Gene Robinson, the first openly-gay Episcopal bishop, came for a visit a few days ago. He led a service in the Chapel Sunday night, and lectured in McCosh the following afternoon. Posters went up advertising these events. I thought I’d go say hi. It’s a strange thing, meeting the man at the center of a controversy that could end in schism for the Church Henry VIII founded half a millennium ago.
Strange that so much should hinge on the question of marriage. Indeed, the Anglican Communion, whose unity is threatened by the dangerous question of who may marry whom, might never have formed had Henry been allowed to marry as he saw fit. Strange also to see Robinson at Princeton—had he arrived four decades ago, he might never have even joined the Episcopal Church.
Gene Robinson was born in 1947 to a family of sharecroppers who had called Kentucky home since it was the western frontier. His biographies always mention that he grew up in a house without running water. But he was raised just as much in the church of the Disciples of Christ, the denomination his family have worshipped in since its founding in the nineteenth century Restoration Movement. He eventually had to choose between Sewanee and Princeton, and chose the University of the South only because it gave him a full scholarship. There, at the nation’s foremost Episcopal university, he became a member of the Church he would go on to help lead.
After Sewanee came the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where he worked towards a Master of Divinity and underwent therapy to change his sexual orientation. He managed to convince himself he was ready for relationships with the opposite sex, and soon married the woman he would father two children with. She went into the marriage aware of his sexuality, but nonetheless they made it for only a decade and a half before divorcing in 1986. He met the man who is now his husband the next year, on a beach in St. Croix.
I wondered, walking towards the Chapel from my room down-campus, what he would be like. I confess I am an Episcopalian, and one who, in the event of a schism, will be on his side. I confess I hoped for a hero, some dreamed-up hybrid of Cranmer and Lincoln who could stare down Savonarola, a brilliant orator and champion of his cause. And I confess I was disappointed. He comes across as a bit of a Southern nebbish—Woodrow Wilson meets Leslie Jordan. His stature is unimposing, his hair short. His voice is conversational, not commanding. He has the silly liberal air of a high school guidance counselor.
I think I cringed through the entire sermon. It was vaguely insightful, and punctuated by the occasional lazy potshot at the war, globalization, Wal-Mart. Harry Potter was not only invoked, but Book One’s Mirror of Erised played the part of lead metaphor. At one point, Robinson “forgot” the name of Harry’s best friend, and asked the audience for help. I decided I would rather not yell “Ron Weasley” at the Bishop of New Hampshire mid-Eucharist. And then slumped against the hard back of my seat. Somehow the evening’s exceptional heat came up, and he began to muse on the fans the congregation would cool itself with back when he was a kid—he “knew [he] was gay” when he realized how “tacky” they were. But he’s “come around 360º” on the issue—or is it 180º? No, he decided, he’s come around 360º on those fans. He loves them now. (No help from the pews this time.)
If I am too harsh on him, it is because the fate of the Church stands upon a knife’s edge. Robinson is a key exponent of a particular vision of the Church’s future, and as such much is riding on him. American congregations have already begun to align themselves with ultraconservative African bishops. Normally, I would relish the historical irony—the haughtiest ex-slaveowning Virginian patricians throwing themselves at the feet of Peter Akinola, a low-Church evangelical, a black Nigerian peasant. But I am all too aware that the failure of Robinson and his allies will come at the cost of the rise of an Anglicanism that accessorizes with machetes. Anyone who’s backing the Africans, framing this debate along the easy narrative of historical score-settling, as a tug-of-war between global North and South and rooting for the underdogs, is deluded. Homosexuality—let alone gay marriage—is punishable in Nigeria along a spectrum that ranges from the five-year incarceration Akinola lobbied for, to execution. This is a battle for the soul of the Church; the stakes could hardly be higher.
And it was when Robinson spoke about his African rivals during the Monday lecture that I came to realize how subtle a game he is playing. The first time he alluded to them as living “deep in the bush in Africa,” I thought I had misheard. But he kept using it, that phrase that shatters his image as the futzy, innocuous minister who’s hip to the latest p.c. bromide. To be sure, I think anyone’s allowed a retaliatory insult at a gang of philistines who think of you as a “cancerous element”—especially when, in their country, the popular remedy is a good, cathartic stoning. But it didn’t strike me as an idle swat.
I realized Robinson tries to underwhelm. He was high school valedictorian, that kid who walked around with a volume of Tillich his senior year—and he got into Princeton, after all. His is a cultivated mildness, used to defuse the too-easy narrative of “firestorms” and “polarization” and “radicals.” Robinson knows the game of radicals versus reactionaries to be a fruitless one—so he has staked out the hallowed ground of normalcy. He’s channeling Ellen Degeneres, not Larry Kramer. He is at pains to stress how unremarkable post-gay church life is in New Hampshire, how he must remind his congregations how divisive the issue is in the rest of the world. By hurrying to show a post-gay Church as a fait accompli, a non-event, he tries to preempt his critics, as if to say to them, sweetly: could you come back with threats of schism another time? We were just in the middle of our Sunday school lesson. His demeanor says: of course I don’t want to fight with you—whatever could we have to fight about? He would rather come across as a mediocrity than as a threat.
It is a risky game, though. There is undoubtedly much to fight about. Not only is the investiture of a gay bishop controversial, the Anglicans have yet to resolve their position on gay marriage, or on women. Just as divisive as Robinson is Katherine Schori, the first woman to head the Episcopal Church. Schism of the global Anglican Communion may be imminent, and so far the best idea Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has come up with is to exclude those bishops central to the controversy from the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the bishops’ summit in England that determines policy. I believe this is known as the “You’re Not Invited to My Birthday Party” theory of diplomacy.
But what does it matter? What wider relevance do the internal dramas of some Christian denomination have? Plenty—because the Anglican Church is not just any sect. Despite weighing in with fewer members than the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church, it is the state religion of the kingdom that until recently guided global affairs, and perhaps the unofficial one of the country that still does. The American republic has no religion, to be sure, and it has half as many Episcopalians as Jews. But this is the faith of a fourth of the Presidents, from George Washington to George H.W. Bush—and the one that Dubya left when he began his love affair with ersatz populism. Indeed, it is tied up with the liberal Republicanism that has until recently constituted the country’s natural ruling class. And so, while Anglican politics certainly do not dictate the global, or even American, zeitgeist, they are hardly inconsequential. The stance the Church ultimately takes on these issues will be a milestone in the history of our era.
So I came away disappointed. He didn’t offer the brilliant defense of his worldview I thought I might hear, because his strategy is to preempt those who think any argument remains to be had. The scriptural case against him rests, after all, on a handful of passages that have to be misread to give a condemnation of the modern notion of a homosexual orientation—and anyway, he’s “not interested in discussing Leviticus with anyone who’s not keeping kosher.” He’s trying an interesting gambit, and if he wins out, history may just remember him as a genius.
The first reading Sunday night was the “Quomodo sedet sola civitas” passage from Lamentations, which mourns the fall of Jerusalem. It has long been a favorite of social conservatives, as it describes the glory of the Jewish kingdom at the height of its power, and how God laid it low in punishment for its many sins. The Jerry Falwell types love it: any setback (9/11, the recession, take your pick) shows God’s displeasure at our (or more likely, your) decadence. Indeed, it is the very passage I would pick for a sermon against Gene Robinson. The irony didn’t seem to trouble the bishop, though—projecting insouciance as ever, to him “it’s a very exciting time to be alive.” But we will have to wait to see if Robinson’s investiture as the first openly-gay Episcopal bishop is, as he regards it, “the beginning of the end of patriarchy,” or the straw on the camel’s back that leads to the schism the inheritors of a broken Church will long lament.