His saving grace - Gene Robinson interview

Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican bishop, came to Scotland this week to debate homosexuality and religion. He has maintained his dignity in the face of hostility from the Church, but tells Fiona MacGregor his patience may be running out

'I DON'T know how he sleeps at night." Bishop Gene Robinson is talking about Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has just spent a month overseeing the latest ten-yearly gathering of Anglican leaders and failed, yet again, to find any satisfactory resolution to the vexed issue of the church's opinions on homosexuality which threatens to split the international communion.

It is probably a safe bet – if gambling on holy matters is allowed – that Williams didn't sleep much during the Lambeth Conference, which ended last week with the church somehow still in one piece. It is a certainty that Robinson – the man who has come to embody all the hopes and fears that homosexuality arouses in the world's 70 million Anglicans, hasn't had much rest at all over the past few weeks, although he wasn't actually invited to the big event.

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Now, bathed in the colourful light that pours through the stained glass windows of St John's Church at Edinburgh's West End, Robinson, aged 61 and the world's first openly gay Anglican bishop, is very tired and pretty fed up. He's finally let slip, just for a moment, the open-hearted optimism which has buoyed him through the five years since his ordination and made him not just bishop but a guiding light for gay and lesbian Christians across the globe and a hate figure for those who believe same-gender sex is , as the Old Testament puts it, "an abomination".

"Maybe at the end of Lambeth I have discovered I am angrier than I thought I was," he says, twinkly eyes clouding over.

"I am losing my patience. I have tried to play by the rules and be respectful and sometimes it would be nice to be shown a little respect back. I try to keep my sympathy (for Williams] and I do worry and pray for him. I don't believe this (refusal to recognise homosexual relationships can have a place within the church] is what's in his heart – unless he's changed very much since he became Archbishop of Canterbury."

Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire, is speaking with human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell about homosexuality and religion at the Festival of Spirituality in Edinburgh this month.

Perhaps his anger has been fuelled by the passionate Tatchell, who has been pointing out that those bishops who have spoken out most vehemently against the church's acceptance of homosexual relationships, such as Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who says gay people are "worse than beasts", are implicitly, if not explicitly, supporters of "the most vile homophobia".

As an outsider, it's certainly hard to understand how Williams can be so desperate to appease people who hold such views, while systematically shunning Robinson who even now has nothing worse to say about Williams than he "doesn't think he's being true to his heart". As for Akinola, he is "looking forward to meeting him in heaven". ("He might be surprised to see me there, but I won't be surprised to see him.")

It's been strange watching this delicate anger unfurl.

Robinson – a small, bespectacled man with rosy cheeks, today wearing a white and grey striped jacket – is a genuinely friendly, down-to-earth person who sees the world as a generally good place to be in – even if he has to share it with people who make death threats against him.

"It's just been so warm, welcoming and wonderful to be in Scotland," says Robinson, as we duck out of the rain to talk over large cups of caff latte. "I was invited to celebrate the communion here, which I wasn't in England. I had a wonderful time in Glasgow."

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He's been enjoying Edinburgh too, soaking up the festival atmosphere and meeting people of different faiths as part of the Festival of Spirituality.

He laughs when I contrast the Scottish Presbyterian tradition of schism with Anglicanism's apparent determination to preserve unity at almost any cost.

His chortle is warm and infectious, but it's Rowan Williams's desire to preserve the Anglican union and keep on board the conservative evangelical provinces, with their vocal condemnation of homosexuality, that led to Robinson's exclusion from Lambeth.

"I don't believe the split has to happen. Ever since my consecration, the conservatives have pointed to the next gathering. They said this is the time when everyone's going to have to choose – then we get to that point and it doesn't happen. So I'Il believe it when I see it."

At this point in the day, Robinson still sounds fairly matter-of-fact about his exclusion from Lambeth. He has faith "that God's hand is in (what's happening] somehow".

He is, now, equally matter-of-fact about his own sexuality, something he believes is beyond anyone's control, and quite intrigued by the whole genetic debate.

"I have about four or five cousins who are gay, all going back to one side of the family," he tells me, with enthusiasm and perhaps a degree of pride.

" Just two months ago another cousin came out. He's married, with a teenage son and it's really astounding."

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Robinson himself was married when he came out as gay. His wife had known he had issues with his sexuality before they married. She has since remarried and they remain on good terms. The couple's two daughters are close to both their parents and their new partners and, says Robinson "say they have one mum and three dads".

We discuss the recently published evidence that the more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay. In fact, Robinson was an only child until the birth of his sister when he was ten.

"I loved it. I really enjoyed having a sister. There was too much attention on me; I wanted someone else take a little of the heat."

But surely the man who has become one of the most controversial figures in modern- day Christianity cannot be that bothered by attention?

"Being an only child is not an easy thing," he says. But he admits: "I have to like attention, or I wouldn't be doing this."

The same cannot be said for his partner of 20 years, Mark Andrew.

"He's a very private person so this is his worst nightmare, being in the limelight. The fact that he's done it, not just (ungrudgingly] but as my greatest supporter, is an enormous gift to me and to the church, but I think he worries about my personal safety more than I do.

"Mark works for the state of New Hampshire, getting hospitals and medical personnel ready either for a terrorism event, an outbreak of avian flu or some kind of epidemic. He's used to dealing with potential disaster!" Robinson smiles.

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On the subject of potential disaster: what if Robinson is wrong on the homosexuality issue? How can he be sure, on this issue that threatens to split the Church, that he's got it right?

"I am not at all sure. It's true as best as I can discern it's true. It's God's will and I think only over time do we really come to know the answer.

"As more and more Christians make themselves known to us as gay or lesbian, the more we realise they are not outside the embrace of God – I think that will prove itself over time. But I caution people all the time to be very careful of anyone who says they know what God's will is. I don't think any of us know that."

Obviously he is upset at the wider Anglican Communion's failure to accept that homosexual relationships should be accepted and recognised as valid, but he also feels personally slighted by Williams.

He says the Archbishop of Canterbury has met him just once (almost three years ago), refuses to answer his correspondence and, not only was he the only bishop whom Williams didn't invited to Lambeth, but he says pictures of him were issued to the event's security points lest he tried to attend the opening ceremony, despite having promised three times not to.

"It seems he's been especially welcoming to the conservative voices within the Anglican union, (yet] those of us on the other side of that issue can hardly get in at all. It's very discouraging," says Robinson.

Despite this, Robinson remains hopeful there's a way forward. "When I first started my ministry, divorced people were not welcome at Communion and, if they got remarried, they could not receive the church's blessing. Now, neither of these things is the case.

"Jesus, out of his own mouth, says remarriage is adultery and yet the Church has determined in its own wisdom and by the lead of the spirit that God's leading us to a new place.

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"It raises what I think is the real issue here. Did God stop revealing himself at the end of the first century, when the scripture was closed, or did God, as Jesus said he would, send his holy spirit to lead us into truth?"

If Robinson had to choose between his beloved Anglicanism and ministering to the gay and lesbian community, which would he pick?

"I hope it doesn't come to that, but if I had to choose I would have to stand on the side of the fully inclusive love of God over unity, however you might define that."

Still, the split hasn't happened yet. He's looking forward very much to getting back to his home in New Hampshire, his own pillow, tending his garden (which he fears will be unrecognisable) and back to what he loves best: "just being a bishop". His favourite pursuit, he says, is getting out and about in the parishes and meeting members of the church.

Later, in St John's, he bemoans the lack of people under 30 there and suggests that, by making such a fuss about homosexuality, the Church risks at best making itself irrelevant and more likely coming across as downright offensive to the current generation.

At the end of the discussion, a young woman gets up to say that she is under 30 and "how refreshing and what a blessing it is" to have Robinson in the Church. His delight is modest, but writ large in his smile. He is doing and being what he believes is so important – a figure who can support and encourage people in their faith. How long he will be able to do so as a member of the current Anglican communion remains to be seen.


Keynote talks at the Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality and Peace www.festivalofspirituality.org.uk (see also www.edinburgh-festivals.com)


The Archbishop of Canterbury caused uproar when he suggested some aspects of Sharia Law could be incorporated into our legal system. Are fears about Sharia law justified? Ziauddin Sardar, prominent Muslim intellectual and New Statesman columnist is in discussion with Lord McCluskey, the former solicitor general for Scotland. Tuesday 12 August, 5:45 pm St John's, Lothian Road, Edinburgh.


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Are we becoming more peace-aware, as the Dalai Lama has suggested? Carter Phipps of What is Enlightenment magazine talks to Brian Smith, Bishop of Edinburgh and Rev Prof Frank Whaling, president of Edinburgh Interfaith Society. Monday 18 August, 5:45pm, Nicholson Square Methodist Church.


Sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what impact has it had and what challenges does it face in achieving its aim? Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International, leads this talk. Tuesday 19 August, 5:45pm, St John's, Lothian Road, Edinburgh.


India, Burma and Tibet have had varied success with non-violent movements for change. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, leads this conversation on what it takes to confront the powerful without violence. Saturday 23 August, 12:30pm, St John's, Lothian Road, Edinburgh.