A Q&A with Bishop Gene Robinson

Posted on 26 Mar 2010 at 12:46pm
Bishop Gene Robinson signs copies of his book on Wednesday night at the Cathedral of Hope.
Bishop Robinson signs copies of his book Wednesday at the Cathedral.

As I reported in today’s Voice, Bishop V. Gene Robinson preached Wednesday night at the Cathedral of Hope. I had the privilege of sitting down with Robinson, who became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2004, prior to the service. Here’s a transcript:

Q: First, a quick point of clarification, last time you were here for Black Tie Dinner in 2008, you told me you couldn’t preach in the Dallas diocese without Bishop James Stanton’s permission. You’re scheduled to preach tonight at the Cathedral. Has something changed?
A: The circumstances have changed. I can’t function liturgically, which includes preaching in an Episcopal church, without the bishop’s permission, and I would never do that. When I was here, it might have been the same week as Black Tie Dinner [in 2008], I went out to [St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church]. Because I did not have his permission, I just spoke after the service at the coffee hour, but because this is a United Church of Christ parish, I’m not bound by that. But I did back in early December let the bishop know that I was going to be here and what I was going to do.

Q: So you’re not going to be breaking any rules tonight?
A: No, no headlines there.

Q: OK, well speaking of headlines, the Episcopal Church recently elected its second openly LGBT bishop, the Rev. Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles. How big is that?
A: I couldn’t be more delighted, and I’ve just been with her down in Navasota, Texas, at the House of Bishops meeting. Those bishops who have received their necessary consent to be consecrated are invited there even though they haven’t been consecrated yet, and she will be consecrated on May 15, and I will be there in Los Angeles for that. … I think it’s huge. To do this once might have been a mistake, but to do it twice, it means that this is the direction the church is going. And I have to tell you, I was really surprised at the House of Bishops meeting this week that there just didn’t seem to be all that much controversy over it. I think those who are happy about it are happy about it, and those who are not happy about it seem resolved and understanding that this is the direction we’re moving, and so we’re just going to move on. So I’m delighted for her that the angst has not bubbled quite as wildly as it did from my election.

Q: In fact, it barely even made the news, right?
A: It’s really amazing, isn’t it? And that’s true at the international level, as well as our Episcopal Church level. I think there’s something about the second one that makes it quite intentional. There is no turning back. In 2003 I was elected, consented to, and at the next General Convention in 2006, we heard what a problem this was for the rest of the Anglican Communion, and so we wondered, had we done the right thing? We sort of put everything on hold. By the convention this past summer in 2009 we had considered that and then decided no, actually, we hadn’t made a mistake, and we were going to move forward and we passed those resolutions, and indeed Mary was elected in December. So I think it’s hugely significant.

Q: On the flip side, the Dallas Diocese recently called a special convention where they voted to reject the same-sex liturgy approved by the national church last year. How much of a disappointment is it to continue to see things like that happening?
A: Well, first of all we have not approved a liturgy, but we have set in motion a process that very well may lead to an authorized liturgy, so that’s an important distinction. You know, one of the things about the Episcopal Church is that it’s very much local control. It’s not hierarchical like the Roman Catholic Church is, so it does widely vary from diocese to diocese, and [Dallas] Bishop [James] Stanton, whom I get along with very well … It’s kind of funny, we were smoking buddies at the General Convention, so he and I were outside on the patio, smoking together and chatting all through the General Convention. … We chatted quite a lot, and we actually joked about the fact that people would be shocked that, you know, we were really quite cordial to one another. We obviously stand in diametrically opposed positions on this issue, and that’s not going to change, but I think what he and I would both say is that we can still be in the same church, and the essential things of the faith, we agree on, and I think that’s what I hope people are seeing in the Episcopal Church, that there can be a wide diversity of opinion. After all, we have a wide diversity of opinion on abortion and on who should be president and probably on health care, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find our way to the altar and receive communion and go back to the pews and fight about those things. I think in a world and in a nation that is increasingly polarized, that’s actually quite a remarkable witness. Just on the news today, they’re talking about death threats against some of the congressional delegation who voted for health care reform. They’re talking about people threatening violence and all of that, so it’s not an unimportant witness to be making at this time, I think.

Q: But doesn’t it bother you that he accepts you personally as a friend, and yet his position is essentially that gays and lesbians are less than equal?
A: Of course it bothers me, but you know the way I deal with that is, I’m pretty sure how this is all going to turn out: This is going to turn out with the full inclusion of gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people in the life of the church and the life of the nation, and I don’t want to be arrogant saying that, but I do have faith that that’s where we’re headed, and it’s hard to find anybody under 30 that thinks this is remotely an issue, much less an issue that should be tearing apart the church or anyone else. So I do think that my job is to be gracious to him, and learn from him what I can learn, and then continue being a good and faithful bishop as best I can, and in the end I think that will win the day.

Q: And you don’t have any illusions that you can change his mind?
A: No, no, no, I don’t think so. He seems pretty committed to his position and he has every right to hold it.

Q: And you didn’t argue about it when you were smoking?
A: Nope, neither one of us needed to go there.

Q: And all three of us — he, you and I — need to quit smoking.
A: Exactly. I’ll quit when Barack Obama quits.

Q: I also read today that you’ve recently been named a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress. Congratulations on this. Does this mean it’s OK to mix religion and politics?
A: We’ve always mixed religion and politics despite what your mother told you about never mixing those two things, and the writing that I will do for them will seek to do what they asked me to do, which is to bring a religion and moral perspectives to the issues that face us. So, I am not likely to be promoting one party, or one particular position, but what I will attempting to do is to say, ‘OK, if we hold these values, particularly for Jews, Christians and Muslims, the three great Abrahamic faiths, how does that inform our choices about these issues that face us? And for instance, on the issue of health care reform, both the Old and New testaments, the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as the Quran, are absolutely full of God’s preferential treatment of the poor, and a warning from the prophets that any society will be judged by how it treats the most vulnerable among that culture. That seems to me to point toward health care for all, and so that’s what I’ve said in my writing. That doesn’t say one provision ought to be in the health care bill or not, it doesn’t say one party is right or not, although I think in this case because the differences between the two parties and the cooperation on this effort was so polarized, it may very well. But it seems to me that we have a moral imperative to care for the most vulnerable among us. My writing will attempt to do that with respect to lots of different issues — immigration reform, the environment, LGBT issues and so on. It’s a wonderful forum from which to speak, and there are just a lot of smart people there that I’m excited to be working with.

Q: Another thing that’s happened since we last talked is marriage equality in your home state of New Hampshire. How big was that?
A: Huge, and you’re now talking to a married man.

Q: I didn’t realize that. Did it make the news when you did that?
A: No, and you know why? It was so private you cannot imagine it. I wasn’t even awake for it. … We had our civil union. New Hampshire legalized civil unions two years before it legalized marriage and in June of 2008, my partner and I had a civil union. That was our big service, both of our families were there, and 150 people and reception, and dinner and all of that. When we wrote the law in New Hampshire for same-sex marriage, we wrote the law to say, we wanted to make conversion to marriage as easy as possible, so according to the law, we went to our town clerk, we put in the number of our civil union, and the date on which we wanted it to become a marriage, and we chose the earliest date possible, which was Jan. 1, 2010, and at about 9:30 we wished each other a Happy New Year and went to bed, and woke up married. … Actually it was wonderful, and when we went out of the country for the first time on vacation last month, we took our marriage certificate with us, and there’s something simply wonderful about that, as well as practical. If one of us had gotten sick or for any number of reasons we might have needed that. Not that it would be recognized everywhere, but it’s not nothing.

Q: Speaking of LGBT issues, there’s been a lot of debate about strategy in the last few days, after the civil disobedience in D.C. and San Francisco last week, with Lt. Dan Choi chaining himself to the White House fence. What do you make of all this?
A: I’m certainly not in the middle of any of those strategies, but I continue to be confident that President Obama is moving inexorably toward the end of don’t ask, don’t tell. I know from my conversations with him earlier on, before his election, that he did not want to take a chance on having it turn out the way it turned out for Bill Clinton, and none of us want that, and so I think he’s being incredibly smart. I think that by the time we see its reversal, and I certainly think it’s going to happen before the end of the year, it seems to me the military is going to be begging for it, and what a great way to go into that, as opposed to what happened 15, 20 years ago. I continue to believe that this is the most gay-friendly president we’ve ever had, or may have in a very long time. I think the military itself, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, have been just remarkable on this issue, and while I wish it could happen faster, I still have confident that there is a strategy and that it’s being followed and that it will result in the overturning of that policy. You know, one of the things that I’m saddened by in our community is — and this is often true of the church as well — how sad that we pick a fight with each other, when the real threat to us is out there somewhere. I think we need large political organizations like HRC, I think we need smaller organizations like the National Gay Lesbian Task Force, and Lambda Legal. I think we need all of those bodies working at the levels that they work best at, and we’re not always going to agree about that. There’s always going to be an ACT-UP and a Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and we need both of those, and they each need each other. So I would like to see us disagreeing with one another without picking a fight, just as I’ve said publicly, I think there’s a difference between holding President Obama’s feet to the fire and picking a fight with him, and picking a fight with him seems to be incredibly stupid.

Q: So do you support the civil disobedience?
A: I don’t support it or not support it. I think different people are called to respond to the reality in different ways, and at the end of the day, they’re all important. So I certainly would not be critical of civil disobedience, but I think it’s only one part of it. The president isn’t going to come out and talk to Dan Choi, but the president is going to talk to representatives from the Human Rights Campaign, and we need both of those things, and I think we need to keep the pressure on, and I think that’s what this civil obedience does.

Q: Lastly, tell us what brings you back to Dallas?
A: I love Dallas, for one, and every time I’ve been here, I’ve just been so wonderfully received, but the Cathedral of Hope has been just that for so many LGBT people over the years. I’ve actually been trying to come for a couple of years, and have never been able to work it out, and I knew I was going to be in Texas this week, and got back in touch with them, and said I would love to accept your invitation. You know, especially in a place like Dallas where in the culture and certainly in many of the churches, there has not been the kind of welcome for gay and lesbian people, nor have they been given much hope for full inclusion, and I partly wanted to come here to honor their ministry, over many years really. It was Harvey milk that said, ‘You’ve got to give them hope,’ and I think the Cathedral of Hope has been doing exactly that for a very long time, so I’m here to celebrate all that with them.

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