This article was written by Stephen Bates, Simon Hoggart, Lyn Gardner and Gareth McLean and appeared in The Guardian on July 15, 2008.
Preaching to the converted
Gene Robinson is the Anglican church's only openly gay bishop. He was denied an invitation to this week's Lambeth conference but came anyway and on Sunday gave a dramatic sermon in London disrupted by heckling. What's all the fuss about? Stephen Bates explains, while political sketch-writer Simon Hoggart, theatre critic Lyn Gardner and gay atheist Gareth McLean review the bishop's performance.
On Sunday evening, a lone campaigner stood outside St Mary's church, Putney. Stephen Green, a haggard and unshaven figure, obsessed and weighed down by the wickedness of modern Britain, handed out leaflets warning of the consequences of same-sex love, while announcing to anyone who would listen: "Homosexuality and sexual immorality is all on a continuum with paedophilia, bestiality, adultery, child-sacrifice. You are saying it is all OK."
The Right Rev Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, is used to people like Green. Ever since he was elected - not chosen as in the Church of England, but democratically elected by his parishioners in one of the most rock-solid conservative states in the US - he has faced similar demonstrations.
At his consecration in New Hampshire in November 2003, he was required to wear a bullet-proof vest, as was his partner, Mark Andrew, and the presiding bishop, Frank Griswold. Outside, demonstrators bore placards bearing the loving message "God hates fags" and inside, an elderly priest called Earle Fox stepped forward to denounce gay sexual practices in considerable detail and with no little relish. "It breaks my heart to do this," he insisted unctuously.
The irony is that, but for Robinson's openness about his sexual orientation and his long-term association with his partner, the most controversial bishop in the world today would be regarded by fellow Christians as entirely orthodox and unexceptional. He is not the only gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican communion, of course - there are understood to be two in the Church of England, at least one with a partner, and two of the 38 primates of the worldwide denomination - but Robinson's sin is to admit it; and to refuse the calls of conservative evangelicals to repent.
This is not to mention the hundreds of gay clergy - some active, some celibate - in the church and all denominations, in Britain and around the world. Robinson is staying with two of them in London during his current visit.
Without such partnerships, the established church in many areas, particularly the inner cities and especially in London, would probably cease to function. Most of them, it hardly needs saying, keep quiet about it - so deep in the closet, it is said, that they are almost in Narnia. Their bishops turn a blind eye too, even as they accept their invitations to dine, or quietly attend their civil partnerships.
Alone among the episcopate however, Robinson has made no secret of his homosexuality and, because of his orientation, he alone of all the world's 800 Anglican bishops has been denied an invitation by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to attend this week's Lambeth conference.
About a quarter of the world's bishops are now declining to attend the gathering, not because Robinson will be there, hovering around the fringes, but because some of the other American bishops who attended his consecration and accordingly laid hands upon him will be going.
Robinson is discouraged from preaching while in Britain, but in addition to last Sunday's sermon, he will be attending gatherings of pro-gay and liberal Anglicans, will speak at a fringe meeting outside the Lambeth conference - so bishops can see what a gay Anglican looks like - and last night addressed a meeting that was co-hosted by Sir Ian McKellen at Queen Elizabeth Hall. To many Anglicans, not only gays, he is a hero.
Under Williams, an archbishop who in a past life preached that faithful gay partnerships might be more life-enhancing and loving than some abusive heterosexual ones, but who now keeps largely silent on the matter, worldwide Anglicanism is threatened with a split of historic proportions over a stance of most unheroic hypocrisy.
Small, neat and instinctively friendly, Robinson preaches an impeccably Anglican message of hope and charity - indeed, he is probably one of the most evangelical, Bible-believing, of American bishops. He has come a long way from a childhood as the son of poverty-stricken tobacco sharecroppers in rural Kentucky. He was so ill at birth that he was not expected to survive and was rapidly Christened Vicki Gene - after his father Victor and his mother Imogene. (His parents had been convinced the baby would be a girl and in their rush to name the child, apparently stuck to their original plan. Naturally, his conservative opponents usually spell out his names, presumably to emphasise his supposed effeminacy.)
Something else that his conservative opponents often stress is the lie that he left his wife for his partner, as a way of demonstrating their contention that gays are promiscuous and untrustworthy. In fact, Robinson tried very hard to live the heterosexual life that conservative Christians insist gay people should. He was married for 15 years to his wife Isabella and the couple had two daughters, even though he already knew he was gay. He underwent lengthy counselling.
Eventually Isabella met someone else and the couple divorced, holding a church service, handing back their rings, apologising to each other and pledging to bring up the children together, before they finally separated. Robinson met Andrew only some years later. His former wife supported his candidacy to become a bishop and she and their daughters have frequently spoken on his behalf.
There are those who claim that Robinson should have no role in the church, should never have been ordained and should certainly never be allowed to preach. One such, Dr Christopher Knight of Orpington, complained in a letter to last week's Church of England Newspaper: "Any action to stop it and cancel Gene Robinson's 'invitation'? No. Any action ... for allowing this nonsense to take place? No. Stop engaging in ... mindless 'modern' liberal, 'pick-and-mix' theology and return to true Anglican orthodoxy."
Robinson told the congregation: "We should not be fearful for the church, for the church is not ours to win or lose. It is God's gift to us."
They gave him a standing ovation.
Simon Hoggart: The sermon as politics
'The choir rose up and led them in a hymn. These people would have been brilliant on the Titanic'
Bishop Gene Robinson came to St Mary's, Putney - the historic church where the great Leveller debates were held 361 years ago - and treated the congregation to tub-thumping, stem-winding evangelism, combined with stand-up. The overall effect was as if Jesse Jackson had got together with Julian Clary to do a double act. As some comedians welcome interruptions (and have even been known to plant hecklers in the audience so as to quell them with pre-prepared put-downs) so the bishop had someone barrack him, which he did - no doubt accidentally - with perfect timing.
Not that there seemed much chance of that guy being planted. I mean, would you choose a portly, long-haired young man in motorcycle leathers, a Triumph T-shirt and clutching a crash helmet, if you wanted to present your opponents as stiff-necked, antediluvian bigots?
The bishop was saying how sad it was that with the world being in terrible shape - knife crime in London, millions existing on almost no money, the price of food shooting up - the Anglican communion was now threatening to tear itself apart.
That's something of a non sequitur - bishops, even bigoted bishops, are paid to fret about dogma rather than food prices. Still, the Right Rev Robinson seemed to have the packed congregation with him, at the point when the plump young man stood up and shouted: "Because of heretics like you, sir! You preach the gospel, yet you depart from it! Repent!"
His listeners were quicker on the uptake than most CofE congregations. They shouted "Shame!" and "Remove him!" Some hissed. Then they began a slow handclap. This was not happy-clapping, but stroppy-clapping. They wanted him to shut up. Then the choir sprang up and led the congregation in a hymn. These people would have been brilliant on the deck of the Titanic. "Repent, repent, repent!" said the biker, as he forced his way to the exit.
Robinson must have faced that a hundred times, and it was with a slight smile that he resumed. "I am afraid for that man," he said. "Fear is a terrible thing. The opposite of love is not hate, but fear."
He took us back to his boyhood in Kentucky. Services had gone on for hours in insufferable summer heat. "People were giving themselves to God just to get out of there." They had been provided with fans by a local funeral parlour. "They showed a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, looking nothing like a Jew, knocking at a heart-shaped door. I first knew I was gay when I thought that door was so tacky!" The congregation gave that laugh which is as much relief at tension defused as at a joke.
He took the issue of homosexuality head-on. God hadn't healed him of being gay.
"My homosexuality is not my sin - but I am just as frail and self-absorbed as the next person. I am not unworthy - I am made good by Jesus Christ."
Some people feared there was a homosexual agenda. "Right here, in St Mary's church, Putney, I am going to divulge the homosexual agenda. It is Jesus!"
Leviticus says that homosexuality is an abomination unto God - "does that make you want to know God better? Peter Akinola [the Anglican archbishop of Nigeria] and I are brothers in Christ, and one day we will be in heaven together. And we will get along, because God wouldn't have it any other way."
The congregation applauded. Not wildly, but loudly. And when did you last hear an Anglican church clapping the sermon?
A murmured "good sermon, vicar" is the most that they expect.
Lyn Gardner: The sermon as theatre
'I'd buy a vacuum cleaner from him. Another few minutes and I might even have bought God'
The Right Rev Gene Robinson puts his head on one side and tells us "not to be afraid".
He pauses, holds the moment, and then repeats: "Don't be afraid." Another tiny pause. "Afraid." If only they could teach such precise timing and delicate underlining like this in drama schools.
The bishop is giving a remarkable performance, exquisitely supported by the rituals of the Anglican service and the plain beauty of St Mary's church, Putney, where the main stage - sorry, altar - is framed by the natural backdrop of Putney bridge, so that God and everyday life are constantly rubbing shoulders. When the clergy first process into the church I'm irresistibly reminded of the stirring opening sequence in The Lion King. With his brightly coloured vestments, shining eyes and head slightly cocked, Robinson looks like a strange, exotic little bird.
Church and theatre have a great deal in common; I can trace my own devotion to theatre back to a childhood immersed in Catholic rite. Tonight, the only fire and brimstone comes from the audience when before Robinson has uttered more than a few words a long-haired, leather-clad young man in the audience rises to his feet and shrieks, "Repent! Repent!" The shouts are drowned out as the congregation first slow handclap him and then rise to their feet and sing. Like a first-night audience at a West End musical, it is clear which side most of this audience is on.
Critics are not welcome.
Robinson steps forward again. "Pray for that man," he says gently. "Fear," he continues, "is a terrible thing ..." His voice appears to crack on the words "terrible thing", but then he recovers himself. Robinson is a natural-born actor. His instinct is always to under- rather than overplay, speaking with hushed persuasion, and cleverly using pauses and repeated words to heighten the drama of the moment. He has the stand-up comic's ear for a good story and a devastatingly delivered punch-line, but also the ability to veer off on a tangent and yet still complete the circle of the story. Most of all, he knows how to reach out to an audience. He uses words as an embrace; he includes us all in the meeting of an eye, the bird-like turn of his head. Like the best actors, he makes it looks effortless; like the greatest, he makes you feel as if he is doing this just for you.
I am not surprised that he was elected the Bishop of New Hampshire. I would definitely buy a vacuum cleaner from him. Another few minutes in St Mary's church and I might even have bought God. I don't doubt his sincerity for a second, but having watched him it is clear that Robinson is not just a man so comfortable in his own skin that he can be himself, but he is also one who has triumphantly mastered the hardest art of all: acting himself. My only regret is that I will never get to see him give his Willy Loman.
Gareth McLean: The sermon as alarm call
'Two hundred years after Thomas Paine wrote The Age of Reason, and here we still are'
What, I found myself wondering when the Right Rev Gene Robinson was heckled with calls of "Heretic!" and "Repent!", happened to the Enlightenment? Two hundred years after Thomas Paine wrote The Age of Reason, attacking the corruption of institutionalised religion and challenging the inerrancy of the Bible, and here we still are, spending an inordinate amount of time obsessing over the same issues.
As someone who doesn't have faith - as well as one of those whose sexuality is considered abominable by many of those who do - I sometimes struggle to take seriously any of the brouhaha surrounding the schism in the Church of England. Partly, this is because the whole furore is based on the Bible: specifically the proclamation that homosexuality is an abomination and, as far as the wrongness of women bishops is concerned, that Jesus only anointed male apostles. Now even if I didn't think that the Bible was just a book - one that's thousands of years old, that is made-up, that was compiled, edited, translated and has had bits omitted over the years - we all know that, for centuries, it's been cherry-picked to justify all sorts of abhorrent thought and behaviour. Much like the Qur'an and other holy books have.
At this juncture, I'm reminded of The West Wing. In the episode entitled The Midterms, President Bartlett confronts a talk show host about her description of homosexuality as an abomination. She evokes Leviticus 18:22 ("Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable"), after which the president asks her what would be a good price for which to sell his daughter into slavery, whether he can burn his mother for wearing garments of different threads and, as "touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, if they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football?"
Of course, there are millions of people who do believe, even if I don't, and if the battle is for their hearts and minds and, consequently, for a wider tolerance of the gay people among them, then we should engage at least a little.
In his sermon, as well as movingly talking about his Kentucky childhood and the comfort that faith brought him, Robinson despaired at his church's obsession with homosexuality. In doing so, he echoed remarks made previously by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who maintains that there are more important issues with which the church should concern itself: poverty, say, or HIV/Aids. Or climate change. It's hard not to see the literalist fundamentalists who oppose the ordination of gay people and women as simply nursing a hate-filled agenda - fear, as Robinson noted, is the opposite of love - and discouraging any kind of intelligent engagement with the Bible, lest their laity get any radical ideas about challenging the power of organised, conservative religion. Jesus, after all, was a Marxist. Or, at least, that's one reading.
And that brings me back to my main difficulty with the whole schism situation. If you can read the Bible radically, you can read it conservatively, too. Perhaps we should give up on reading it at all. The very fact that the impending (or not) split in the church is getting so much coverage is part of a bigger, more worrying trend - the increasing importance of religion in the public realm. Secularism is under threat. Though Robinson's stance against bigotry in his own church is to be applauded, that the storm which swirls around him is seen as so important is itself cause for concern. What, I ask myself again, happened to the Enlightenment?