Friday, December 10, 2004

Bishop Robinson's Interview on NPR

Gene Robinson, the Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, was interviewed by Terry Gross of NPR yesterday afternoon. You can listen to the entire interview here. I'll be highlighting parts of the interview, as well as offering some commentary. Since I'm working from notes, there will be no attempt to offer direct quotes.

The interview begins with the Bishop describing the day of his consecration. Because of the death threats that had been made, he had been advised to take various security precautions. He strapped on a bullet-proof vest, as did his partner Mark. A vested clergy member functioned as his body guard. Can you imagine? People wanted to kill him because he had the audacity to be honest about his sexuality.

For those who might suggest that the conservatives in the Episcopal Church had nothing to do with these death threats, I must disagree. Later in the interview, Terry Gross has a brief discussion with the Bishop about the cliche "hate the sin but love the sinner." That is a copout that has simply never worked. Not everyone will hear the nuances within such a message. When leaders of the Church make derogatory statements about gays and lesbians, such statements are heard by some as advocating for hate crimes. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury makes this point much more eloquently in his recent Advent pastoral letter;

In the heat of this controversy, things have been said about homosexual people that have made many of them, including those who lead celibate lives, feel that there is no good news for them in the Church. Remember that in many countries such people face real persecution and cruelty; even where there are no legal penalties, they suffer from a sense of rejection. Young people are driven to suicide by the conviction that no-one will listen to them patiently; many feel that they are condemned not for their behavior but for their nature. As I write these words, I have in mind the recent brutal and unprovoked murder of a homosexual man in London by a group of violent and ignorant youths.

The 1998 Lambeth Resolution on this subject declared plainly that the Anglican Church worldwide did not believe - because of its reading of Scripture - that it was free to say that homosexual practice could be blessed. But it also declared that violence in word or deed and prejudice against homosexual people were unacceptable and sinful behavior for Christians. Earlier Lambeth Conference Resolutions had made the same point. Any words that could make it easier for someone to attack or abuse a homosexual person are words of which we must repent. We are bound to ask, with the greatest care, how we best communicate the challenge of the gospel to homosexual persons and how we may free ourselves from unreasoning fear or even hatred.
Returning to the interview with Bishop Robinson; he was asked why he thought the nation is currently so divided about sex. His response was to suggest that the religious right can no longer use Communism as their rallying point, so gay and lesbian persons became the new scapegoat. Although I think there is some truth in this, I also think it is too simplistic of an explanation. There is no question that that is exactly what some organizations, such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy did; to keep their funding, after the cold war ended they shifted from being anti-communist to being anti-gay, but I think the strong emotive response by so many is much more complex than this. At it's root, I believe is a fear of the feminine, and an attempt to cling to a particular image of what it means to be masculine.

I think that point is seen in the comments made in the interview regarding the Windsor Report. Bishop Robinson pointed out that within the Instruments of Unity (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council) made up of about 800 persons, all but 40 are bishops, and all but 20 are men.

The Bishop goes on to make a further point regarding this lopsided representation; that much of the rest of the Anglican Communion seem to not understand how the American Episcopal Church functions. We are not governed by bishops. Our General Convention includes both a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies. All four orders of ministry are represented. From our beginning, we have not accepted the view of the episcopate as a form of monarchy.

Bishop Robinson also points out that it appears that because of our fixation on sex, many within the Anglican Communion are missing a critical issue in all of this, an issue that found its way into the Windsor Report; there is a group of Archbishops who are trying to change the Church by making it even more hierarchical, and granting more authority to those at the top. That's the big news in all of this, as I see it.

Regarding the details of the Windsor Report, I was uncomfortable with some of the Bishop's statements. For instance, he suggested that it did not call for a moratorium on same sex blessings, but a moratorium on the authorization of such liturgies. I think that's splitting hairs in search of a loop hole. It seems clear that the intention of the report was to curtail further same sex blessings. If we are going to challenge this report, which I think we must, let's do it head on, and not try to make an end run around it.

I felt the same way about his comments concerning "expressions of regret" not being equated with an apology. I agree that those who have prayerfully taken a stand in support of same sex blessing and Bishop Robinson's consecration have nothing to apologize for. And I think that is exactly what needs to be said in response to the Windsor Report. But I also think it is a mistake to try to sidestep the spirit of what the report is calling us to face. There is a call to repentance that I think we have to wrestle with, if there is any hope of continuing as a communion. Let me once again turn to Rowan Williams to more clearly articulate what I'm trying to say;

...But the Church is also where our failures are most painfully visible. The Church therefore must show God to the world not only in its faithfulness and holiness, but in its willingness to repent and begin again its journey of discipleship. One of the deepest challenges of the Windsor Report is about repentance. And in the Church we can never call on others to repent without ourselves acknowledging that we too in all sorts of ways are sinners in need of grace. If only the Church's renewal were always a matter of other people's repentance! But God speaks the same words to all and our first (though not our only) duty must be to hear clearly what he says to each of us.

Because there has been much talk of apology in the light of the Report, it has been all too easy to miss the centrality of God's call to repentance. Apology is the currency of the world. People in law courts argue about their rights in order to try and extract a satisfactory apology, an adequate statement of responsibility. But I hope and pray we can go beyond that. An apology may amount only to someone saying, "I'm sorry you feel like that"; and that doesn't go deep enough.

To repent before one another is to see that we have failed in our witness as God's new community, failed to live in the full interdependence of love - and so to see that we have compromised the way in which God can make himself heard and seen among us. When St Paul writes about conflict in the Church, he is concerned above all that we act in such a way that we can be seen to live as Christ's Body together, so that the world may see Jesus.
I don't know about you, but those words sure convict me of a very real need for repentance in my own life.

Bishop Robinson's interview was followed by an interview with Bishop Robert Duncan, moderator of the Network, a group that claims that the Episcopal Church is no longer orthodox, and is working to replace it as the official Anglican presence in the United States. If you are interested in listening to that interview, you can find it here.


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