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Gay Rev. Gene Robinson preaches love and unity at St. Mark's Cathedral
Gay Rev. Gene Robinson preaches love and unity at St. Mark's Cathedral
by S. Naomi Finkelstein - Special to the SGN

The Right Reverend Gene Robinson entered St. Mark's Cathedral behind a cadre of proud GLBTQ Christians and allies that waved a long rainbow streamer above all our heads, with the traditional Episcopal incense burning. That morning the news had broken in the Bishop's hometown newspaper in New Hampshire that he was invited by Barack Obama to give the prayer at the January 18 Inauguration Day event at the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King gave his "I have a Dream" speech. "I am delighted and honored beyond belief to be doing this invocation," said the reverend. To these words, the entire Cathedral stood and cheered. President-elect Barack Obama's invitation is especially poignant given that Rick Warren, a right-wing evangelical Christian who has spread homophobic lies during the Proposition 8 battle, was invited to give the official invocation during the swearing-in ceremony.

Frankly, I have been planning to go to the bathroom during Rick Warren's prayer and turn my back on him, just not make a big deal of it because we have bigger fish to fry. However, I had read in the Concord Monitor that in an interview on January 14, Bishop Robinson stated, "While [the Bible] is a holy and sacred text to me, it is not for many Americans. I will be careful not to be especially Christian in my prayer. This is a prayer for the whole nation." It echoed what I had already read in GQ as prayers he had already thought of for Obama's inauguration.

So when the church stood and cheered, this South Bronx butch stood up out of my wheelchair with tears streaming down my face and yelled as I would in a Yankee's game, "Hallelujah! You go, bishop!"

I wouldn't do this for just anyone. I would do it for a Gay bishop ordained in a bulletproof vest that committed to pluralism. He walks his walk.

Bishop Robinson is not an imposing man. He is surprisingly small, has an amazing sense of humor and he exudes love. His eyes twinkle. He reminds me of a favorite with whom I would love to study Torah. His sermon compared GLBTQ people to those with disabilities who were kept out of the Temple in Jerusalem (in Jesus' time) as impure, but who could come to the gate to look in. Jesus' ministry opened the gate to the outcasts. It is our job to go through gates and into temples which are denied us. God already loves us - each of us the best, as Bishop Robinson half-jokes. He is a man who has come up from extreme poverty in tobacco-growing Kentucky as a tenant farmer, "but we never really knew we were that poor." He now has to have security around to protect him. He asks us to remember that the outcasts - each of us - belong in the Temple. It was a dangerous message in Jesus' time, and it is still a dangerous message.

It took a long time to serve the Eucharist with 800 people at the cathedral. I left early for Town Hall to get a seat.

THE BISHOP IN THE BULLETPROOF VEST
Town Hall was full of people as the Bishop did his second event of the day. He reported the good news of the inaugural event again to thunderous applause and started to talk about how Gay marriage has impacted the Episcopal Communion.

The Episcopal Communion around the world and in the U.S is threatening to come apart because of the issues of homosexuality, Gay marriage, and Bishop Robinson's ordination. "You automatically get 1,000 rights when you marry," said Robinson in his speech. "My partner's family does not support our partnership. We had to go to an attorney to make sure I could visit him in the hospital." In the U.S., what that schism means in practice is out of 8,000 congregations, 50-60 want to leave. Some Bishops want to lead their entire diocese out of the church, but within even those dioceses, many, many people disagree with the Bishops who wish to leave, and there is no church law which allows the Bishop to do such a rash act. Underneath the issue of homosexuality lies issue of property and money; if they leave, just who owns the property and money of the diocese?

In June of 2008, the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, denied Bishop Robinson an invitation to the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of Anglican Bishops from around the world which occurs every 10 years, in light of a growing schism in the Anglican Communion. Gene Robinson was the first elected Bishop since 1867 to be denied such an invitation. This wasn't the first time Robinson created a big stir. He had to wear a bulletproof vest to his own consecration in 2003 after receiving credible death threats.

In the world church, 300 conservative Bishops held a meeting in Jerusalem as a rival conference to the Lambeth conference the month before. According to an interview on All Things Considered, John Chane, the liberal bishop of Washington, D.C., said, "I don't think it's a rival conference to Lambeth or a rival movement to challenge the Anglican Communion. To me, it's almost as if it was a death rattle. I think the Anglican Communion, even with the disagreements it has right now, really wants to move on ... [to the question] what does it mean to be a missional church in the 21st century?"

Chane believes that the African boycotters are not representative of a majority of leaders in Africa. Both he and Bishop Robinson believe that the African bishops they know may not agree with the West's stand on Gay marriage, but they care much more about, for example, working with the West to fight poverty and war, AIDS, and for an improvement of the lives of women. These leaders don't support the schism. Many laypeople don't support the schism but "are not part of a culture which allows them to dissent openly with leadership," says Robinson.

A RELIGIOUS LEADER FOR HARD TIMES
During the Town Hall meeting, I asked Bishop Robinson about this split - whether or not the issue of homosexuality is being used as a wedge issue to hide behind when the real issues are issues of intense economic differences as they are here in the U.S.

I gave the examples of young Queers on the streets, old Queers who are Vietnam vets on the streets, drug addiction, disability, etc. being basically ignored by our community while we chase after a version of a nuclear family which barely works for straight people. If poor people get married we lose Medicare benefits, or if disabled people get married we cannot get domestic partnership benefits because of pre-existing conditions. Why not fight with all our might for universal health care?

The Bishop did not flinch or back off from these hard questions; he looked at me in love and said, "These are issues our community has to face. We do look at only one kind of family values." If he can face me without blinking an eye, then I expect that he is equipped to deal with the hard dealings in his church. He is asking that of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

And in the Episcopal Communion? Is homosexuality being used there instead of talking about the tremendous poverty, civil war, etc.? My sense is that it had parallels to California, and that if we as a community want to get anywhere, we have to remember people have greater concerns than our love lives and we need to support that. In California, these greater concerns include the drug war, unemployment, and the fact that people of color get diseases such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and AIDS at a rate much higher than their white counterparts.

Yes, the Bishop said, "In Africa, when we talk to certain Bishops and certain people, we hear that they do not care about homosexuality, they care about civil war, poverty, AIDS, women being tortured. If we focus on the Episcopal Communion's real support of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, it might be the way we get through this very hard time in the Union." The Millennium Development Goals include reducing extreme poverty, fighting disease epidemics such as AIDS and malaria, and developing global partnerships for development by 2015.

In a country that frames so much of its debate in religious terms, we need religious leaders to help us through hard times and to stand up for us. Bishop Gene Robinson strikes me as such a leader. A man of love, of justice, and of kindness, who walks humbly through the gates of temples denied him by powers that be, but not by God. He is a leader by example as well as someone we can follow, a compassionate listener who is being forged in the fire for great things.

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