The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire in June 2003 ignited schisms all over The Episcopal Church, including in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. He received so many death threats and so much hate mail that friends paid for a security detail. He wore a bulletproof vest at his March 2004 consecration. Plan B, completion of the service in a secure room with the canonical minimum of three bishops laying on hands, was in case he was attacked and injured but not killed.
All this anger was expressed by those who said they were devoted to the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This gentle, congenial, courageous pastor told these and other stories this afternoon at a tea in his honor at All Saints Episcopal Church Pasadena, where tomorrow he will preach and preside at confirmations.
The beef against him was that he was the first openly gay bishop, although by no mean the first gay bishop, he noted wryly. It’s hard to imagine someone caring so much about the issue that they would threaten violence in Jesus’s name. But they did.
During his 20-year episcopacy, his public mien was unfailingly forgiving and kind. I asked how he fought against the human heart’s natural tendency to repay anger and hatred in kind. He said a friend advised him to replace his usual prayer regimen (“God has heard it all already,” he said) with a mediative practice in which he imagined God pouring love over him like warm butter, from the head down. It didn’t always work, but often did.
He wasn’t beyond having a little fun as his critics’ expense, along the lines of Paul saying that kindness was like hot coals poured on an unkind person’s head. When a bishop in Kenya said Gene’s election had invited Satan into the church, Gene replied that he looked forward to discussing the subject at length when they were both in heaven together. Gene said he really believed this, though he knew it would have the additional advantage of exasperating his brother bishop.
Eventually, he said, he realized his critics were getting their own emotional needs met. It wasn’t about him at all. Indeed it’s hard to imagine anyone getting mad at Gene Robinson. He evinces such friendliness and empathy that you want to tell him your life story the minute you meet him.
He said the passing years have deepened his faith in our God in Christ as well as in the salience of the Episcopal-Anglican ethos. Our nation’s recent political history has convinced him that among the Holy Spirit’s invitations to our church is to articulate a theology of democracy — not an ideal system, he said, but the one most likely “to do the most good for the largest number of people.”
The bishop’s longtime collaborator and coconspirator the Rev. Canon Susan Russell opened the proceedings with a rousing prayer, Her All Saints staff colleague Thomas Diaz presided. The Rev. Mike Kinman, rector, was our host.