The news accounts of Bishop Robinson announcing his plans to retire in January 2013 have all focused on the toll that the past seven years have taken on the Bishop.
Certainly it is true that there have been a great many challenges along the way. I’m not sure that anyone knew the extent of reaction (and reaction...and reaction...) that has taken place since the bishop was first elected.
However, I think that there’s a great deal more that needs to be said about not only the decision by Bishop Robinson to retire, but what comes next, then what has been found in the press.
And, I believe I’m in a position to voice some of these things...
Now, I’m well aware (from my own past experience) about the potential dangers of saying out loud any speculation concerning what a Bishop (especially a clergy person's Diocesan Bishop) might be thinking....
Despite this, I have decided to risk saying a few things: perhaps because I both feel good about where I am right now (rector at a wonderful church), and yet I’m still young (naive?) enough to think that this won’t come back to bite me...
And to be clear: these are MY impressions:
I was present when Bishop Robinson publicly announced his retirement the other week. I saw and heard how emotional he was during his address as he defined an end to his time as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.
The press picked up on this, in the quotes and tone.
Bishop V. Gene Robinson...announces that he will step down in 2013, citing the 'constant strain' of the controversy surrounding his election.
"The fact is, the last seven years have taken their toll on me, my family, and you," the bishop said in prepared remarks released by the diocese. "Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark."
First of, it must be said plainly that nine years is about the average time for the tenure of a Diocesan Bishop: retirement at this point is not out of the ordinary.
It seemed to me, however, that he was not that emotional recounting the abnormalities of his time as bishop, but at the prospect of leaving the relationship as Bishop for the Diocese.
At our Clergy Retreat, a few weeks ago, he gave no hint that an announcement was coming. But upon reflection, I see perhaps another part of his reasoning to retire.
Bishop Robinson had just filmed an “It Gets Better” for YouTube: videos have been made in the wake of the alarming trend of GLBT teen suicides. In his video message, the Bishop spoke hopeful words to anyone struggling, and offered himself...a gay man, and a bishop in the Episcopal Church...as an example that it will get better. It was a beautiful, powerful message.
Referring to the video, Bishop Robinson paused and became quiet among his clergy, and said something to this effect (my memory’s version, not the exact quote):
“I always wonder when I speak on GLBT issues on the effect it has on you and the rest of the Diocese. I have to speak sometimes, but I always pause and wonder what you all must be thinking...”
We as a group assured him that we were proud of him, and pleased by his message.
Thinking of it now, however, I see a very clear reality: Bishop Robinson has always said what a great honor it is to serve as Bishop of New Hampshire. He’s said numerous times: “It is only here where I am no longer ‘the gay bishop’, but just ‘The Bishop.’”
Along with the honor of being a Diocesan Bishop, comes a great weight. I’m guessing that every time Bishop Robinson speaks in public, he must ask himself, “What will this mean for the people of the Diocese of New Hampshire? How will my words be interpreted, and reflected back on our churches? While my words may be true, I wonder if they will make life harder for the people in our churches that I love so dearly?”
I think that this is the unspoken truth influencing his decision to retire.
Look closely again at the context of the words most quoted by the press (the capitalizations are Bishop Robinson’s):
“The fact is, the last seven years have taken their toll on me, my family, and YOU. Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as Bishop, have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark, who has faithfully stood with me every minute of the last seven years, and in some ways, YOU. While I believe that these attitudes, mostly outside the Diocese, have not distracted me from my service to you, I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that they have certainly added a burden and certain anxiety to my episcopate."
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the “gay bishop,” has become the best-known Episcopalian in the world. People are passionate about their feelings for him (whether they have met him or not). He is as close to “rock star status” in the general public that an Episcopal Bishop will ever be (yes, even more so that John Shelby Spong).
Ironically, those who have been against him are responsible for pushing him into this position: there’s no other way an Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire becomes so famous.
And, incredibly, there are even more people currently OUTSIDE “the church” who hold Bishop Robinson in high regard.
If there is anything that has held him back from being a BIGGER voice for inclusion in the world (painting a radically different portrait of what Christians are called to be), it’s his love and his sense of responsibility for the Episcopalians of New Hampshire. There can be no doubt that his primary focus has always been for the people who have elected him to be their bishop.
We in the Diocese of New Hampshire get to hold onto him for a few more years. He has assured that we will continue to grow as a Diocese, even as we move towards an Episcopal search and transition process. His retirement changes nothing about our commitment to a radically inclusive church that welcomes people where they are and explores life’s questions within the framework of the Good News of Jesus.
The hope, however, lies beyond the Diocese of New Hampshire. I expect (and pray for) a very visible and vocal Gene Robinson. His unique perspective as the first openly gay bishop in the church, and his commitment to widening (and even bursting) the current drawn circles (real or assumed) of who’s in and who’s out of Jesus’ picture of God’s community, promises to shine light on a type of Christianity that is still far too unknown. Freed from the beloved responsibility for the people of the Diocese of New Hampshire, I expect a bold new focus of ministry for the Bishop: a message to those who have previously given up on the church for being too hypocritical, too closed, and too unlike Jesus, that today’s (and tomorrow’s) Episcopal Church now offers something old AND new.
That vision is desperately needed in today’s world, and Bishop Robinson is once again in the position to open the door and reveal what has been previously hidden: the truth that God’s grace is so much more than we have previously been told, and more without bounds than we could have possibly imagined...
Thanks be to God!