Fifteen years ago, newly elected bishop Gene Robinson rocked the church boat

  • Gene Robinson is introduced as bishop in Durham. AP

  • Bishop Gene Robinson, in miter, smiles Sunday Nov. 2, 2003 in Durham, N.H., following consecration services. Robinson is the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) JIM COLE—Monitor file

  • FILE - In this May 1, 2005, file photo, Bishop Gene Robinson addresses the congregation at Christ Church in Philadelphia, Sunday, May 1, 2005. Robinson, now retired, said he is breathless about how quickly the gay rights movement has progressed since he was getting daily death threats and forced to wear a bulletproof vest to his consecration 12 years ago. Episcopalians are set to vote Wednesday, July 1, 2015, on allowing religious weddings for same-sex couples, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. (AP Photo/Coke Whitworth, File) Coke Whitworth—Monitor file

  • Bishop Hirschfeld was elected bishop coadjutor May 19, 2012 on the first ballot. He was consecrated the tenth Bishop of New Hampshire August 4, 2012, and installed at St. Paul’s Church, Concord, January 5, 2013. This was from his consecration in 2012 at the Capitol Center for the Arts. Former Bishop Gene Robinson, second from left, was part of consecration with other bishops. Geoff Forester—Monitor file

  • The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold III places his hands on the head of Gene Robinson as bishops gather during the 2003 consecration in Durham. The event capped a tumultuous period for the church and religious communities across the globe. Top: Robinson in 2003. AP file

  • Retiring N.H. Bishop Douglas Theuner, holding a cane at the top of the stairs, joins other bishops in proceeding down the stairs on the way to the ceremony inside the Whittemore Center in November of 2003. DAN HABIB / Monitor file

  • The Rev. Gene Robinson was the central figure of a controversial Ordination and Consecration ceremony at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center in Durham on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2003. Robinson socialized with Episcopal bishops and others from around the world before the ceremony in a private function area. DAN HABIB / Monitor file

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/22/2018 11:49:00 PM

Gene Robinson and his partner wondered about their windows.

Their home in Weare, all wood and glass, had no curtains, making them easy targets during a dangerous time. Robinson had recently been named the world’s first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Death threats came in, and, suddenly, those big windows looked even bigger. Huge even.

“We asked if we should buy bed sheets and put them over the windows because we could have been shot through any window,” Robinson told me last week by phone. “God felt indescribably close, and God never promises us to take away pain and danger. God just promises to be with us, and I never felt his presence any more dramatically than at that time.”

That was 15 years ago. Robinson turned the church upside down, garnering praise for his courage and passion to enact change, but causing many conservative Episcopalians to jump ship, harshly criticize and even mention bodily harm.

Homosexuality was a sin in many religious corners. What about 2000 years of tradition and scripture?

As the election process continued and word got out about the gay man of God, the man with a life partner who he’d later marry, the man who sought to make history, media from around the world took notice.

In Minneapolis, where the final vote was taken, the usual number of media passes issued for the convention was 12, maybe 15. This time, in August 2003, there were more than 450.

Photojournalists aimed their cameras at Robinson, who, after receiving death threats, never knew if the barrel of a gun had blended in with all those lenses. Robinson wore a bulletproof vest and was escorted in through the back of the convention center.

“It’s hard to believe that was 15 years ago,” Robinson said. “I was getting death threats, and it’s amazing how much the world has changed. My election and my consecration were supposed to be the end of Qestern civilization as we knew it, or at least the end of the Anglican Church community. So far we’re holding up okay.”

Robinson, far from the stress and chaos of that time, can joke these days. He retired as bishop in 2013 and now at 71 lives within walking distance of the White House. He’s in his second year working as the vice president of religions and pastor for the Chautauqua Institution, which furthers adult learning in religion, the arts, education and recreation.

Robinson has declared every Friday to be Interfaith Friday. He brings individuals from nine faiths, including evangelical Christians, orthodox rabbis, Muslims and Hindus, together in a single forum, asking them various questions in an attempt to break down barriers, humanizing personalities, opening eyes and souls to a more tolerant world and smashing stereotypes.

He does this so “people could become aware of how those faiths would approach each question,” Robinson told me. “The older I get, the more I try to be humble about my own place in the universe and my place in the faith universe. A great many terrible things have happened in the name of church and religion, and the interfaith work is an effort to see individuals in the context of humankind.”

That’s who he is and always has been. That’s the part of Robinson that sought something better, something honorable, something that ran so counter to the status quo that it caused tremors within the church.

Maeve Blackman of Chichester sat on the board that interviewed candidates for bishop 15 years ago. She remembered Robinson at St. Paul’s Church and his confidence about what he wanted and his ability to relate to anyone and everyone.

“Gene was sitting on the floor and talking about his call to the priesthood,” Blackman said. “It was such a huge leap. He could listen to whatever people were thinking and would not jump in with both feet with preconceived notions.”

David Jones was the rector at St. Paul’s for 16 years and was there the year his good friend made history. He was co-chair of the committee that nominated candidates for bishop and said the homegrown boy’s sexuality was known and never an issue. Elsewhere, though, in other states, things were different.

“It’s hard to remember how shocking that was to a lot of people,” Jones told me. “We were aware of (his sexuality) and it was not an issue, and that was not true of everyone else.”

Indeed not.

Robinson relayed a story from 2009, the one about the call he received from the Vermont State Police.

A man driving through Vermont, unable to harness his fury, had shot out the windows of an empty cop car. When police arrested him they found a sawed-off shotgun, a map to Robinson’s home in Weare and a photo of Robinson and his partner with the words “Save the church, kill the bishop,” scrawled on it.

According to Robinson, the police told him “we are pretty sure he was on his way to your house and was going to ring your doorbell and blow your head off.”

Robinson chose to keep that story to himself until now, fearful that some copycat might have emerged from the shadows to try the same thing.

By the time of the incident, however, Robinson had long played his hand, called society’s bluff, keeping on the path he had created decades before.

“The death threats became part of my life, and it just shows the depth with which we have taught discrimination,” Robinson said. “So it was not surprising, but it was challenging, and we had to decide if we were going to let those threats ruin our lives or proceed with what we felt was right, and whatever happened, happened.”

Looking back, Robinson said he was dismayed that his appointment as bishop created divisiveness within his church. He expected it, though, as a gay man who cited “Christian arrogance” for the narrow Jesus-or-bust vision of God and lack of tolerance for other religions.

I asked if he knew someone who had rebelled against his appointment and Robinson said, “No one comes to mind. I would not be opposed to naming them if I could think of them, and it’s sad to think I can’t, because a lot of those people have come back, and at the end of the day nothing has changed for them.”

And with that, Robinson shoved a piece of reality in my face, asking me if I knew that 29 states still lack legislative protections for gays in housing, jobs and public accommodations.

He mentioned Alabama, Idaho and Montana. He said nothing will change in those states without federal anti-discrimination measures. I told Robinson I had no idea protections were not nationwide, and he told me, “You are in a vast majority who think we are done. It does not seem possible and many people think it’s not true, so it’s important to get the message out to say we are far from done.”

But then, like a long rally in tennis, Robinson smacked the ball back over the net, praising his home state for its progressive emotions when so many across the country saw him as a pariah. Here, Robinson said, only a handful of church members left. Outside the state, the numbers were far greater.

“He kind of shamed the Roman Catholic Church with not accepting gay people,” said Rejean Blanchette of Concord, a gay rights advocate who was glued to the TV 15 years ago. “They were trying to prevent gay people from joining the seminary. It was only 15 years ago, but the changes the church has gone through since then are amazing.”

Robinson was front-page news around the world in 2003, and he cherished the fact that when the Lutheran Church elevated an openly gay man – who also happened to be Native American – to bishop in Los Angeles five years ago, there was hardly a peep.

And that sat fine with Robinson.

“That was a fantastic thing,” Robinson said. “It was hardly noteworthy, and it did not signal the end of the world as we knew it.”




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