The Gay Bishop at the Center of the Anglican Storm

The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson on tensions in Anglican Communion and his own controversial ministry.

New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, sits in a pew at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York.

New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop.

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As the Lambeth Conference, the once-every-decade meeting of the bishops of the Anglican Communion in Canterbury, England, enters its final days, the great question remains whether the 77 million-member global federation will be able to avoid a schism.

Although he was pointedly not invited to the conference, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson has been a figure at the center of the storm ever since the openly gay clergyman was consecrated as the bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. Conservatives point to him as proof that liberal Anglicans and Episcopalians are ignoring scriptural authority—and not only on matters relating to sexuality.

Many observers see the decision of the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, to exclude Robinson from Lambeth as an attempt to defuse the anger of conservatives, many of whose congregations have broken away from their governing provinces in North America and elsewhere and reorganized themselves under African or other "Southern Cone" jurisdictions. But close to 250 bishops still decided not to attend the Lambeth gathering.

Robinson, though barred from attending official functions, has been in and around Canterbury during the conference. He spoke to U. S. News about developments at Lambeth and within the Anglican Communion. Excerpts:

You are at the center of a controversy that is threatening to divide the Anglican Communion. What do you think about your role in all of this?

I think it's important to say that there is only one side of this debate that is threatening schism. The folks who are arguing for the greater inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church are not threatening to leave. We are here to stay, and we don't want anyone else to leave. The sad part is that you can't force someone to stay who is determined to leave, and there seem to be some people who are working for schism rather than reconciliation. So it's a difficult place we find ourselves, but in the end I am hopeful because the real feeling here, among the 650 bishops who are here, is that we all want to find a way to stay together and move forward together. How did you feel about being excluded from the Lambeth Conference by the archbishop of Canterbury?

Well, you know, the conservatives throughout the communion told the archbishop of Canterbury that they would not participate if I were included, and so he acceded to their demands and excluded me from the conference and then they didn't come anyway. As is often the case with bullying, the bully never gets enough. And so unfortunately the archbishop of Canterbury was not able to purchase their participation by excluding me. It's very sad, and the exclusion has been more painful than I anticipated it would be, but I willingly have accepted the role that I've been given, and I've been on the fringes of the conference doing everything I can to witness to the love of God. Has your exclusion been a clear signal that the leadership of the Anglican Communion will tolerate no further appointments of openly gay or lesbian clergy?

No, I don't think so, because the archbishop of Canterbury doesn't have the authority to make that decision. This was a personal decision on his part for what he thought was the good of the conference. But the Anglican Communion is made up of the 38 autonomous provinces. Those decisions get made at the local, national church level. So I don't think it [his decision] signals that one way or another. There are clearly people who do not want any other gay or lesbian people made bishop. But I don't think that it is where a number of the churches will wind up—the American church, the Canadian church, the Australians, the New Zealanders, and other provinces as well. What do you make of the vague assurances of the U.S. bishops that no further provocative clergy appointments will be made?

I think it was a good-faith effort to turn the temperature down for the time being, but I fully suspect that at our next general convention in the summer of 2009 you will see the Episcopal Church saying something like, "You know, we will just have to follow God's will as we can best discern it, and we are now prepared to move forward with the consecration of any bishop that is elected within a diocese who meets qualifications. I don't think the Episcopal Church is going back on the issue [of consecrating gay and lesbian bishops].

Corrected on 7/31/08: An earlier version of this article in one reference misstated the name of Bishop Gene Robinson.