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Robinson enjoys life on the fringes

by Brian Bromberger

Despite the encroaching darkness in the body politic, retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, in a visit to the largely LGBTQ Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, believes these dejected days might be the birth pangs of a new revitalized religious left movement.

"In every age there are those who point to signs that the world, as we know it, is about to end. It feels that way in America right now, doesn't it?" Robinson said during the December 3 service. "The church's season of Advent is about where to find God in the midst of the chaos all around us."

Robinson made headlines in 2003 when he became the first openly gay bishop in any major Christian denomination. He served almost a decade as head of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire before his retirement in 2013.

The title of his sermon: "Jesus Doesn't Need Any More Admirers!" was meant to be a call to action, one of many comments he made to the Bay Area Reporter in a sit down interview.

Robinson, 70, has had a busy retirement. For four and a half years, he worked as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C.

"It was a very exciting time, which changed dramatically in January as we're not exactly on this administration's first-to-call list," he said, referring to President Donald Trump.

In May, Robinson accepted a position as vice president of religion at Chautauqua Institution, a center for arts, education, recreation, and religion in western Upstate New York, where he oversees everything to do with religion, especially during its nine-week summer session that attracts 100,000 people.

When asked what he felt his legacy was as a bishop, Robinson replied, "There are two things. First, and the most remarkable, was that I effectively administered a diocese, which was what I was elected to do, a full-time job that was daunting, considering the national and international controversy I drew. But secondly, all the other mainline Protestant denominations were watching to see if my election would kill the Episcopal Church, which it didn't. In fact only about 100,000 people left out of two million and many of those have since returned.

"And with the laity, clergy, and bishops ratifying my election with a two-thirds yes vote, the church stepped up to the plate, and as a result, the Lutherans and Presbyterians followed suit. For LGBTQ people, my election exploded the myth that you can't be gay and Christian, with just my very existence a testament to that," he said.

Robinson's tenure was marked by controversy, including death threats, denunciations from fellow bishops (mostly in Africa), exile from the Lambeth Conference (a once in a decade gathering of all Anglican Church bishops from around the world), a stint in alcohol rehab, and the end of his 25-year relationship with his former partner, Mark Andrews.

Robinson said that his faith got him through those difficult times.

"What got me through was that God felt palpably close, despite my very fallible human existence, so I never doubted God's presence," he said. "My lowest point was the three or four weeks standing outside the gates of the Lambeth Conference, yet it didn't try my faith. I wanted to be a constant reminder, a thorn in the side of those bishops who said there weren't people like me in their dioceses, which I knew was false and I wanted to say that as loudly as I could. Sometimes when you are on the fringes, you see things more clearly."

This latter point was one he wanted to make in his sermon at St. John's.

"Yes, in the last decade LGBTQ people have made much progress, because following Harvey Milk so many people came out so that church folk would know someone who was gay and become less likely to say the things they were saying or do the things they were doing and we just reached a critical mass," Robinson said. "Yet now we shouldn't be lulled into thinking things are better than they actually are. Only for upper middle class white, gay, urban men are gay rights over. Our work is not done, as in 29 states you can be fired from your job or thrown out of your apartment. And if the Masterpiece Cake Supreme Court case goes against us, we will again be second-class citizens."

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument Tuesday in the case, in which the justices will decide whether any common business vendor selling products or services to the public can refuse to sell to or accommodate LGBT people by simply claiming to have a religious belief hostile to such people.

In the brief discussion period after the liturgy, Robinson said the best way to counter depression over Trump administration policies is for people not to be overwhelmed by all the work to be done on myriad issues, but to pick one action and dedicate themselves to seeing it through.

Speaking specifically about LGBTQ people turned off to institutional religion, Robinson remarked, "Don't confuse God with the church, because the church often gets it wrong, but God never does. What people want is a relationship with God and we give them religion. Yet just because you leave the church doesn't mean your spiritual needs go away. Don't be turned off to God because of being rightfully critical of the church."

Father Richard Smith, vicar at St. John's, said Robinson's visit could not be timelier.

"The Trump administration has inflicted much disappointment and pain on us in the LGBTQ community," Smith said. "We need the bishop's prophetic word to both comfort and challenge us to fight for our dignity as LGBTQ children of God."


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