Gay Bishop: 'Being Honest'

Bishop Robinson Speaks To <B>Ed Bradley</B>

Last March, Gene Robinson took his place as the ninth Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, becoming the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom.

It set off a crisis that threatens to tear apart this influential Protestant denomination. There are more than two million Episcopalians in America, and worldwide there are 75 million in what is known as the Anglican Communion.

Many of these cannot accept a practicing homosexual as a church leader. That puts Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two living in a long-term relationship with his partner, at Ground Zero in the continuing debate over how far society is willing to go in accepting homosexuality.

Correspondent Ed Bradley reports on this story that first aired last spring.

Robinson has been called the most dangerous man in the Anglican Church. Does he think it's true?

"As an openly gay man, I'm not way out there. I'm not something odd and unusual. I think I'm probably dangerous because I'm pretty mainstream," says Robinson. "I've got a mainstream family. I believe in the church. I believe in God, and I'm only dangerous because I'm not weird."

Why does he consider his family mainstream? "I would call it mainstream because we care deeply about each other," says Robinson. "And if you come into our home, you see a Christian family-valued household."

For 16 years, Robinson has lived with his partner, Mark Andrew, a state health official. "Our relationship is one of mutual support, love, care -- making a place for another person in your heart, the way a marriage ought to be," says Robinson.

And he sees no contradiction between being a bishop and being a practicing homosexual in a committed relationship. In fact, he is open about his lifestyle.

On a recent trip to New York, he stopped at a gay bar with his daughter and a friend for after-theater drinks. "I'm not embarrassed about being a gay man. I'm not embarrassed about being in a place with other gay folk," says Robinson.

He believes God is doing something new – leading the Church and society to a greater acceptance of homosexuals. "I think God is meaning for gay and lesbian folk to have a full, whole, and complete life - both as citizens of this country and as members of the church," says Robinson.

But a lot of Episcopalians don't agree with Robinson. When his election was submitted for confirmation at their national convention last summer, it touched off a civil war.

But when the votes were counted, Robinson had the majority, and that triggered a walkout by conservatives.

How does he respond to those who say that what he openly practices, homosexuality, is a sin?

"Well, in the eyes of some in my church, it's a sin. And in the eyes of others in my church, it's not," says Robinson. "And one of the great things about the Anglican tradition and the Episcopal church in particular is that we have always disagreed about various and sundry issues, and yet come together around the altar rail."

Robinson has been behind the altar rail for 30 years - the last 28 in New Hampshire, where for 17 years he was assistant to the bishop. He says he was called by God to be a bishop.

His mission, he says, is to challenge his congregations – and to reach out to those on the margins of society.

Robinson knows what it's like to be an outsider. He was born in a small town near Lexington, Ky. His father was a sharecropper, and he grew up in a conservative and religious atmosphere.

"From an early age, I knew that I was different, that I was reacting to girls or to pictures in a Playboy differently than other boys," says Robinson. "I also realized that I'd better keep it a secret."

He kept his secret until he entered General Theological Seminary in New York in 1970, where he had his first homosexual relationship. After two years of therapy, in 1974, he married Isabella Martin after telling her about his relationships with men. They had two daughters in 12 years of marriage.
But in 1986, at the age of 39, he came out to his bishop, and got a divorce. "It was a very difficult time in my life, and I thought I might lose everything," says Robinson. "At night, I would go to bed and all I would have was my integrity and God. And what I learned from that was that it was just enough."

And it was just enough to get him through telling his parents that not only was he getting divorced, but that he was also gay. He described his father's reaction to the truth.

"It wasn't so much the words. It was sort of the look in his eye, about what a disgusting and horrid thing that would be," recalls Robinson. "It was an awful moment. And yet, it's part of my faith to believe that the only way you get through Easter is through some Good Fridays. And this was a Good Friday for me."

Last November, 18 years after that awful moment, 3,500 people gathered at a New Hampshire hockey rink for Robinson's historic consecration. There was opposition, and security was tight. Demonstrators protested outside.

Because of numerous death threats, Robinson wore a bulletproof vest under his robes and was flanked by bodyguards, one disguised as a priest.

The traditional ceremony includes an opportunity for opponents to object: "We must not proceed with this terrible and unbiblical mistake, which will not only rupture the Anglican communion, it will break God's heart."

In a practice dating back to the apostles, the bishops laid their hands on Robinson, officially blessing him as a bishop.

"The love spilling out of that place was phenomenal. You would've had to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to have felt it, to experience it. So it was a wonderful moment for me," says Robinson.

What message does he think his consecration sent to the world? "That there is no one beyond God's love, that all of us are children of God, and are welcome in this church of ours," says Robinson.

"It has had a devastating effect on the world family, the Anglican communion," says Robin Eames, the Anglican archbishop of Ireland.

Eames is chairman of a commission studying how to prevent a substantial number of Anglican churches from leaving over Robinson's consecration. He says that many church leaders, known as primates, especially those from developing countries, find homosexuality incompatible with the Bible.

"Despite the warning of the primates, and despite the warnings that were coming to us from various parts of the Anglican communion that this would cause division, America decided this was within their culture, within their legal position to go ahead and do it," says Eames.

But some churches in America, including the Church of the Redeemer in Robinson's own backyard, reject his consecration and are preparing to split from the Episcopal church.

Why does his sexuality matter in his role as a bishop?

"It has to do with him living an amoral lifestyle and being a leader. I don't expect the chief of police to be a bank robber. I don't expect the chief of the fire department to be an arsonist," says Lisa Ball. "If he's going to hold a higher office, he's going to be held to a higher moral structure. He's the head of a church, for God's sake."

"He's caused such tremendous heartache in this little church alone. I mean, and we've been together for a long time. We've buried people together. We've had babies born together," says Cathy Lewis. "I mean, you know, it's a family. And it's being ripped apart because of the election of Gene Robinson."

A week after Robinson's consecration, Redeemer's acting minister, Father Don Wilson, who's been a pastor for 47 years, was fired for refusing to accept Robinson's authority as bishop.

"I've never been in trouble before," says Wilson.

"Whatever your feelings about him, here's a man who has been legally consecrated," Bradley tells Wilson. "He says that your oath requires you to accept his authority."

"That's strange isn't it, because the first part of my oath was the authority of scripture. The second part of the oath was to teach it. And the third part of the oath was to protect the people from strange and erroneous doctrines," says Wilson. "Then way down the list it says, 'Be subject to the bishops, their godly judgments and godly admonitions.' And I didn't find any in him."

What advice would he have to other congregations around the country who don't agree with the Robinson's consecration?

"Stand. Just don't accept it. Take a stand against it. Do not cooperate with it. Do not support it. Do not recognize it," says Wilson.

"He can't not recognize the authority of the bishop," says Robinson. "Well, give me a little time, and I'm going to win them over."

What does he say about the many conservative Episcopalians who are threatening to leave the church? "I hope that that kind of split does not happen, but you know, I can't make those decisions for those people," says Robinson. "If they mean to leave, I can't stop them from leaving."

Some of them are joining a new network created by the American Anglican Council, a group of conservative Episcopalians. But most are staying.

And Robinson is doing all he can to win over those who still haven't made up their minds.

"I think it will calm down when people see that not a lot has changed. Let's be clear. We've always had gay bishops. All I'm doing is being honest about it," says Robinson.

"If I went away, if I did step down, do you really think other qualified, faithful, gay and lesbian folks, wouldn't be nominated and elected? … It's not all going to go back to being nice and pretty again. It's going to be messy for a while."

Does he have any second thoughts? "Not one. I don't need to go through this. But I've chosen to go through this - because God is at my side," says Robinson.

"A priest in the diocese here brought me a small piece of calligraphy, and it said: 'Sometimes God calms the storm and sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms his child.' That's what God's been doing for me."

Members of the Church of the Redeemer in Rochester, N.H., are still refusing to accept Bishop Robinson's authority. They are asking to be overseen by a bishop other than Robinson.

Meanwhile, eight Episcopal dioceses have joined the new network created by the American Anglican Council. And criticism of Bishop Robinson's consecration has grown in more than half of the 38 Anglican provinces around the world -- including two that have broken off all relations with the American church.