Gene Robinson, the openly gay US bishop whose consecration in 2003 polarised the worldwide Anglican Communion, says he believes that one day the Church will regret its rejection of homosexuals the way that it now regrets its support in the past for slavery.
"We believed in slavery for 18 and a half centuries before we came to know God's will for us with respect to people of colour," Robinson told Ecumenical News International on the campus of the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, where about 650 Anglican bishops from around the world are meeting for the 16 July to 3 August Lambeth Conference.
Robinson was not invited to be an official delegate to the once-every-10-years gathering. An Anglican Communion official said this was because of the "widespread objections" within the 77-million-strong grouping to Robinson's consecration as a bishop.
"It has been more painful than I thought it might be," Robinson said of being unable to take part in the meeting. "I've felt the exclusion profoundly. I understand that's just the way it has to be but it's a very odd and difficult feeling to have been separated from your own house of bishops by an external force."
Still, the 61-year-old bishop has been out and about on the campus, and shortly after his interview with ENI he was due to sign copies of his new book, "In the Eye of the Storm", in which he reflects on his faith, and life, and the controversy that has rocked the church.
His presence on the university campus where the other bishops are meeting is intended, Robinson said, "as a constant and steady reminder that every bishop in the Anglican Communion has gay and lesbian people in their diocese whether they know it or not, whether they know who they are or not, whether it [homosexuality] is legal or not".
Robinson's consecration as a bishop in the U.S. state of New Hampshire set off a wave of protest by many Anglican leaders, particularly in Africa, Asia and South America. About 250 bishops are reported to be boycotting the Lambeth gathering because of the presence of leaders of the U.S. Episcopal (Anglican) Church, which consented to the election and consecration of Robinson.
Robinson said he understood the position of Anglican bishops who believe the ordination and consecration of gay people is both unbiblical and anti-Christian.
"I don't consider them enemies at all, and its no surprise to me that people who live in contexts very different from our own in the [United] States see this problem very differently," said Robinson, a divorced father of two, who lives with a male partner. "It's no surprise that many of these bishops and people in these countries where homosexuality is publishable, sometimes by imprisonment, have not had the experience we have had in the American church, which is of faithful lesbian and gay people in the pews making themselves known to us, and our having to grapple with that issue."
Still, he added, "That doesn't mean I don't believe we shouldn't be changing those attitudes."
Robinson said he hoped the 650 bishops who are at the gathering would "resist the push by those who are not here to try and settle this once and for all because in the end I think we will come to regret our rejection of gay and lesbian people the way we have come to regret our support for slavery and our virtual rejection of women".
The bishops at the Lambeth Conference were on 31 July to begin discussions on how the Anglican Communion's engagement with same-sex issues had impacted on the participation of their dioceses in God's mission.
"The beauty of Anglicanism is that it has been a big umbrella under which we can disagree about many things so long as we agree on the essentials," said Robinson. "I would plead for a continuation of that great tradition in which we hold together and we continue to be the church, despite our differences on this issue because I don't think it rises to the level of being an essential."
Whether that is possible or not still remains to be seen, acknowledges the New Hampshire bishop.
"Here's where the divide is," said Robinson. "You don't hear anyone on the side of those who would argue for greater inclusion of gay and lesbian people argue that anyone else has to leave. No one is saying that the conservatives within the communion should leave because they don't understand the will of God."
He added, "That is what you hear coming from the other side, and the difficulty of course is that you can't make anyone stay. I would make a plea for our holding together while we live in this tension for a while."
For almost 18 years before being elected bishop of New Hampshire, Robinson was the assistant to his predecessor in the diocese. He described the collegiality between clergy and laity as "really amazing", saying this included those who had thought his election was not the right thing to do.
"We have no parishes threatening to break away … I might even say it's the one diocese in the whole of the Anglican Communion that doesn't deal with this issue at all," said Robinson.
"I will be so glad to return home and not have to talk about being gay, or gay and lesbian issues," he said, "because mercifully in my own diocese I'm just the bishop, I'm not the 'gay bishop'."