Bishop says religions are biggest obstacle to gay rights, but they can change

By staff writers
April 6, 2009

Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in a mainline Christian denomination, says that religion has been the biggest obstacle to full equality and dignity, but can also make the biggest contribution to changing the situation.

The remarks came in a lecture last week at Emory University's Center for the Study of Law and Religion in the USA. Bishop Robinson of the Episcopal Church spoke to an overflowing hall of some 700 people.

"Let's be honest, most of the discrimination . . . has come at the hands of religious people, and the greatest single hindrance to the achievement of full civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people can be laid at the doorstep of the three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam," said Robinson.

But he added: "I believe it will take religious voices and religious people to undo the harm and devastation."

Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire, who delivered the CSLR's annual Currie Lecture in Law and Religion, has been open about his homosexuality since the 1980s and has been in a committed relationship with his partner for two decades.

But it was his investiture as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003 that catapulted him into the centre of a near-global controversy over his sexual orientation.

"Why would my election as bishop of a reasonably conservative, rural, and small-town diocese in New England become such a world-wide controversy? How could it spawn thousands of hateful letters and emails?" asked Robinson.

"Why would I, a Christian called and elected by the clergy and people of a diocese to be their bishop, receive death threats from other religious people and have to wear a bulletproof vest for my own consecration?"

CSLR Senior Fellow and Harvard Divinity Professor Mark Jordan, who served as respondent at the lecture, said it was vital to remember that Robinson is "not the first gay man in the apostolic succession. We find fragments of a long history across many churches. There have been - there are - other gay Anglican bishops, including gay Anglican bishops with long-term partners. But they feel compelled to keep silent."

Keeping silent, says Robinson, is no longer an option for him. Growing up in a family of tenant farmers in rural, segregated Kentucky, he never imagined a world "in which we would be talking openly about homosexuality, much less having a national and international debate."

But his dual commitments as a Christian and a citizen, he says, compel him to work toward social justice for all. He quoted Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco politician assassinated in 1978, who once said: "Coming out is the most political thing you can do."

Milk's struggle is now a box-office hit movie starring Sean Penn, who spoke out against the Westboro Baptist church hate group after the Oscar awards recently.

Perhaps even more important, Bishop Robinson adds, is the quiet revolution going on privately within families whose sons and daughters are telling their parents, "Yes, I too am gay." A cultural shift to tolerance and respect "allows parents to continue loving their children," he says.

This shift is slowly occurring in churches as well, he says, with some Catholic priests acknowledging, often privately, that they are gay; a few Southern Baptist congregations offering blessings to same-sex couples (and risking expulsion from the denomination) and conservative Jews admitting gay and lesbian rabbinical students to their seminaries.

"Many Anglicans from around the world continue to call on me to resign my position, naively believing that if I went away, this issue would go away," he says. But while he may have become the personal symbol of the conflict, the struggle for rights and recognition by gay congregants and clergy in Christian denominations, as well as other world religions, demands resolution.

While translations of the Bible state in Leviticus that "you [men] shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" worthy of capital punishment, many things people now do routinely as a modern society, including eating pork, were seen as an "abomination" to God, or were strictly forbidden, such as wearing two kinds of cloth, tattoos, eating shellfish, or planting two kinds of seed in the same field. "Yet, these few verses of scripture are quoted as if nothing has changed in our understanding since biblical times," says Robinson.

In this public conversation about gay civil rights, he says, "we are talking about the way we change our minds - as a culture, a nation, and religious communities - about something we've been very sure about for thousands of years."

To some, this may seem like a discarding of ancient truths, Robinson says, but to him, it is the "Holy Spirit unrelentingly teaching and guiding us" toward inclusion, respect, and equality for all.

"More and more people are feeling kindly toward gay and lesbian people," Robinson says, "but that will never be enough."

"Don't ask, don't tell" laws of all stripes remind gays and lesbians that their identities, lives, and relationships are second-class. "Over one thousand rights are automatically granted to a couple who marries," he says. "Britney Spears received those one thousand rights on the night she decided on a lark to get married in Las Vegas - yet the gay couple who has been faithfully together for 30 years is denied them."

While, as a nation, we have never been very comfortable talking about sex, Robinson says, he believes the "fierce resistance" to gay rights has its roots in something much deeper and broader. "I believe with my whole heart that what we are up against in this struggle is the beginning of the end of patriarchy".

"For a very long time now, most of the decisions affecting the world have been made by white, heterosexual, educated, Western men. Ever so gradually, people of colour have been invited to the conversation; then women and now gay and lesbian people. And things are never the same when the oppressed get their voice."

The civil realm, Bishop Robinson says, is tied intimately to moving forward in the religious realm. "I am hopeful about the future. My faith tells me that God is always working for the coming of the kind of Kingdom in which we all are respected, all are valued, all are included," he says. "And in the end, God wins."

The Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University ( is home to a variety of internationally recognised scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have shaped and can continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives.

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