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.