FORTY years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, American The Rt Rev V Gene Robinson, the world's first openly gay bishop, explains to ANDREW COLLIER in an exclusive interview what it's like to be many Christians' number one enemy.
THE Devil has arranged to meet me in the lobby of a London tourist hotel. It's an odd choice of venue: Westminster Cathedral, the great temple of Roman Catholicism in England, is close by; and a glimpse of the fire and colour of Hell would have been more interesting.
Nor does he look like Satan. No horns, no tail, no pitchfork, no smoke and sulphur. He's of medium height, thinning hair, wearing a smart shirt and tie. He's immediately warm, friendly, open and assured. I like him.
Yet millions of Christians the world over are convinced - absolutely assured - that this man is the Antichrist. They believe he is the Devil, sent to destroy the church from within. Welcome to the fan club of the Rt Rev V Gene Robinson, Primate of the American diocese of New Hampshire and the world's first openly gay bishop.
This week may mark the 40th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, but attitudes in many ways still lag behind legislation. Even on this side of the Atlantic, Robinson's public homosexuality has made him the most controversial figure in worldwide Anglicanism since Henry VIII split with Rome in 1538 and created the church.
His ordination as bishop four years ago sparked a global outrage. Here was a cleric not only living in a sexual relationship with another man, but proud of it. Fellow Anglicans around the world erupted in fury. Some of the insults from other bishops in the 77 million strong worldwide Anglican Communion have been poisonous. It is yet possible - some would say probable - that Robinson's election will very soon unleash a chain of events blowing the global church apart.
"Did I think my ordination would be controversial? Of course," he says. "We took seriously the voices that were coming our way and we knew this would be a shock in many quarters. But did I have any idea that the furore over my consecration would be as broad or as deep as it was? Absolutely not."
Robinson has been a controversial figure from the moment he came into the world. Born in 1947 in the Bible Belt in Lexington, Kentucky, he was not expected to survive the delivery, so his sharecropper parents were asked to give names for both the birth and death certificates. Expecting a girl, they opted for Vicky Imogene. He has never changed it.
Religion was important to the young Gene Robinson. He grew up in the evangelical tradition - "quite conservative, bordering on fundamentalist" - and went to church every Sunday. By the age of 11, he was sensing that his sexual urges were different from those of his schoolmates.
"It was not something easily admitted to oneself, let alone the world", he recalls. "Friends of mine got hold of a Playboy magazine and I realised they were very much more interested in those pictures than I was.
"Given what the church had taught me and what scripture seemed to be saying about this, being aware of my attraction to other boys seemed a despicable possibility. I was ashamed of it and fearful about it. I grew up in middle, southern America - a place where that sort of thing was not remotely tolerated. You just pray it's a phase you're going through; something you'll outgrow."
At the same time, he was feeling a calling towards God, rejecting his conservative church upbringing in favour of what he saw as the more tolerant, open, enquiring and honest nature of the Episcopal Church of the US, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
He went to seminary in New York, only three months after the Stonewall riots which heralded the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. He found himself in a relationship with another man. "It felt very positive to be falling in love with someone, to have them falling in love with me and to experience this kind of bond, and at the same time it was horrifically awful because I thought, 'Oh my goodness, maybe this isn't a passing phase. Maybe I am this way. Oh my God, what am I going to do?'"
Robinson knew his sexuality could destroy his chances of ordination. He had also always loved children and yearned for a family. So he went into therapy. "It didn't work and almost never does, though I guess I thought it had. It didn't make the same-sex feelings go away, but I certainly felt emotionally, spiritually and physically ready for a relationship with a woman."
When he met his wife, Boo, he was determined to maintain his honesty and integrity. "Within a month of meeting her, I shared that all of my primary relationships had been with men, but that I had been in therapy to make a heterosexual relationship possible. She seemed to fully understand that. She said we loved each other very much and that if something happened we would deal with it together."
But his feelings did not go away. After about ten years of marriage, and following the births of his two daughters, the doubts began to overwhelm him. "We began to talk about it more and more, and sought counselling, trying to discern what was the right thing for us to do." The couple finally decided to divorce. "Almost everyone we knew were devastated. We had the marriage everyone hoped for. We tried to do the dissolution in a very holy way. We took a priest with us to the judge's chambers for the decree and went back to his church. In the context of the holy Eucharist we released each other from the vows we had taken, asked each other's forgiveness for ways in which we might have hurt one another, pledged ourselves to the joint raising of our children and gave our rings back as a symbol of the vows we no longer held each other to. It was one of the most healing moments of my whole life."
ROBINSON DID NOT meet his life partner, Mark Andrew, until three years after the divorce, and by then his wife had remarried. "The thing that has hurt me most in the press - and there have been some awful things said - is the charge that I abandoned my wife and children to move in with another man. There wasn't another man. And I never abandoned my responsibilities."
He remains close to his ex-wife, and he says that his now grown-up children adore his partner. "He's just wonderful with them. I would say I've been blessed. I've had the best of both worlds. I had a wonderful relationship with my wife and I have had a wonderful relationship now of almost 20 years with my partner."
As he progressed through the church, it became clear that he was an exceptional pastor, capable of engaging with clergy and people in a compelling and spiritual way. He was also an effective and forceful administrator. As it became clear that he might be a candidate for bishop, so the voices against him became louder. His detractors have always found him difficult to target, he says, because he doesn't fit stereotypes. "I have a wonderful family and had a wonderful marriage. I wasn't duplicitous. And I'm not a misogynist; I don't hate women. I have wonderful relationships with women."
When he was elected bishop in 2003, it was by a clear two-thirds majority among the laity, the clergy and the American bishops. It was a massive validation, but it sparked a fireball. The death threats, many of them from fundamentalist Christians, flooded in.
NEW HAMPSHIRE DOES not have any great cathedrals, and the most suitable venue which could be found for the ceremony was a local ice rink. The event sparked worldwide interest and condemnation, and Robinson started to realise the scale of the price he would have to pay.
"We had to spend $100,000 on security. I wore a bulletproof vest under my vestments. We did have a contingency plan that if shots were fired or a bomb went off and I was still alive, I was to be taken to a separate location. Three bishops - it takes three bishops to lay hands on you and ordain you - would be there with a photographer, so if I was still alive the consecration would not be thwarted."
The personal attacks on him have been venomous. The Baptist preacher Fred Phelps called him "a disgusting, detestable, loathsome, filthy abomination - the great whoremonger". Internet sites commonly refer to him as Satan or Beelzebub's Boy. When Robinson recently went into rehab to deal with an alcohol problem, you could almost hear their whoops of joy. More serious is the response of other parts of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England has tried to maintain a lofty silence, though the Archbishop of Canterbury has asked him not to preach or celebrate Mass within his jurisdiction.
Churches such as those in Nigeria, which has 17 million Anglicans, have been more venomous, seeking to have the American church expelled from the communion. They have described gay people as "beasts" with whom they will not share a room, and the Nigerian bishops said the Americans were a "cancerous lump" which should be "excised".
The whole issue is likely to come to a head at the Lambeth Conference next year. This gathering, held every ten years, brings together all the Communion's bishops for prayer and discussion at Canterbury. Robinson says he is the only bishop in the world who has so far not been invited.It could well turn into a firestorm. If the Americans and the Nigerians cannot share a room, let alone communion, it could well spell the end of Anglicanism as we know it. There will be plenty willing to blame Robinson for its demise.
HE TAKES COMFORT from a statement from the Scottish Episcopal Church, whose bishops said publicly two years ago that being homosexual is not a bar to ministry. "It was supportive and I was grateful for it. As you can imagine, statements like that are few and far between at the moment in the Anglican Communion. It was a refusal to draw a line in the sand."
Robinson warns, though, that the price of support could see the Scottish church, as well as the American one, being forced out of the Communion. "If the Episcopal Church in America is to bear some sort of punishment, it would not seem unlikely that all those who have stood with us might be so punished."
As a Christian, can he forgive his enemies? "You know, I can. And here's why. They only believe what the church has taught them to believe, and I believed those same things myself for a very long time. That is what a gay person has to contend with. We've been taught the same things everyone else has. The church has taught us all to condemn homosexual behaviour. I would argue it has taught that mistakenly, but I can certainly understand why people feel this way, so no, I don't have any trouble forgiving."
IT WAS FORTY YEARS AGO TODAY...
THE Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to be over 21, was given Royal Assent 40 years ago today, on 28 July 1967, after a night of heated debate in the Commons. It applied only to England and Wales: Scotland would have to wait until 1980 for such liberalisation, while the Armed Forces remained exempt until 2000.
The Sexual Offences Act was significantly influenced by the Wolfenden Report of 1957, which recommended the decriminalisation of certain homosexual acts between consenting adults in the privacy of their homes, and established a certain legitimacy for same-sex relationships which hitherto had been mired in discrimination, repression and very necessary secrecy. The gay community had hitherto existed as a shady and persecuted subculture, perpetually fearful of discovery which might destroy lives and reputations. One of the bill's sponsors, Lord Arran, commented: "Perhaps a million human beings will be able to live in greater peace. I find this an awesome and marvellous thing." He quoted from a letter Oscar Wilde, left, wrote after his release from Reading gaol: "Yes, we shall win in the end; but the road will be long and red with monstrous martyrdoms."
The act set the age of consent between men at 21, and raised the penalties for certain "acts of gross indecency".
North of the Border, where sexual activity between males, consenting or otherwise, remained punishable by heavy prison sentences, the Scottish Minorities Group, later to become the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group and then Outright Scotland, was established in 1969, its campaigning playing a significant part in prompting the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act of 1980. The first International Gay Rights Conference was held in Edinburgh in 1974.
In the Eighties, while openly gay pop stars such as Boy George, Jimmy Sommerville and Frankie Goes to Hollywood gave a certain popular voice to the gay community, the continuing harassment and even murder of gay men prompted the formation of Outrage! And despite the advent of "gay pride" (the UK's first Gay Pride march was held in London in 1972; Glasgay was founded in 1993), prejudice hardly evaporated overnight - witness the "gay plague" witchhunts during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
In February 1994, the age of consent for sex between men was reduced by parliament to 18 and, after two attempted blocks by the House of Lords, in 2000 the age of consent for gay men was lowered to 16, on a par with heterosexuals. A further step on the road to normalisation was taken on 18 November, 2004, with the Civil Partnerships Act. More than 15,500 gay and lesbian couples put a seal on their relationships between December 2005, when the first registrations took place, and December 2006.
Just this week, a small but telling victory was chalked up when the reggae star Buju Banton, whose 1990 hit Boom Bye Bye, which advocated the shooting of gay men, pledged to desist from singing homophobic lyrics.