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In the Company of the Faithful

Gene Robinson on Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, and the Future of the Faith

By Herb Gunn

 

His election in June 2003 and his consecration the following November touched off a theological firestorm across the Episcopal Church and throughout the Anglican Communion. The first openly gay man elected to be an Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson has become, for some faithful Episcopalians, an effigy of what's wrong with the Episcopal Church. For other faithful Episcopalians, he's the icon for what's right. And for both, he's a harbinger for whatever's to come of the Anglican Communion.

That's a lot of weight to carry for such a slight man from New Hampshire.

Who is this man behind the myth? What exactly drew Gene Robinson into the Episcopal Church and what makes him stay? And what is the nature of the Anglican Communion that he now challenges and by which he is challenged?

 

Herb Gunn : The Episcopal Church is grounded in the Anglican tradition and practice of faith. Can you describe what the essence of being Anglican is all about? Among the Christian expressions of faith, what is unique about the Episcopal Church?

Gene Robinson : “One of the things that is distinctive about being Anglican is that you would get about as many definitions of it as there are Anglicans – which is one
of the great things about being an Anglican. One of the things that makes us distinctive is that [the church] treats its members like adults. It treats its members like faithful people of God who, as St. Paul says, work out their salvation in fear and trembling.

“We trust people to learn, to grow, to respond to God's movement in their own lives and we try not to dictate to people how that will be. One of the things we have in our past that serves us in good stead right now is that our church was born out of conflict, out of the English Reformation, and I think one of the things we do best is to deal with conflict and somehow hold together, no matter what issue threatens to divide. We are certainly in one of those periods right now and time will tell whether we will honor this great Anglican tradition of holding on to one another while we fight about whatever the issues of the day are.

“Desmond Tutu said of Anglicans, ‘We meet.' Indeed, that is what we do. We want to be in communion with one another, in conversation with one another, and in relationship with one another on all kinds of levels, both local and international.

If you say to someone, ‘I won't even come to the table with you,' then you cut off all hope of reconciliation or mutual understanding. To me, that is the worse thing that someone can do – to threaten to be out of communion. That closes off all the creative possibilities that I think God has in mind for us.

“This is why I think the threat to break communion is so serious. If you say to someone, ‘I won't even come to the table with you,' then you cut off all hope of reconciliation or mutual understanding. To me, that is the worse thing that someone can do – to threaten to be out of communion. That closes off all the creative possibilities that I think God has in mind for us.

“We find that communion in the context of the Holy Eucharist. One of the things that I find the most distressing about the Windsor Report is that there's no sacrificial theology in it. There's no grounding in the place where we meet God and meet one another in the sacrament of the Eucharist.”

 

Gunn : Tell me a little about your own journey into the Episcopal Church. What appealed to you about the Episcopal Church expression of faith?

Robinson : “I grew up in the Disciples of Christ denomination in a very, very religious family. [It was a] fairly fundamentalist congregation of the Disciples Church – although as a national denomination, it is not fundamentalist. I took Jesus Christ as my personal savior when I was 12 or 13 and was baptized. Yet, by the time I graduated from high school, I had begun to question the narrowness I had experienced.

“By the time I went to college [at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.], I found that not only were my questions tolerated, but applauded. I was generously and hospitably welcomed into the religious community there and helped with my journey. I had an assistant chaplain there who, when I was ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed I didn't believe, encouraged me to just drop out when I got to a phrase that I didn't believe. And participate in however much of it I did feel comfortable with.

“And I [thought], a religion that can be that undefensive about itself is the place for me. I gradually said more and more of the Nicene Creed until I did believe it. I found [the Episcopal Church] to be this amazing community where people were not afraid to use their minds, where people were not afraid to read and believe the scriptures, and did not seem to be forcing on anyone else its own beliefs in the way that I felt the religion that I grew up with had been doing.

“By the end of my time at Sewanee, I felt a calling to the priesthood and went on to [General Theological Seminary in New York, N.Y.] from college.”

 

Gunn : How much of the Nicene Creed do you believe today?

Robinson : “I believe all of it. The two things that the Episcopal Church gave me that I did not have in my former denomination were history and liturgy. One of the reasons I love all the historic creeds is that it ties me to believers who lived so many centuries ago. While I have no doubt that I might articulate the meaning of the Nicene Creed differently than would have been explained 1,000 years ago or 1,700 years ago, saying those same words connects me with this whole company of the faithful who have experienced God and believed that Jesus Christ was his very incarnation on this earth. So I love saying those ancient words because it connects me with all of those people who have been faithful throughout the years.

“And, of course, the liturgy: The thing I loved about the ‘new' prayer book in 1979, which is now 25 years old, is that it's not so much new as it was ancient. While it was new to our ears, most of the Eucharistic liturgies were older than what we had been using. I find it thrilling to say the words that have been said for countless centuries by other believing Christians.”

 

Gunn : What is it about the Episcopal Church that you find challenging? I assume that you are not a member of the Episcopal Church only because it brings you comfort but that it brings you some challenge.

Robinson : “I'm obviously, in the last 18 months, particularly challenged by the Episcopal Church and people in it and people beyond it. In a general way, because [we are] Eucharistically centered, the Christian vocation of reconciliation is something that I feel the Episcopal Church challenges all of us to do in such an amazing way. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself—and if we are to be followers of Jesus Christ, that has to be our work and ministry, too. So the challenge is that it calls on me to listen to people that I don't even like, never mind agree with. To look for ways of affirming what we have in common so that we can together deal with those things about which we disagree. . .

“[Because of the challenge of our faith,] I can't get by not weighing in on the Iraq war or the persecution going on in the Darfur region of the Sudan. This is a religion that requires me to be engaged and to have as my goal reconciliation of the whole world to one another and to God.

“Whenever we begin to ignore that calling, someone or something happens to call us back to it. I think of the call at [General] Convention for us to throw ourselves behind the millennium goals of the U.N – to fight AIDS, empower women, to fight poverty both locally and internationally. If we ever journey very far away from that ministry of reconciliation for all people, something in the Episcopal Church will happen to bring us back.”

 

Gunn : Fill me in on the Anglican Communion. What is it that holds the Episcopal Church and the other Anglican churches together in the Communion?

Robinson : “To go back to Archbishop Tutu: We meet. We have always met for our greater good and God's greater purposes. That is invaluable. It is another one of those ways that we are not permitted to be loners. So much of what is going on currently has to do with ‘What is our place in the world and what is our relationship going to be to our brothers and sisters in Christ in far away places?'

Is the Anglican Communion going to be about structures and procedures and rules and canon law or it is going to be about deep, lasting, faithful, hospitable relationships? And the jury is still out on that. If we go the juridical, legal route, we will have done so in direct contradiction to what our tradition has always been.

“I think we are having a big debate about whether the answer to that question has to do with structures or whether it has to do with relationships. Frankly, I think that is the real subject of the Windsor Report. Is the Anglican Communion going to be about structures and procedures and rules and canon law or it is going to be about deep, lasting, faithful, hospitable relationships? And the jury is still out on that. If we go the juridical, legal route, we will have done so in direct contradiction to what our tradition has always been. It is a very important moment—not having anything to do with homosexuality. . .

“There is a real crucial question facing us which is, ‘what is the nature of our relationship?' Is it going to be about rules and regulations or is it going to be about relationships?”

 

Gunn : The Windsor Report was issued last October as a study on unity in the Anglican Communion. Can you add to your assessment of the Windsor Report?

Robinson : “I think it has some great things in it and I think it has some troublesome things in it. In an incredibly succinct and clarifying way, it is the best short piece on how Anglicans do scripture . . . and how that is different from the way other Christians do scripture.

“It says that we always interpret any given text in Scripture in light of the entire testament of scripture. We never elevate one or two or five verses above the import of the entire Bible itself. And the Windsor Report also says we always interpret scripture in terms of the context in which it occurred and when it was written, as well as our own context. It is a brilliant defense against proof-texting – which has never been our tradition.

“[The Windsor Report] talks about autonomy but it talks about autonomy within the context of relationships. It affirms that we are 38 independent provinces [and] we may be independent, but more than that, we are interdependent and whatever one of us does affects everyone else. That is a wonderful discussion in the paper.

“There are a couple of things that are troublesome. It seems very, very clear to me that a great majority of the Anglican Communion has no idea of the role that the laity and clergy play in the Episcopal Church, USA. [Many people] insist on referring to my ‘appointment' rather than my election. For a long time I have said that when foreign bishops come to our General Convention, rather than offering them a courtesy seat in the House of Bishops, which is what we do, we should be offering them a courtesy seat in the House of Deputies. That's the part of our church that makes us unique. I do not believe that there is a province of the [Anglican] Church anywhere, but certainly [not one] outside the Western Hemisphere, that includes laity and clergy in every level of decision-making in the church the way we do. That is partly related to our history and our origins at the time of our own revolution against the Brits. And it's something that most of the rest of the Communion just don't get. People do not understand why [Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold could not simply put a stop to this [referring to his own ordination as bishop].

“I think it is very troublesome to suggest that people who voted yes on the consent to the New Hampshire election should contemplate absenting themselves from international gatherings. My goodness! How are we ever going to get anywhere in terms of mutual understanding if we are not all at the table?

While we are calling on everyone to express regret, it is time that the church acknowledges its complicity, if not its initiative, in making life for gay and lesbian folks almost unbearable. That's what happens when you have certain voices precluded from being at the table. . .

“And my one personal reflection on that is that had a gay or lesbian person been invited to be on the Lambeth Commission, we might also have had a call for an expression of regret for all the pain caused gay and lesbian people at the hands of the church, historically. While we are calling on everyone to express regret, it is time that the church acknowledges its complicity, if not its initiative, in making life for gay and lesbian folks almost unbearable. That's what happens when you have certain voices precluded from being at the table; you wind up with a blind spot that that person could have helped you see.”

 

Gunn : Either in history, experience or expression of faith, how does the Episcopal Church differ from other Anglican provinces and how do those Anglican Churches differ from the Episcopal Church?

Robinson : “One of the things that is reflected in the Windsor Report is a fairly monarchical view of the episcopate. That has not been our tradition in the American Church – partly growing out of our own history [and] our egalitarian movement and commitment in this country. My experience of the global South [Robinson traveled to Uganda in 1992 and South Africa in 2002] is that the episcopate operates in a way that we could not any more get away with in this country than fly to the moon. [In many provinces], the bishop makes it pretty clear what everyone is to think and they say they think it, whether they do or not. I do not know of a bishop in the Episcopal Church that could remotely get away with that.”

 

Gunn : What characteristics of those provinces have you noticed that are interesting and noteworthy?

Robinson : “I went to Uganda to do AIDS work [after] someone in Uganda figured out that churches and mosques were the only infra-structure left intact when Idi Amin was thrown out of Uganda. If churches could be mobilized to become delivery systems for AIDS information, it would go a long way to reversing this horrible pandemic. Because I had written AIDS curricula for the Episcopal Church, I was hired by USAID to go. I helped set up a national program of peer counseling for AIDS education to be delivered through churches and mosques. I got to see the church up close.

“What I was struck by in the religious people there was their sense of gratitude to God. On the surface, they looked like they had nothing, but I don't know if I have ever experienced a group of people coming out of a place of abundance rather than scarcity. They were forever thanking God for all the ways God had blessed them.

“We have so much to learn from the African Church, it is astounding. . . And we can't learn it if we're not in communion with them, and that would be the greatest loss if in some way the Communion begins to pull apart.”

 

Herb Gunn is editor of The Record , the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. He is an occasional contributor to The Witness , and may be reached by email at the-record@earthlink.net .