Bishop talks faith and LGBT life

Bearing tidings of the demise of patriarchy, the Rev. Gene Robinson spoke to hundreds of students, faculty and visitors from across the state in two events in the Chapel Monday, the first day of his two-day stay at Duke.

Robinson, Episcopalian bishop of New Hampshire, found himself at the center of a worldwide controversy when he became the first openly gay man elected bishop, and his election has led to bitter debate within the worldwide Anglican Communion.

"At first look, it appears to be about homosexuality. Step back and it appears to be about Biblical authority," Robinson said at a panel discussion Monday night. "If we step back one step further and notice this has way more power and energy than it ought to, my own opinion is that this is actually about the end of patriarchy."

One of the major focuses of Robinson's visit, sponsored by the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Life together with other campus groups, is the intersection of LGBT identity with faith.

During the discussion, which also featured Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells and LGBT Center Director Janie Long, the bishop was asked how he would counsel students who are concerned that coming out would make their sexual orientation the sum total of their identity.

"Why is it, do you think, that Christians are surprised when doing the right thing costs us something?" he asked, referring to Biblical stories of Jesus' suffering. "But the other part of the Christian message is that we don't have to be alone in that. It seems to me that the great reward of doing the right thing is it pulls you closer to the presence of God."

Robinson called on gay advocates to "toughen up," using as an example 1960s civil rights activists who fought for equal rights despite threats to their lives and well-being.

He also thanked straight people who stand up for gays in church and other venues, saying their efforts meant much to him and others and could even save lives.

"When you have the courage to do that, it has transformed you in some way," Robinson said. "And you never know who you're going to be helping."

But much of the panel discussion and question-and-answer session afterward focused on questions of Robinson's role within the Episcopal Church-the American arm of the Anglican Communion. Speaking in turns casually and humorously but also eliciting tears and even occasional shouts of encouragement from the audience, Robinson explained his experience since he was "swept to the center by God"-words he used in the title of a book published this year.

Recent events gave his visit a dramatic backdrop, as the conservative Diocese of Pittsburgh voted during the weekend to secede from the Episcopal Church over issues including Robinson's consecration. Commentators and some church members have predicted a schism between the mainstream American church on one hand and conservative American parishes and churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America on the other.

Robinson tackled the topic of schism at the evening discussion and also during a talk in the early afternoon called "Preparing Leaders for Faithful Ministry," aimed at current and prospective clergy members, which drew nearly 100 to the Chapel.

He described the present as an exciting chapter in the history of the Episcopal Church, explaining that when he was in college, an open discussion on homosexuality in a venue like the Chapel would have been unthinkable. He also stressed the need to reconcile.

"We're trying to figure out a way to live together despite our disagreement on this," he said at the afternoon speech. "What's frustrating to me is I'm happy to have [conservative Anglican leaders] Bob Duncan and Peter Akinola in my church but they don't want to be in mine.... [However] I can't make someone stay. The best I can do is to stay at the table."

He downplayed the significance of dissident, separatist groups in the church, saying that they were small in comparison to the whole community, despite the extensive media attention they garner. He added that commentators had been making doomsday predictions for five years and that no major schism had occurred, despite two secessions by American dioceses.

"Every day a schism doesn't happen, God is happy, and if it does, God will still be God," he said at the panel discussion. "We just have to be the church that God is calling us to be, as best as we can discern it, in our context. So we're going to work toward the inclusion of all God's children, and then we're going to do the best we can do to maintain our relationships [within the Anglican Communion]."

He also spoke about coming to terms personally with his role at the center of controversy, saying that his work in New Hampshire-"where I am not the gay bishop, I'm just the bishop"-was a great joy and that he felt God had a plan for him, although he could not hope to understand it.

James Joiner, a Greensboro resident and aspirant to the priesthood, said Robinson's speech was very helpful to him. During the talk, Robinson emphasized the need for clergy members to be able to tell a personal story about their own salvation.

"I thought it was very helpful," Joiner said. "I've been an openly gay person since high school, and it was Gene Robinson's consecration that told me the Episcopal Church was where I could come home to."

Jamie Bachrach, Law '94, said after the panel discussion that Robinson was inspiring and delivered his message in a way that was accessible to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or denomination.

"The train has left the station," she said of gays in the church. "We just have to be there and bear witness to it."

Robinson's visit continues today with a workshop for faculty and staff on student questions of LGBT identity and faith from 3 to 4 p.m., and a 6 p.m. dinner open to students. Both events are in the LGBT Center.

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