Overcome fear, urges gay bishop as protestor disrupts sermon

By staff writers
July 14, 2008

The Anglican Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA has spoken today of his sadness for a protester who interrupted his sermon on Sunday - urging Christians to overcome prejudice and fear with love.

The Rt Rev Gene Robinson was speaking after his address at St Mary's Church in Putney, south west London, on Sunday 13 July 2008 was interrupted by a heckler shouting "repent", "heretic" and "go back to your own country". He said he had not been afraid but had felt sorrow for the "darkness" in the man's heart.

Bishop Robinson, whose same-gender partnership has caused heated debate in the Anglican Communion, said the church should not be fearful since "it is not ours to win or lose; it is God's gift to us, even ours to take some risks with."

It was one of several public events that included Robinson in the days before the July 16 opening of the Lambeth Conference, the decennial meeting of the world's Anglican bishops.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, concerned about Anglican unity, did not invite the bishop to attend the conference, but the Rev Dr Giles Fraser, team vicar of St Mary's, Putney, in the Diocese of Southwark, was allowed to invite Robinson to preach at the regular Sunday evening eucharist.

Listed in the church bulletin as a "quiet and reflective" service, it turned out to be rather noisier than usual, with a couple of dozen journalists, television camera operators and a packed church in attendance.

Two demonstrators were present, one carrying a placard outside the church and handing out leaflets saying the Bible prohibits homosexuality and one attempting in the church to shout down Bishop Robinson as he began his sermon.

Shouting "Repent! Repent!" the demonstrator was eventually drowned out by the congregation, which rose and sang - with organ accompaniment - the hymn "Thine be the glory, risen, conquering son." The man was escorted out by ushers.

"Pray for that man," resumed Robinson, his voice shaking slightly. "Fear is a terrible thing. How sad that the Anglican Communion would threaten to tear itself apart over two men or two women who choose to make a Christian family together."

Noting that several times in the New Testament, the words "be not afraid" and "fear not" appear, Robinson said "the Anglican Communion is going to be fine. Will it change? Probably. Is it going to be easy? Probably not."

Referring to the upcoming Lambeth Conference, Robinson magnanimously declared that Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams "has gotten it exactly right" in calling on the more than 650 bishops who are attending to look at pressing issues such as HIV/AIDS, economic turmoil, rising food prices and poverty.

Speaking under the medieval arches of St Mary's, which was the site of the 17th-century Putney Debates that helped produce democarcy in England, Bishop Robinson said that God's love is the answer to fear, and can bring healing if there are "things in your life that cause you to feel less than worthy."

The "homosexual agenda" that many in the church talk of with fear is, in fact, "Jesus, the Jesus I know who communicates God's unwavering love for me," he declared - before adding that "I'm just as fallible as the next person."

Bishop Robinson, who is visiting the UK with the protection of a bodyguard, confirmed that threats had been made against his life. Yesterday he was interviewed on BBC television by political journalist Andrew Marr, alongside actor Ian Mackellen.

The bishop has attended a range of meetings in Britain, including one at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival - impressing audiences with his forthrightness, dignity and spirituality, say observers.

The congregation of more than 250 people at St Mary's applauded Bishop Robinson's sermon yesterday, his first in a Church of England parish.

Earlier in the week, he spoke at a convention of the 110-year-old Modern Churchpeoples Union and will appear today at a premiere of a ground-breaking documentary film about gay and lesbian Christians called "For the Bible Tells Me So".

With acknowledgements to Solange De Santis, editor of Episcopal Life Media, whose report contributed to this story.

The book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia.

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