Bishop Gene Robinson has announced his plan to retire as Bishop of New Hampshire in January 2013 when he will be 65 to give the diocese enough time to elect a new bishop. He will be retiring when he is 7 years below the mandatory retirement age for Episcopal bishops of 72. He made the announcement at the end of his diocesan annual convention and gave, as reasons for his early departure, the toll taken on him and on the diocese having been at the centre of international controversy.
He said: “Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark, who has faithfully stood with me every minute of the last seven years, and in some ways, you. While I believe that these attitudes, mostly outside the diocese, have not distracted me from my service to you, I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that they have certainly added a burden and certain anxiety to my episcopate.”
I first met Bishop Gene at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Minneapolis in 2003. The pressure on him was already intense and the Convention was marked by false rumours about him, designed to influence approval of his election. He retreated to a protected space leaving others to navigate the media and the conservative storm opposing his election.
In 2005 he came to England for the first time as bishop to address Changing Attitude’s 10th Anniversary Service at St Martin-in-the-Fields. He received a prolonged standing ovation and, as he said in his announcement yesterday, made “the case for God and for God’s church – either to those who have never known God’s unimaginable love, or to those who have been ill-treated, in the name of a judgmental God, and who have left the church.”
Riazat Butt of the Guardian phoned me for a comment at 10 this morning, catching me as I was about to leave for the 10.30 Communion at St John’s Devizes. When I first read the news, I felt sad that he will be retiring. He has made visible for tens of thousands of LGBT Anglicans the reality that we are present in every Province of the Communion, in every congregation, many of us ordained, some bishops and primates. He won’t retire into invisibility and by 2013 further lesbian or gay bishops bishops may have been elected to join Mary Glasspool.
Bishop Gene’s election in 2003 did indeed transform the landscape, and he has had to lie with the responsibility for, and consequences of, that transformation. At last we had somebody as a bishop who was fully visible and embodied the quality of life so many of us long for, a committed, faithful and loving relationship as a Christian.
He has borne the cost as an iconic figure on behalf of LGBT Anglicans. But his visible presence is the tip of an iceberg. There are many thousands, if not tens of thousands, of LGBT Anglicans who experience stress, anxiety, pressure, depression and at the extreme, suicidal feelings. I know that this is true from the Changing Attitude England network and from friends and colleagues in the Church of England.
Increasingly, I know it to be true in Africa and across the Anglican Communion. A young gay Kenyan Anglican told me yesterday that he “is living in great stigmatization due to my sexual orientation. I don’t want anyone to know. Please help me and keep my secrets close. Thank you for that understanding. I have disclosed to you so much more than I have ever done to anyone else.”
It is people like this lonely, desperate, isolated gay Kenyan, who longs for the kind of loving relationship enjoyed by Gene and Mark, that Gene has been an icon for. He has, thanks goodness, had Mark beside him, a diocese which took him to his heart, and a personal resourcefulness and spirituality. Most Africans have none of these resources beyond a deep commitment to their faith and to Jesus the Christ.
One conservative response to Bishop Gene’s announcement has been to accuse him of playing the victim card. After 7 years of abuse and vilification by primates, bishops and conservative pressure groups in the Anglican Communion, I might have hoped that some Christian love and wisdom might have begun to surface by now, but no, the evil and lies and misrepresentation of truth continues. Riazat reports that s spokesman for the Global Anglican Future Conference, Gafcon, said the “agonising dispute” over homosexuality was not about the New Hampshire bishop “personally”. Now I wonder who might have made such a disingenuous statement?