Two weeks ago, a very special woman appeared in Gene Robinson’s life.
His first granddaughter.
Robinson said Morgan Isabella’s birth on July 20 momentarily muted the voices escalating around his recent election as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church — a move that has sent ripples through the Anglican Communion.
“I got to hold [my granddaughter] before I came here,” said Robinson, who went to college aspiring to be a pediatrician. “It helps me remember what is really important — to stay grounded.”
Keeping feet firmly planted on solid earth remains a challenge as Friday morning’s hearing on the wider church’s consent to his election fast approaches, Robinson said. The New Hampshire bishop-elect said at times he feels less like a unique individual than the embodiment of an issue to both supporters and foes.
He said he also takes some of the stinging opposition personally: “Part of [the controversy] is about an issue, but part of it is also about me. We are an incarnation of people. Jesus didn’t come [to Earth] as a man, he came as a particular man; and it’s not just a gay person who has been elected a bishop, but a particular gay person.”
Amid all the speculation and accusations, Robinson is looking to the Gospel for inspiration.
“My goal for myself is a little bit based on last Sunday’s Gospel reading, which is where the disciples are caught in a storm and Jesus comes walking to them on the sea and gets in the boat with them and things become serene and peaceful,” Robinson said. “I am trying to keep myself in the serene eye of the storm with all the swelling around me.”
But with protestors railing and supporters rallying, feelings of serenity can quickly give way to despair. Robinson, accompanied at the convention center by a bodyguard, media consultant and one of his two daughters, hardly has a moment to show pictures of his new granddaughter.
Robinson said his mantra is “Psalm 27, which talks about my enemies gathering around me to eat up my flesh.”
While some detractors have congregated in Minneapolis, toting signs, fliers and pamphlets bearing antigay and anti-Robinson messages, the 56-year-old bishop-elect said one of his goals at this convention is to “sing the Lord’s song” - not his own - through the din of those who wish to silence him.
“When I get asked questions ... I want to find a way of pointing to God, rather than pointing to me,” Robinson said. “It seems to me that whatever it means to be Christlike, that is part of it.
“The sexual orientation piece of my story is secondary to what I’m interested in: my call from God and my call from the people of New Hampshire,” he said. “That’s really what I want to do; while the focus is on me, on the sexuality issue, I want to use that to tell my story about God.”
That narrative began in his youth, where the ministers at the Disciples of Christ church he attended introduced him to the ideas of notable theologians such as Paul Tillich. Robinson said he grew especially close to the ministers in the “small, struggling world parish.”
Robinson went to college at Sewanee, the University of the South, where enrolled with a view to becoming a pediatrician.
But he changed his plans soon after perceiving a call to the priesthood and to the Episcopal Church.
“Although I wanted to be a pediatrician my whole life, I immediately realized that I was drawn to the people of medicine and not to the science of medicine, and then I began to experience this call to the ordained ministry in college,” he said.
As he was changing his life plans, Robinson said he “fell in love with the Episcopal Church,” and was confirmed as an Episcopalian on Easter of his final year of college.
Although he is at the apex of a controversy that has incited comment from both the pope and the president, Robinson comes to General Convention to follow issues he is passionate about.
Wednesday’s hearings about incorporating the Puerto Rico and Venezuela dioceses into the Episcopal Church resonate strongly with Robinson, who led the committee that explored the possibility of the incorporation. He also supports creating a formal network of people who guard the church against sexual abuse by clergy.
But when the exhibit hall clears out and Episcopalians begin their journeys home, many suspect that the issue that will leave the most indelible impression is the result of his consent hearing.
Even if Robinson does not become the next bishop of New Hampshire, he said his consent process has been humbling - in a positive way.
“I got a letter from a woman in a state women’s prison who wrote me to say, ‘I’m neither gay nor am I Episcopal, but your election makes me believe that there is a community out there that could love me despite what I’ve done.’
“I’m just finding all kinds of people who have either been excluded or felt excluded for all kinds of reasons,” Robinson said. “My election gives them hope that there might be a church that could welcome them with open arms.”