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Bishop Gene Robinson says he is at Canterbury as a witness

Know God, acknowledge gays, he asks

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[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] He might be the most prominent uninvited guest at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, but Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson's presence at the every-decade gathering was, nonetheless, a compelling factor.

Robinson, whose long-term same-gender relationship is a source of controversy in the Anglican world, said he was in Canterbury not to protest his exclusion from the decennial gathering of Anglican bishops. He was there, rather, "to witness to the joy I know in my life because I know God and be a constant reminder to the conference that there are gay and lesbian people sitting in their pews in every country in every congregation around the world."

The meeting, which runs from July 16 to August 3, was in one sense defined by absence, as about 210 of the global Anglican Communion's 880 bishops voluntarily stayed away, many to protest the U.S. and Canada's openly liberal stance toward homosexuality.

Speaking to a news conference, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explained that he did not invite Robinson because his participation was "questionable."

Robinson was permitted to be in the Lambeth Marketplace, the conference's display and sales area, and attend two receptions hosted by Episcopal Church bishops that were specifically intended to allow him to meet colleagues from around the world. He was invited to worship and speak at several other venues in the Canterbury area, including the University of Kent's law school, and kept a blog, or Internet diary, of his experiences. 

Sitting down for an interview several days before the conference ended, Robinson said one thing he was surprised by was that "I felt the highs and lows as much as I did. I thought I was spiritually prepared, that I could shield myself from strong feelings, but being separated from my brothers and sisters [in the Episcopal Church House of Bishops] was infinitely more painful than I expected."

He was not allowed to attend his colleagues' Bible study, worship, discussion groups, study and plenary sessions. The emotions of exclusion, he said, "stirs up all of that rejection I felt as a kid, as a teenager, of not feeling a part of the guys."

Robinson said his Episcopal Church colleagues tried to keep in touch with him and let him know what was going on in their discussions about varied topics such as evangelism, interfaith relations and global poverty. "Everyone has been so welcoming, but the schedule is so packed, it's hard to find a 10-minute period," Robinson said, noting that Bishop Tom Ely of Vermont and his wife, Ann, "doggedly make time for me. [Ely's] ministry to me has been really special."

He said he longed to participate in the bishops' sessions on world social issues. "In the north country [of New Hampshire], the unemployment is sky high and alcoholism out of control and the men are taking it out on their wives. It breaks my heart not to be part of those discussions," he said.

"Even in just the brief encounters I had with people, I was dying to hear more about this or that or the other in their dioceses. I would have loved to have followed up with these Indian bishops -- what is their spiritual way of being able to articulate who they are without rancor with someone who disagrees?" he said.

The focus on sexuality meant that he was identified with only one issue. "You know how committed I am to [same-sex] issues, but when I go back, I don't want to talk about being gay for a month! I don't want it to come up," he said, smiling.

At the two receptions, held on the University of Kent campus where the conference is taking place, the program opened with a presentation on the process Episcopal Church dioceses use to elect bishops. Bishops Michael Curry of North Carolina spoke on why he consented to Robinson's consecration and Don Johnson of West Tennessee as to why he voted "no" at the 2003 General Convention.

The events also featured a short video from the people of New Hampshire who elected Robinson. "There were six continents represented at the first reception, including some people there who took a risk in coming," Robinson said. The reference was to bishops who wanted to meet him, but were from countries where senior clerics have condemned his presence.

"I was moved by a couple of bishops from the church of India, both north and south. They expressed quite clearly and forcefully that they just didn't get this, that their culture is in a different place than ours. There was no rancor and no judgment -- there it is, the holy mess we are in. They thanked me," Robinson said.

The interfaith aspect of his presence is one area, he said, that he'd like to explore further. Bishops from areas where homosexuality is against the law or culturally unacceptable have said that interfaith relations and evangelism have become harder since he was consecrated in 2003.

Robinson said he doesn't have an answer. "All I could say to the guy [at one of the receptions] was I am so, so sorry that this has made your life and your ministry harder. … But the answer is not for me to give up being who I am and it's not for the Episcopal Church to give up where it feels God is calling it. At the same I would love to have had the opportunity to sit longer with him and just sort of be with one another in that dilemma. He wasn't asking me or us to stop doing what we were doing but it was important to him to hear how that complicated his life and ministry."

Robinson -- who was interrupted by a heckler when he preached at a London church before the conference -- was accompanied by a security guard in his travels and stayed at a rented house outside of Canterbury for much of the conference. Individuals, including members of Episcopal parishes, and a foundation donated funds to pay for his security, he said, adding that neither New Hampshire nor the Episcopal Church bore any costs. 

He was able to worship each morning with an order of Franciscan brothers in Canterbury that invited him to visit. "In the mornings, I'm able to let go of the negative stuff -- just give it to God," he said.

Among the conservative voices at the conference, the primate of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, called for his resignation and Bishop Mouneer Anis, of Egypt, North African and the Horn of Africa, complained in a statement that "the revisionists … push upon us the view that current secular culture, not the Bible, should shape our mission and morals."

Robinson also said he is opposed to any proposed Anglican covenant "that has as its primary focus punishment for anyone who colors outside the lines. I don't see anything about reconciliation in it, but I understand there are people who are working to make it a covenant about theology and mission rather than discipline."

On July 24, when the Lambeth bishops were marching through London in an anti-poverty demonstration, then attending the traditional afternoon tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, Robinson was meeting with a group of HIV-positive people nearby.

"It was a coincidence. That was set up days before we knew the [Lambeth] schedule. The Cara Trust, which provides services to AIDS patients, invited me," he said. Writing on his blog, or Internet diary, called "Canterbury Tales from the Fringe," he said he was "greeted with open arms," served tea and asked to judge a "best cake" contest. "I don't know how tea with the Queen went, but I can attest that west of Buckingham Palace, there was a great tea party going on! … It was a profoundly moving experience, and one that I would not have traded for the world. The view 'from the fringe' continues to inspire, challenge, nourish and console me."

-- Solange De Santis is editor, Episcopal Life Media.

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