A More Perfect Union

The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson is the most dangerous bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Witnessing a man of such quiet dignity and humble beginnings join in civil union with his partner Mark Andrew this past weekend, one could easily miss this critical trait.

But Robinson, a man I have known personally for many years, is indeed dangerous, as the openness with which he lives his life presents an implicit challenge to an Anglican Communion whose center of gravity has been shifting, both geographically and theologically, for quite some time.

The firestorm ignited by the church’s first openly gay, non-celibate priest reached a pitch when Robinson’s future as a bishop was first confirmed back in the summer of 2003. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams promptly released a statement anticipating potentially catastrophic consequences: “It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response.”

Shortly after his ordination in November, a group of nineteen bishops led by Robert Duncan responded by warning of an impending schism. It took less than two months for Duncan to then launch the “Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes” (also known as the “Anglican Communion Network” or ACN), an innocuously named conservative action group whose raison d’etre seems to be opposition to gays in the Anglican Communion (as well as relief and development outreach to the global south, home to both the largest concentration of Episcopalians and, not inconsequentially, the most conservative). Since its launch in early 2004, the ACN appears to confine its work largely to conferences and press releases surrounding relevant legislation, but little more.

Sitting in St. Paul Episcopal Church in Concord, NH with more than 120 family and friends, I saw a man who for years, with indefatigable zeal, had testified before legislative committees for legal civil unions in New Hampshire. He can now do so with his partner of 20 years.

After the civil union procession had assembled at the back of the church I witnessed, along with Robinson’s and Andrew’s family and friends, the solemnizing of their civil union by the Justice of the Peace:

Welcome to all of you who have come to support Gene and Mark in their joining together in civil union… You have stood by them and supported them in these last few years when on this very day and in this very place, five years ago, their life together changed forever, with Gene’s election as Bishop. They are grateful beyond words to you, and welcome you as you witness their commitment to one another and their legal joining in civil union.

Five years ago at St. Paul’s an historic moment in the Anglican Communion took place, but so too began Robinson’s nightmare of biblical proportions. “I plan to be a good bishop, not a gay bishop. I’m so much more than my sexual orientation,” Robinson told the Associated Press upon his ordination.

From that historic first step, to last weekend’s ceremony, to next month’s gathering, Gene Robinson’s life has come to represent not just one man’s choices, but a symbol over which a global community grapples.

The Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of archbishops and bishops united in Anglican brotherhood of the Church’s mostly white male club of heterosexual power brokers, remains preoccupied with Robinson’s sexual orientation. This core group upholds 1998’s controversial Lambeth Conference resolution which states that homosexuality is contrary to the teaching of Scripture, a resolution craftily brokered by a minority of conservative clerics in the Episcopal Church, USA, as their firewall against Robinson.

The conference is scheduled to convene again next month but Robinson won’t be in attendance as he has not been invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury. When a fellow bishop queried Robinson on the appropriateness of scheduling his civil union just prior to the conference, Robinson, knowing that no date in the worldwide Anglican Communion’s calendar would be appropriate, told the Church of England Newspaper:

“Now I am being accused of intentionally poking a finger in Lambeth’s eye by scheduling the service in June. But if we’d waited until after Lambeth to announce our intentions, I’d be just as severely criticised for having been disingenuous and secretive about the civil union to assure an invitation to Lambeth. There is no time when our civil union will be acceptable to many in the Anglican Communion. But I will not be irresponsible to the partner and love of my life just to avoid giving offense.”

The Lambeth Conference has always been a club deeply concerned with who’s in and who’s out. But is the Church’s potential schism really about the theological rift that ensued after the consecration of Robinson? Or, is the brouhaha really about a church embattled with itself about how to be financially solvent and theologically relevant in today’s national and global competitive religious marketplace?

“In 10 years, when African bishops come to the microphone at this conference, we will be so numerous and influential that you will have to recognize us,” said Joseph Adetiloye, a retired official with the church in Nigeria, at the 1978 Lambeth Conference, according to The New Yorker.

While the United States has approximately 2.2 million Episcopalians today, the center of Anglican gravity is neither here where Robinson resides nor in Britain with the Archbishop, but in Africa just as Adetiloye predicted. The approximately three million members in Kenya and nine million in Uganda do not begin to approach the 20 million in Nigeria, making Peter Akinola, Nigeria’s archbishop, one of the most influential men in the entire Anglican Communion and a fierce opponent of gays. Where Lambeth could once summarily dismiss the voices of bishops from Third World countries, as was clearly the case at the 1978 conference, it can no longer do so; their numbers are overwhelmingly important to the life of the Anglican Communion.

Given this demographic reality and its political ramifications, there’s little reason to believe that a resolution awaits the Communion at next month’s conference.

Meanwhile, Robinson and Andrew face the ongoing fallout with class and resolve. Questioned, challenged and criticized so often about the openness of his civil union in the months that preceded it, Robinson chose to include the answer in his new book, In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God:

But why not just make it a “private” service—a solution offered by some in the Anglican Communion? But “private blessing” is an oxymoron. Although our service will be by invitation only, and out of sight of the press, our understanding of marriage is that the couple make their vows public, in the presence of the gathered community, seeking the community’s prayers and assistance in being faithful to those vows.

To relegate the blessing of a marriage to a private, secretive venue is to violate its very nature. When I was growing up I could never have imagined same-sex couples being “out,” never mind being married or partners in a civil union.

When it came time for the “Prayers of the People” in Saturday’s service, the Celebrant spoke hopefully:

I ask your prayers for Gene and Mark: for their life together, that they may be filled with God’s blessing and grow in love for each other in faithfulness throughout their life together. Pray for Gene and Mark.