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Bishops approve Robinson
Historic vote called 'a big step' for gays and lesbians

By David Skidmore
8/6/2003
[Episcopal News Service]  A long and difficult journey, for both the church and the bishop-elect of New Hampshire, ended Tuesday evening when the House of Bishops voted to confirm the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson’s election as the next diocesan bishop of New Hampshire. The vote — 62  for and  43 against — capped a dramatic and history-making session that began with an exoneration of Robinson on charges of misconduct.

After announcing the results, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold permitted Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, among the most outspoken opponents of Robinson’s consent, to make a statement rejecting the General Convention’s action. Surrounded by 18 bishops, many of whom were signatories to the Truro statement opposing Robinson’s election, Duncan said by the bishop’s vote the Episcopal Church “has divided itself from millions of Anglican Christians around the world, brothers and sisters who have pleaded with us to maintain the church’s traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality.”

In the prepared statement, which was also read in Spanish by Bishop William Skilton, suffragan of South Carolina, the dissenting bishops said they would be calling on the primates of the other 37 provinces of the Anglican Communion, in accordance with a 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution, “to intervene in the pastoral emergency that has overtaken us.”

The Lambeth resolution (III.6) from a subcommittee on the church’s work in a plural world calls for the expansion of authority of the Primates Meeting to include “intervention in cases of exceptional emergency which are incapable of internal resolution within provinces.” It further states these responsibilities should be carried out in consulation with the provinces and the Anglican Consultative Council.

Duncan concluded by stating “we must go take counsel with our people and minister to them.”

Challenge of living in 'tension of disagreement'

In a news conference following the vote, the presiding bishop said in a written statement that the decision would bring “great joy” to some in the church while for others it “signals a crisis and reflects a departure from biblical teachings and traditional church practice.”

Griswold said he hoped the inevitable outcry would not “drown out the quieter voices” of the many persons who have yet to come to terms with what the decision means for the church.

Robinson’s confirmation, he continued, honors the search and election process of New Hampshire. The church, he said, has a long history of honoring diocesan choices of episcopal leadership.

Griswold said he in fact had voted for Robinson “because I see no impediment to assenting to the overwhelming choice of the people of New Hampshire.”

He acknowledged there would be difficult days ahead as the church addresses the question of how a faith community can live “in the tension of disagreement.” He noted that the fact “we are willing to do this work in a public way that is honoring of one another says a great deal about who we are as a community of faith.”

In the question period following in his statement, Griswold said he valued his relationship with other primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury and would be in contact with them soon. Archbishop Rowan Williams, said Griswold, is “profoundly aware” of the differing contexts within the various provinces and is sensitive to the strains within the Anglican Communion.

Archbishop of Canterbury responds

Responding to the consent, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office released a statement late Tuesday from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams who said the decision “will inevitably have a significant impact on the Anglican Communion throughout the world,” but it was too soon to predict how provinces will respond.  Williams said he hoped the Episcopal Church and the rest of the communion would have a chance to reflect more deeply on the action “before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response.”

Said Williams: “I have said before that we need as a church to be very careful about making decisions for our part of the world which constrain the church elsewhere.”

Easter out of Good Friday

Appearing before reporters after Griswold, Robinson said, “God has once again brought an Easter out of Good Friday.” Affirming his love for the Episcopal Church, Robinson said the last 36-hour period “has made me love it even more.”

Asked about the impact of the decision, Robinson called it “a huge step for gay and lesbian folk in the church.” The church has attempted to affirm this before, he noted, but by the action today it has made its position really meaningful.

Robinson, who was joined by Bishop Douglas Theuner, the present bishop of New Hampshire, and Hays Junkin, president of the diocese’s Standing Committee, said his consecration had been scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 2, at 4 p.m. in Durham, N.H. He then was joined on the dais by his partner, Mark Andrew, and daughter Ella.

Debate mirrors tone in deputies

The hour-long debate, close in spirit to the forceful but respectful arguments made in the deputies’ debate Sunday, involved 21 bishops, seven speaking against consent. Before engaging in open debate, the bishops shared reasons for and against consent in table conversations.

Bishop Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota, the first to speak, argued that Robinson’s sexual orientation was at odds with the church’s basic faith principles as expressed in Scripture and the Nicene Creed. The Apostle Paul argued in Romans that “humanity has exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped a creature rather than the creator,” said Fairfield and that homosexual activity “is a sign of this rebellion and idolatry.”

The issue before the house today, he said, “touches the deepest roots of our community, the community of love,” and must be weighed against the truth of the Nicene Creed as revealed in Scripture.

The issue of homosexuality in Scripture is not so easily settled, responded Bishop Robert Ihloff of Maryland, a member of the House of Bishops Theology Committee. In its report to the bishops meeting in Kanuga last March, the committee found significant differences for interpreting eight passages that address homosexuality, he said, acknowledging that it is not enough to disregard the passages or to assume they have no application to the church today.

“It is important to be able to grapple with the realities of the scriptures and their time,” he said, “and the effect of those scriptures as they are read today.” But it is fair to argue, he said, that the scriptures on prohibiting homosexual behavior “are not speaking to people who are identifying themselves as gay and lesbian persons by nature, because all of those scriptures were in fact written in an ancient time and assumed everyone was heterosexual.” In that era the thinking was that if someone committed homosexual acts “it was against their nature,” he noted.

The passage on Sodom and Gomorrah, he said, may be seen not as about “a group of gay men behaving badly but a group of heterosexual men behaving atrociously.” 

Trying to apply these passages against Robinson or any other gay or lesbian Christians in long-term relationships shows how complicated these issues are and how bishops “need to work with our people on the complexity of the issues and be open to a variety of interpretation.”

One of the strongest dissenting statements came from Northern Indiana Bishop Edward Little who shared how he had been overwhelmed during the Convention Eucharist procession Sunday with the thought this might be the last time he would be in procession with many of his fellow bishops. “What should have been the most glorious moment of convention for me became one of profound sadness,” he said.

If the bishops confirm Robinson, he said, “the unity of this house will be shattered forever,” and the Episcopal Church will emerge from convention “broken, wounded, divided and more desperately polarized.”

Some churches and provinces will disown the Episcopal Church forever, he warned. “We cannot abandon the teaching of the church and expect any other result,” he said.

Bishop James Jelinek of Minnesota, a supporter of consent, painted a less dire portrait of the house, emphasizing that the bishops were in agreement on their fundamental understanding of God, the creator and God’s relationship with creation. Where they part is on their understanding of what it means to be human, he said. "That’s what we’re struggling with, and I don’t think that’s enough to break communion.”

Introducing himself as “still the bishop of New Hampshire” and looking forward to retirement, Bishop Douglas Theuner said Robinson’s 28 years in New Hampshire more than qualified him to lead the diocese. “I doubt if there are many people who have ever been elected bishop who are better known than Gene Robinson,” he said.

When the vote is finally taken, he added “it will seem like Good Friday for some of us, and it will seem like Easter day for others of us. I pray that I, and all of us, can remember, that in the things that really count, that in the things in which we wish to bear witness, Easter always follows Good Friday.

Investigation exonerates Robinson

In his report to the house after the bishops spent over an hour in executive session, Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts announced he had completed his investigation and found “no necessity to pursue further investigation” and no cause for preventing bishops with jurisdiction from going forward with a vote on consent.

Scruton, who had been appointed by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold Monday to head the investigation, said he had thoroughly checked the complaint from an adult male in Manchester, Vt., as well as concerns raised by officials with the American Anglican Council over an adult-content Web site supposedly linked to an organization associated with Robinson. In both cases the charges do not warrant further inquiry, and there is “no reason” to further delay the vote on Robinson’s consent, said Scruton.

Addressing the press and gallery before Scruton delivered his report, Griswold said the bishops had spent the executive session in prayer and the ministry of reconciliation, which included a community anointing, as a way to free themselves, he said, from the “various affectivities” that have surrounded the Robinson consent and allow them the greatest degree of “interior freedom” in their debate.

The allegations of inappropriate contact stem from two encounters the complainant had with Robinson at a November 1999 Province I convocation. The complainant, David Lewis, who is married and a member of Zion Episcopal Church, said Robinson had touched him during two conversations at the province meeting, contact that Lewis described as inappropriate.

The Web site belonged to the Concord, N.H., chapter of Outright, an organization that supports gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual youth. Robinson helped found the Concord chapter but has not been active in the organization since 1998, said Scruton, and had no involvement in the development of the chapter’s Web site, which was established in 2002.

Episcopal News Service writer Richelle Thompson contributed to this story.