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High Profile

Pink and Purple

Gene Robinson achieved notoriety as the first openly gay and non-celibate priest to be made a bishop in the Anglican communion. Ten weeks after he was excluded from the Lambeth Conference, Third Way gave him a call.

Gene Robinson

Tell us about your upbringing in Kentucky.
I was born in poverty. My parents were tenant farmers and until I was 10 we lived in a house that had no running water. Our life was totally focused on the church - we belonged to a denomination known as the Disciples of Christ, which was an attempt to recreate the church of the first century. My congregation was quite conservative, though the denomination itself was much more liberal.

Were you an outsider as a child?
Yes. All of my relatives were farmers and I was the first person from either side of my family to go to college. Indeed, my father didn't get his high-school diploma until I was about 12 years old. I had the unusual experience of attending my father's high-school graduation.

Can you explain how you came by the name 'Gene'?
My parents had chosen the name 'Vicki Jean' [because they were hoping] for a girl. I was massively injured at birth and was in an incubator for about a month, and when the doctors finally gave me to my parents they told them that I wouldn't live very long, or that if I did I would be a vegetable. So, when they asked my father for a name for the birth and death certificates, he just changed the spelling to 'Vicky Gene', figuring that it wouldn't make any difference on a tombstone.

Were you actually addressed as 'Vicky Gene'?
Yes. When I go home today, the people who've known me all my life still call me that. It was when I was in the seventh grade that I first started introducing myself as 'Gene'.

Did children make fun of you?
Oh, sure. It's not an easy thing being a boy named Vicky Gene. There was a lot of teasing - although somehow in the south a lot of people have embarrassing names.

Did it toughen you up, like the guy in Johnny Cash's song 'A Boy Named Sue'?
If anything, it contributed to my feeling rather marginalised and isolated. I had an uncle who would tease me mercilessly and would regularly call me a sissy. That was very painful.

Gene RobinsonYour Christian conversion occurred when you were 12…
Right. It was a tradition in our church to have a two- week 'preaching revival' every August, and it was then that I went to the front and made that pledge, taking Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.

Did you ever lapse from that commitment?
By the time I graduated from high school, I had really begun to question that particular expression of Christianity. It seemed terribly narrow. I would ask some very difficult questions and would often be told that there were certain questions I shouldn't ask. I was particularly troubled by the fact that I was told that anyone who had not accepted Jesus was going to hell. I knew that most of the world had not accepted Jesus and I found it very difficult to square with the idea of a loving God.

Where did you first find answers to your questions?
A teacher at high school introduced me to the work of Paul Tillich. I found him to be terribly helpful and very exciting, because he seemed to speak of a God who was much bigger, broader and deeper than the God that I had been taught about. And then the college I went on to, the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, happened to be owned by the Episcopal Church and so, just when my church was saying, 'Don't ask all these hard questions! Just believe!', I met a chaplain who said to me: 'Good for you! You're asking all the right questions. I don't have all the answers, but let's see if we can find some together.' I found that terribly exciting.

How do you square the idea of hell with the love of God?
Well, it is not up to us to decide who is and who isn't going to be with God for eternity. I must say that the parables Jesus told, more often than not, indicate a God who is all-forgiving, so my sense is that God is far more gracious than we can even imagine. So, I'm happy to leave it to God.

Do you still believe that people need to be saved?
Well, yes… It depends what you mean by 'saved'. [The 18th-century preacher] Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon known as 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'. I happen to think we are sinners in the hands of a loving God. I've never found fear to be a good motivator. Most of the people I know who say that they accept Jesus as their Saviour out of fear don't seem to me actually to be living a very liberated or loving life.

If someone came to you and asked, 'What must I do to be saved?', how would you respond?
Oh, that's a great question! I've never been asked that before. That's so interesting!
I would say, probably: 'Believe that God loves you beyond your wildest imagining, and begin to live your life as if that were true.' I think it transforms your life dramatically if you believe that. I would go on to say that I believe that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God and of God's will for us. Take a look at what he said, what he did and how he lived his life and that's the way you will discover most clearly what God's attitude is toward you and what God's will is for you.

Doesn't that circumvent repentance and the cross?
No, I don't think so. It is painfully obvious to all of us that we are sinful, we don't live up to what God would have us do and be. The cross represents the lengths to which God was willing to go to save us from a life that is captive to sin and death. Jesus accomplished something on the cross that changed the world completely.

Do you think of yourself now as evangelical or liberal?
I would certainly describe myself as liberal, but I don't see the two as mutually exclusive. I consider myself an evangelical top-to-bottom. It's one of the first words I would use about myself, in the sense that (in the US, at least) it doesn't so much represent a theological position as it does a commitment to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ and bringing people to understand him in a way that makes them want to become followers. That's really the focus of almost everything I do.

In terms of theology, I am actually extremely orthodox. I do not throw away lightly the wisdom that has been passed on to us by the church. I think the assumption is made that, because I have a different read on scripture as it relates to gay and lesbian issues, I play fast and loose with other doctrines; but that's not the case.

Gene Robinson

Can you remember when you first became aware of the existence of homosexuality?
When I was in high school in the early 1960s it was not something that was ever really talked about. People who were homosexual were referred to as being 'that way', and you learnt pretty early on that being 'that way' was a horrible thing. Like everyone else, I was taught that those who were 'that way' were an abomination to God.

It was when I was 12 or 13 that I first feared that I was somehow different. Some friends got hold of a copy of Playboy and we were all looking at it. They were saying how exciting it was and I was thinking I didn't find it that exciting at all, but I also knew I had better not say that, because it would separate me from my friends and could possibly be dangerous as well.

In that era, even to entertain the idea that you might be homosexual was almost tantamount to suicide. It was considered such an immoral and repugnant thing that you just prayed and hoped that it was something you would outgrow.

What happened next?
I spent most of my teenage years trying to suppress feelings of attraction to other guys my age. I was fearful that I might be found out. I had great relationships with girls, and I dated one girl steadily for a couple of years. However, there was a growing sense that somehow it wasn't for me like it was for other guys.

I left college and went to seminary and got into therapy to cure myself of this horrible thing. By that time, the attraction to other men seemed very strong. There was no denying it, but I desperately wanted to change it. I was in therapy for a couple of years, a couple of times a week, and then finally felt myself to be in a position to have a positive and mature relationship with a woman.

When I met the woman who then became my wife, I told her within two weeks of meeting her that all my relationships thus far had been with men but that I had been in therapy. I was very open with her about that.

What sort of therapy was it?
It was cognitive therapy. We talked, and he suggested strategies I might use to cope. I've since come to believe that such efforts are hopeless. Even the so-called ex-gay ministries don't now claim that sexual orientation can be changed; all they purport to do is to steel you for making the difficult choices of never acting on your homosexuality.

Gene Robinson

When did you come to the conclusion that you hadn't changed and your marriage was not going to work?
It happened three or four years before our marriage ended. My wife and I began to talk about it, and we got into therapy separately and together. We had to ask whether we were both paying too high a price. Ultimately, we decided that we each needed the opportunity to explore life outside this relationship. There was no one else involved for either of us. It was just something we did for each other. I began to date men after we separated [in 1986]. She remarried in September 1987, and two months later I met the man who is now my partner.

As a Christian, did you still feel bound by the rules that govern heterosexual relationships - for example, that you shouldn't sleep with someone before marriage?
Those were always the rules the church stood by and I believed in them. Of course, after my divorce when I started dating men, marriage was not an option and nor was civil union. My partner and I had a civil union this summer when it became legal in New Hampshire.

When you became a bishop, were you conscious of how controversial it was going to be?
Yes, I was - but I think we were all a bit naive and most of us thought there would be a bit of a flap for three to six months and then it would go away. The extent of the controversy has certainly been a surprise.

Would you still have gone ahead if you'd known?
I certainly had plenty of call to not go through with it, from people in the pews all the way up to religious leaders. What I said to them - and it was really true - was that I would always take it to God in my prayer life - and had I ever discerned that God wanted me to step back from it, I would have done so. In my prayer life I have to say that, at least as best I could discern it, God was asking me not to step back but to go forward.

What do you say to opponents of your ordination who say you have departed from both scripture and tradition?
There is no question that I have departed from tradition, because the tradition of the church has been to decry and denounce homosexuality as being outside of God's law and God's will. At the same time, let's remember that the tradition of the church for hundreds of years approved of slavery and used scripture to justify it, but we changed our minds about that, believing ourselves to have a better understanding of God's will.
The same was true of women's ordination. We used [Paul's remarks in 1 Corinthians] about women keeping their mouths shut and their heads covered in church for a very long time to keep women out of leadership positions, and now many parts of the church have decided that the tradition was wrong. What I would say is that we have been guilty over the centuries of making life harder for a lot of people, whether it be the mentally ill, the left-handed, women or children or whatever; and I think we are simply in the process of seeing the error of our ways and correcting a misunderstanding.

Are there other sexual practices we now regard as being forbidden by scripture but which in 20 or 30 years' time we may find acceptable?
No, I don't think so. I am committed to monogamy and faithfulness in relationships. Some would argue, 'Oh my God! If we give in on this, the next thing is we'll be having threesomes and foursomes and sex with animals and children.' That is absolutely absurd. No one is saying that anything goes. What we are saying is that faithful, monogamous, lifelong, intentioned relationships don't always have to be with the opposite sex.

Would you agree that this is a very serious issue? If you're right, your opponents are guilty of placing unnecessary burdens on people; but if they are right, you are guilty of encouraging people to feel comfortable about adopting a sinful way of life.
They would argue that I am walking away from God by doing the opposite of what God wants and that I will pay an eternal price for it. I guess it's important to say that I am so sure of God's love that I am literally betting my eternal life on it.

Gene RobinsonIs there a part of you that actually enjoys the controversy you've caused? Do you like being the centre of attention?
No. It feels like an accident of history. What I love is being the bishop of my diocese. I think it's hard for people to fathom how normal life is in my diocese. Here, I'm not 'the gay bishop', I'm just the bishop.

On the other hand, I've had to make my peace with the realisation that, outside my diocese, I am for many people 'the gay bishop' and this is a moment in our history as a church and for a reason I cannot comprehend I seem to have been called to play a part in it.

Do you see yourself as a Martin Luther figure?
Oh my goodness, no! I don't have any grandiose image of what I'm doing. I am just trying to be me, and to do what every Christian is supposed to do, which is tell his or her own story. My story, in part, happens to be about coming to know God's love for me even though I discovered myself to be a homosexual and the church has always said that therefore I was despicable in the eyes of God. My experience has been that I am not.

There are many reasons why people feel unworthy of God's love. Whether it's because we are young, old, black, Asian or whatever, almost all of us have inferiority complexes. We act arrogantly, but deep down we can all feel very unlovable. I try to use my own experience to point out how so many of us feel less than worthy but it's the last thing in the world God wants us to feel.

Do you have opponents you respect?
Yes. At the Lambeth Conference they thought I was some kind of pariah in my own house of bishops, but in fact I have wonderful relationships even with the conservatives. I count many of them as real friends.

Does this issue cloud your ministry at all?
No. My diocese is one of the happiest and most vibrant of any of the dioceses in the Episcopal Church. I love my people and they love me. I don't have a single parish flirting with any of the breakaway groups. Our diocese may be the only one in the country not obsessed by this - and we are growing.

What's the most exciting thing happening in your part of the country at the moment?
Our parishes are involved in an unprecedented amount of outreach, both to the most vulnerable people in our community and to the most vulnerable in the world. There is an astounding commitment in terms of time and resources. Also, we are seeing a renewed commitment to our stewardship of creation. In my own diocese, we are exploring the digging of geothermal wells to heat our churches.

When did alcohol come into your life?

Alcohol has always been part of my life as an adult, but it didn't become problematic until fairly recently - and then I went into treatment. I recently learnt that when the English hear the word 'alcoholic' they imagine someone who is falling-down-drunk all the time, but that's not quite true here. I never drank at work, but what I did was, I became increasingly dependent on it at the end of the day when I came home, and I just got very frightened that it would begin to affect my work. I felt it was time to do something about it and remove it as an obstacle to my ministry.

In 1 Timothy, Paul says that a bishop should be 'without reproach, the husband of one wife [and] sober-minded'. Where does that leave you?
Well, let's see! I'm sober-minded and I've only had one wife. How am I doing so far? It would be wonderful if bishops were beyond reproach, but I don't know of one. God uses the most unexpected and flawed people. You only have to read the Old and New Testaments to see how God took people who were full of reproach and did quite magnificent things with them.

What do you think is your particular gift?

I like to think of myself as an apologist. I like to take theological doctrines and translate them into everyday language so that people can understand them. That's one of the things I do best.

I'm very serious about my role as pastor to the clergy and their families. That's the most important part of my ministry. I can't do much about those who call me 'the gay bishop' and assume that that's the only thing I am interested in, but if they ever got to know me or my diocese, I think they would feel differently.

Gene Robinson was talking to Steve Turner

Third Way Bookshop is offering copies of Gene Robinson's memoir, In the Eye of the Storm, at half the cover price.