction as an adult in highlighting the unique aspects of my personality, calling myself Mars Girl to constantly remind people that I feel I am different. I’m tired of hiding who I am so I’ve let myself out of my own closet to tell the world, “This is who I am; like it or leave it.”
It’s much harder to take on this sort of attitude as a homosexual because the backlash from the general public can be deadly. People have such a strong, irrational reaction to those whose sexual orientation or understanding of one’s gender is so radically different from their own. The religious conviction from fundamentalists that homosexuals and transgenders are damned does not make the situation any better. It’s a very sad situation and I completely empathize with anyone who has had to hide themselves in this manner. It’s a shame that people cannot accept people for who they are and show God’s love in a more positive manner. I believe that a person should have the right to walk down the street, arm in arm with the person they love, and not have to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid of the public’s reaction to the sight. As a heterosexual person, I feel almost ashamed of my freedom to publicly show affection for a man I love without having to worry about reaction from those around me. I want to fight for the right for all people of any sexual orientation to have the same freedoms and lifestyle I’m automatically entitled to as a heterosexual.