Gene Robinson reflects on the 20th anniversary of his consecration as the church’s first gay bishop

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Nov 1, 2023

V. Gene Robinson is applauded after his investiture as The Episcopal Church’s bishop of New Hampshire on Sunday, March 7, 2004, at St. Paul’s Church in Concord, New Hampshire. Photo: Lee Marriner/AP Photo

[Episcopal News Service] In the coming months, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the retired bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay bishop in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, will mark the 20th anniversary of his consecration as a bishop on Nov. 2, and the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on Dec. 15.

His episcopal anniversary already has been celebrated with two events – Sewanee: The University of the South, from which he received undergraduate degrees in American studies and history in 1969, awarded him an honorary doctorate on Oct. 6; and an anniversary celebration service took place at St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8.

In an interview in early October with Episcopal News Service as Robinson was approaching both events, he said he had asked those speaking to emphasize “how brave and how courageous the Diocese of New Hampshire and The Episcopal Church as a whole were, because it’s hard to remember how controversial this was in 2003, and how much the acceptance of LGBTQ people has grown in 20 years.”

Robinson is bishop-in-residence at St. Thomas’, which in September announced the creation of an endowment fund for community outreach in his honor. He also is part of the worship team at Washington National Cathedral, where he occasionally preaches and celebrates.

The New Hampshire diocesan convention’s election of Robinson as bishop coadjutor on June 7, 2003, and the 74th General Convention’s consent on Aug. 6, set off protests within The Episcopal Church and worldwide by those who opposed his ordination because of his sexuality.

In response to his election and other theological differences, some conservative Episcopal bishops and clergy led some members of their congregations and dioceses out of The Episcopal Church. The election was also one factor in rising tensions in the communion over the ordination of women and human sexuality. Conservative bishops in the Anglican Communion opposed his consecration, and Robinson was excluded from official meetings of the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Communion bishops, although he did attend as an observer.

Bishop Gene Robinson delivers remarks on Oct. 6 during the fall convocation at Sewanee: The University of the South, after being awarded an honorary doctorate. Robinson received his undergraduate degree from the university in 1969. Photo: Sewanee: The University of the South

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2006 affirmed the church’s support for gay and lesbian persons, and in 2018 it authorized trial rites for the marriage of same-gender couples. Today, The Episcopal Church has five gay and lesbian active bishops, who were elected between 2010 and 2022.

Robinson became New Hampshire’s diocesan bishop in March 2004 and served until 2013. When he resigned, or retired, as bishop, he became a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and then served as vice president of religion and senior pastor at the Chautauqua Institution. He retired in 2021.

He lives in Washington with Boxer, a dachshund he adopted during the pandemic; he is the father of two grown daughters and has two granddaughters.

Episcopal News Service’s interview with Robinson explored aspects of his life and ministry and his experiences after his consecration. Here are excerpts of that interview, which have been edited for length and clarity.

ENS: In an Aug. 13, 2023, sermon you preached at Washington National Cathedral about Jesus calming the storm, you mentioned that you knew something about storms, which I took to refer to attacks you have encountered through the years. Do those still happen?

Bishop Gene Robinson: I got my first death threat before I got home on the day of my election, and they would continue to come in fairly regularly for the first couple of years at least, and from time to time over the course of my episcopate. So, it was quite a storm.

After my election, a person sent me a picture of a hurricane out in the Atlantic, enormous, swirling around. And in the center was this tiny spot of completely clear blue, and it became an image I used in my prayer life. And when I wrote my first book, I called it “In the Eye of the Storm,” and then had to fight the publisher for the subtitle, which was “Swept to the Center by God.”

I wanted to make the point that I would not have been able to do all this without God’s help. If I’ve been able to maintain some kind of calm in the midst of the storm, it’s because God has taken me there.

ENS: How has God’s presence manifested itself to you in that raging storm?

Robinson: I have come to believe that God loves me beyond my wildest imagination, and that absolutely no one can take that away from me. That God has laid claim to me, and God is never going to let go. The things that have been said about me are small potatoes in comparison.

ENS: Do you have any thoughts about the origin of not just the disapproval, but sometimes apparent hatred, directed toward you?

Robinson: The thing that allowed me to treat my detractors with as much grace as I could muster, is that the people against my consecration were only acting on what we taught them. So, it’s hard to be critical of someone who believes the way you taught them to believe. We taught people to condemn people like me. So, when you’re trying to change that, it’s no wonder that there’s resistance, fierce resistance. I tried to be cognizant of that.

ENS: You were the only gay bishop in the Anglican Communion in 2008, when the Lambeth Conference took place, and you were not invited. Do I recall you saying that the fate of the communion couldn’t rest on your shoulders?

Robinson: I don’t recall saying that exactly, but everyone, especially the media, was trying to get me to take responsibility for that. And I kept saying, I’m doing my little part, which is to discern God’s will for me as best I can and live it out as fully as I can; and that’s what I’m responsible for. What The Episcopal Church does with it, what the Anglican Communion does with it, are not my responsibility. I kept tenaciously refusing to take the blame, because all those people had a choice to make, and they made their choice – I didn’t make it for them.

ENS: Is it hard to pray for people when they speak out against you?

Robinson: It’s so hard. But they got taught this hate somewhere. You don’t even have to be a church person to learn this. I helped start a group back in the late ’90s for teenagers who thought themselves to be gay or lesbian. One night I asked some of them how many had grown up in a church or synagogue, and not a single one of them had. Then I asked, what do you think God thinks of you? And every single one of them said the word “abomination.” Now, where did they get that? It’s literally in the air. They couldn’t have found Leviticus [18:22] in the Bible for all the money in the world, and yet they knew that word, and that’s what they thought God thought of them.

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson listens during a meeting of the House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in August 2003. Photo: Jim Mone/AP Photo

ENS: At the Lambeth Conference in 2022, there were four gay and lesbian bishops from The Episcopal Church and two from Canada. Unlike you in 2008, they were invited, but their spouses were not. Is this progress?

Robinson: When you’re in an interim period, when people are changing their minds about something major, you go through all kinds of iterations that you would never be satisfied staying in. It’s one of the steps in getting where you need to be. So, on the one hand, I thought it was progress.

But the archbishop of Canterbury, no matter who it is, has seemed to have the gift of making no one happy. I would like to say to Justin Welby – and I do think his heart is in the right place – now you’ve got everybody mad at you. You’ve got those who feel positively about gay people angry that you didn’t go far enough, and for the people who want us condemned, you went too far. And at least you could have made one side happy or the other. But you created the worst of both worlds.

ENS: Back in February 2021, there was some controversy because Max Lucado had been invited to preach at Washington National Cathedral, with people noting anti-LGBTQ+ statements he had made some years before. During that service, you offered some remarks defending the cathedral’s decision, in which you said that those who favor inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, not only in the church but in the world, had won. But we now are seeing an increase in attacks in this country on LGBTQ+ people, especially trans people and trans children. Does it feel like that victory is being kind of pushed back a little bit?

Robinson: You know, when we’re in this transition period, we have to give people room to change. I mean, Max Lucado made some horrific statements about us in 2004. But I’m not sure I would be bound by everything that I said in 2004. It seems to me that we can write someone off because of something they said a long time ago and never even check in to see if they’ve changed their mind. And I was just arguing for a bit of graciousness.

What I actually meant was a little bit like, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. That sounds like it’s inevitable. I believe it is, but it is not linear. We do not only make progress and more progress and then we’re there. We make progress and we experience a setback, and then we make more progress. It’s a zigzag line.

On Oct. 29, Washington National Cathedral dean the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith presented Bishop Gene Robinson with a pinnacle from the cathedral’s central tower to mark his upcoming anniversaries. Photo: Facebook/Washington National Cathedral

ENS: I saw in a Smithsonian Channel documentary that you have donated the vestments you wore at your consecration to the Smithsonian. Have you donated anything else?

Robinson: First, it’s an incredible honor that the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History wants all my writings and artifacts. I’m going to be giving them my vestments, and I’ve already given them my crozier. And then I was going back to New Hampshire, which is the only place I can carry a crozier – you don’t carry a crozier in someone else’s diocese – so I asked them if I could borrow it back and they said no – the moment you turn it over to us, it is our solemn responsibility to preserve it for the American people.

It is a lovely and humbling thing, to think that an institution like the Smithsonian understands what the people of New Hampshire and The Episcopal Church did in 2003, and the effect it has had not just on The Episcopal Church and other Christian denominations, but on people all over the United States, as well as many around the world.

ENS: What do you like to do for fun?

Robinson: I try to stay healthy, and that turns out to be fun. I’m a big walker, and Washington is a walking city. I go for weeks without ever using my car. I love the theater, and I love music. I love to travel. I have a travel buddy, my best friend from New Hampshire, and last year we went to Nepal and Bhutan, and this November we’re going to Africa for two weeks. Last year I also went to Iceland.

ENS: Do you have a sense of what you hope your legacy will be?

Robinson: At the moment, I consider my best legacy to be the five gay and lesbian bishops we have elected since my election. I’m so proud of them, and I’m so appreciative of them. They called me almost every day during the most recent Lambeth Conference, just to say, “we’re thinking of you, and we can’t imagine you doing this by yourself in 2008.” I consider them and those who follow me my greatest legacy – not that they got elected because of anything I’ve done, but the opportunity to be elected is obviously connected to me, and I am so proud of that.

I guess ultimately, I would see myself in the same way as people who are opening up the church to people of color, to immigrants and migrants and asylum-seekers, people who are opening up the church to be inclusive in all kinds of ways that we would not have considered earlier. I’m just proud to be one of those many efforts to open up the church and get it to love all of God’s children the way God does.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.