On gay bishops, what a difference a decade makes

The outgoing bishop of New Hampshire, Douglas E. Theuner, right, presents the incoming bishop, V. Gene Robinson, left, with a … Continued

The outgoing bishop of New Hampshire, Douglas E. Theuner, right, presents the incoming bishop, V. Gene Robinson, left, with a crosier, carved by a Palestinian shepherd, as a gift during Robinson’s investiture ceremony Sunday, March 7, 2004, at St. Paul’s Church in Concord, N.H. Robinson officially became the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop. (AP Photo/Lee Marriner)

Ten years ago today (June 7), I was elected as The Episcopal Church’s ninth Bishop of New Hampshire. I awoke that morning to the election as the top story in AOL’s general feed and remember being surprised that all that many people noticed or cared. It should have occurred to me that such attention to the election was a precursor to the fiery controversy that would transpire if I were elected. But I was a lot more na ve then than I am now.

The day after my election, my picture and story were carried in virtually every newspaper in the world, usually on the front page. Death threats started immediately after my election and continued regularly for two years. Large segments of the Anglican Communion (of which The Episcopal Church is a part) threatened to push out the American branch of Anglicanism from its worldwide ranks, or leave the Communion themselves over such an action being taken. Archbishops, bishops, clergy and laity from around the globe called on me not to accept the election. (The church, of course, has always had gay bishops, just not honest ones.) For our more conservative members, my election confirmed in their minds that The Episcopal Church had “lost its way” and had gone over the edge into either apostasy or modernism, or both.

Seven years later, The Episcopal Church elected and consecrated its second openly-gay, partnered bishop, The Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, as the Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles. Her election elicited only a fraction of the controversy and resistance that the first election did. Not everyone agreed with the direction the church was taking, but it seemed to be less and less an issue that would fracture us.

Flash forward ten years from my election. On May 31, 2013, The Rev. Dr. Guy Erwin, an openly gay, partnered Lutheran was elected to serve as bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. While Dr. Erwin’s election has certainly been newsworthy (as well it should be), there has been nothing of the firestorm that occurred a decade ago. And what a difference a decade (especially this last decade) makes! The response within and beyond the ELCA has not been exactly “Ho-hum!” But there has been less of the divisive rhetoric and drawing of lines in the sand that we might have expected.

The statements coming out of this election are not unlike those of the decade before: The bishop-elect expressed that he was merely seeking to follow God’s call; the Synod and denomination stated clearly that this was not about making a political/religious/social statement, but rather a portion of God’s people choosing the person they wanted to lead them in the next six years. What has changed is the public’s (both within and beyond the church) opinions and beliefs regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Twenty or 30 years ago, most Americans would have told you they didn’t know anyone gay. By that, they would have been claiming not to know anyone who openly and proudly disclosed their sexual orientation and certainly not in the ranks of the clergy. Now, is there any family in America left who doesn’t know some family member, co-worker or former classmate to be gay? And once they know someone gay, know their relationships and their families, people are simply not willing to believe all the awful things said about us especially by religious institutions.

Every denomination, no matter how clear and unwavering their condemnation of homosexuality and homosexual relationships, is struggling with this societal and religious issue. A substantial majority of Roman Catholic laity in America now support marriage equality a momentous step beyond mere acceptance of homosexual people. Mormons and evangelicals are softening their language about gay people at a minimum; some are reassessing their traditional stances and moving toward greater acceptance.

Religious institutions of all stripes are asking this big question: Could the church have gotten it wrong in using a few verses of scripture to condemn homosexual people, just as it got it wrong about using isolated verses to justify slavery and the denigration/subjugation of women? More and more religious people and institutions are moving toward a “yes” in response to that question. The church has misunderstood God’s will before, but over time, we get it right. I believe that this is one of those moments.

Some things, of course, haven’t changed. Dr. Erwin will receive communications from people he doesn’t know (and who don’t know him) expressing hatred. He will undoubtedly be the target of vile condemnations attacking his faith and him personally. And to be fair, he will also receive thoughtful and respectful messages from people of faith who still cannot reconcile this development with what they have been taught by the church since childhood. Mercifully, he will receive warm wishes and prayers of support from those who believe that God has a hand in this, bringing a deeper understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s love for all of God’s chidren.

The ELCA will be seen by some to have slid into apostasy. Lutheran theologians will be challenged to articulate a broader understanding of faith which includes, rather than condemns homosexual people. But both Dr. Erwin and his denomination will weather this storm. And it will be more like a tropical storm than a hurricane because of how far along we’ve moved as Americans and as people of faith.

I couldn’t be happier for and prouder of Dr. Erwin for allowing his name to go forward and the ELCA for recognizing his gifts for ministry. Their denomination now looks a little more like the inclusive church they have long preached about and longed for. And given the changing attitudes among religious people about homosexuality, Dr. Erwin might get to be just a bishop, not a “gay bishop.”

The perhaps unexpected reward that Dr. Erwin and the Lutherans will gain is a closer relationship with God. When we do justice work, stand with the oppressed, and put our lives and our faith where our inclusive theology is, we meet God there. A favorite saying of mine, given to me a month after my election, says, “Sometimes God calms the storm. But sometimes, God lets the storm rage, and calms His child.” That is my prayer for Dr. Erwin and the Lutherans. Let God calm your hearts and soothe your souls. You are walking with God. I, for one, consider it an honor to be on this journey with you.
Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC. He just retired from a 10-year tenure as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.

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  • cmrigaux

    Excellent article. Speaks to exactly why I left the Catholic Church after 50 years and became Episcopal.

  • viewpnt3

    All Christians love all people. Catholics too.

    It’s a question of actions and you know that, right?

  • readysetgo

    Good thing about the Episcopal Church: they’re open-minded enough to promote an openly gay man to bishop.
    Bad thing about the Episcopal Church: they have bishops.

  • marcluxjd

    It bears repeating: “The church has misunderstood God’s will before, but over time, we get it right.” All religious hierarchies [hello, USCCB] should take this to heart, but won’t.

  • Angelus5370

    God’s Word never changes. If He says a man lying with a man is an abomination in His eyes then it is, but the real tragedy is the church slapping God in the face and telling Him, we don’t believe your Word, so we will sin as much as we want and get away with it. Then when these same people stand before God and He tells them, “Be gone from my sight I never knew you,” and they end up heading down to hell, then they are going to say, “But I kept my rituals at the church, why am I headed for hell?” Because God hates sin and whether He loves us or not He cannot allow sin into heaven and if they don’t repent, God will never know them regardless of what they did on earth. It’s too bad that clergy who know better will choose hell over God and then pretend that they are righteous. They may be fooling people, but not God the Father.

  • jaguar943-one

    It’s part of the name. The Episcopal Church without bishops would be like the Coca Cola Company not producing Coke.

  • Revsusanrussell3

    Couldn’t be prouder to call both Bishop Robinson and Bishop-elect Erwin friends and colleagues and so delighted that +Gene is marking the 10th anniversary of his election with this reflection. What a difference a decade makes, indeed! And now we wait for the Supreme Court to roll down some more justice this month: tick tock marriage equality!!

    The Reverend Susan Russell
    All Saints Church, Pasadena CA

  • readysetgo

    that was some strong Kool-Aid you drank, bro

  • readysetgo

    always amazed me that the Reformation was largely about not needing a pope-cardinal-bishop-priest-constituent hierarchy to have a connection with god, and then the anglicans went and created a remarkably similar hierarchy.
    jest sayin’. . .

  • utopia101

    The reformation in England – where Anglicanism started – was more about breaking from Rome so the king could get his divorce. Hence the Church of England, the mother church of Anglicans, retained a catholic structure with bishops, priests and deacons. It was a totally different impetus to the European reformation.

  • ozone329

    Interpretations of God’s word change all the time. The Bible was written by human beings, who are fallible. God loves you as well as all the other gay, straight, bisexual and transgender people in the world and will welcome all to heaven. I will pray that someday you will be able to work through your hate and intolerance.

  • Counterww

    God love gays etc but he calls this behavior out as sin. It’s not in God’s paradigm to act that way and then pretend we got it wrong. Scripture is clear. Homosexuality is not part of God’s plan and is called out specifically as sin. Slavery was never called out in the same way, but was a cultural thing that Christian abolitionists realized was treating human beings with different color skin as less than human. Gays are human too, but the desire for the same sex is , again , specifically called out as something we should not be doing.

  • chowlett1

    G*d calls greed sin, over and over, with startling clarity. And yet we have never once denied authority or position to anyone on the grounds of greed. Two verses (oh, I’ll even give you four) against homosexuality against thousands of verses against greed?

  • jg2375

    This guy is a joke, a bad one here in his native NH. In fact he may actually know a lot about religion. By most reckoning, he has managed to break all ten Commandments, so he has some on-the-ground experience with sin.

  • Rongoklunk

    And so the great god-scam continues…even though we live in a scientific age. Superstitions can’t last forever in an educated world.

  • jimfromcanada

    As we all have.

  • jimfromcanada

    The condemning words from Leviticus were for that time, and not our own. Paul and the Jerusalem Council of the apostles released us from the holiness code that governed diet, circumcision, what we wear, what we plant, and only asked that we not eat meat with blood in it, from things polluted by idols, and refrain from fornication(in Acts 15:20ff). The Galations 2:10 account of the meeting did not even mention sexual immorality. The understanding of sexual immorality changed over time. For example polygamy that was accepted then became unacceptable. the sexual immorality of treating women as property has been now rejected. The test and measure of our morality has to be Jesus’ summation of the law which says Love God, love your neighbour as you love yourself.

  • Deacon Dianne

    Judge not lest you be judged. Remember the vision Peter had of the sheet coming down with all kinds of animals? God said “You shall not call profane what I have made clean”. While you choose the OT lesson from Leviticus, do you also have tattoos, each shellfish or pork, or wear clothing of mixed sources as in wool and cotton? The Jews could not keep every commandment, so Jesus gave us just one new one: “Love one another as * I * have loved you”. This is not “Love your neighbor as yourself”. It is “Love as I have loved you”. I exhort you to find that love without judgement. Deacon Dianne Lowe

  • jjlc125

    The author conveniently failed to note what’s happened to The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the wake of the controversial actions of the 2003 and 2006 General Conventions. TEC has lost thousands of members, numerous parishes and five dioceses. TEC’s presiding bishop recently gained notoriety for her heterodox condemnation of the apostle Paul’s actions in Acts 16:16-24.

    TEC has also spent millions in legal fees suing those who’ve departed. While TEC has frequently been successful in the courts, they’ve won what amounts to a number of Pyrrhic victories since many of the properties they’ve gained either stand empty or house congregations too small to be self-supporting. One day the money will run out, and what then will the aging, shrinking denomination do?

  • Catawba

    RE: “Their denomination now looks a little more like the inclusive church they have long preached about and longed for.”

    Boy *that’s* the truth — far far tinier, just like The Episcopal Church now is. And that’s the difference a decade makes . . . more than 20% of the organization’s average Sunday attendance flees, and more out the door every day. Every organization the gay activists control just shrinks to nothing.