New Hampshire Priest is First Openly Gay Man Elected Bishop

Episcopal News Service. June 7, 2003 [2003-126]

Jan Nunley

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, canon to the ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire since 1988, was elected bishop coadjutor on the second ballot in an election held June 7 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Concord, New Hampshire. Robinson is the first openly gay man in the Episcopal Church to be elected as a bishop.

The other nominees were the Rev. Ruth Lawson Kirk, rector of St. Peter's Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania; the Rev. Pamela Mott, pastor at Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Oregon; and the Rev. Robert Tate, rector of St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A fifth nominee, the Rev. Joe Goodwin Burnett, withdrew after being elected bishop of Nebraska in May.

A bishop coadjutor is consecrated to become the next bishop of a diocese upon the retirement of the diocesan bishop, and assists the diocesan bishop until retirement.

Only 39 clergy and 83 lay votes were needed to elect. On the first ballot, Robinson received 51 clergy votes and 77 lay votes--only 6 lay votes shy of an election. When the second ballot was counted, Robinson had 58 clergy votes and 96 lay votes--far more than needed to elect him bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire.

General Convention must consent

Both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Minneapolis in late July, must ratify Robinson's election.

According to Title III, Canon 22, if the date of an election occurs within 120 days before a meeting of the General Convention, the standing committee of the diocese must forward evidence of the election, of the bishop-elect's ordination, of the acceptance of election, and a testimonial signed by a majority of the electing convention to the secretary of the House of Deputies. Biographical information and certificates from a medical doctor and a psychiatrist must be included.

The secretary of the House of Deputies presents the documents to the house, and if they consent to the ordination, notice is sent to the House of Bishops. If a majority of the bishops 'exercising jurisdiction' (sitting diocesan bishops)consent, the presiding bishop notifies the diocesan standing committee and the bishop-elect and 'takes order' for the ordination of the bishop-elect.

Robinson could be ordained by the presiding bishop, by the president of Province I--currently the current bishop of Maine, Chilton Knudsen--and two other bishops, or by any three bishops chosen by the presiding bishop. If Robinson's election receives the necessary consents, his consecration will be held November 2, 2003, and he would be installed as bishop on March 7, 2004.

If either house of the General Convention withholds consent, however, the presiding bishop declares the election null and void and the diocese must undertake a new election.

Ministry focused on conflict resolution

Robinson was elected just two days short of the thirtieth anniversary of his ordination. As canon to the ordinary, he has coordinated diocesan staff and the ministry of the Office of the Bishop. Since 1983 he has served as executive secretary of Province I, consisting of the dioceses of New England, and since 2001 on the board of trustees of the General Theological Seminary in New York.

Much of Robinson's ministry has focused on helping congregations and clergy in conflict. He developed and led 'Being Well in Christ,' a conference dealing with the issue of clergy wellness, in some 20 dioceses. He also initiated 'Fresh Start,' a two-year mentoring program for clergy in new positions, and co-authored a curriculum now used in 44 dioceses. Robinson has done AIDS work in Africa and has facilitated anti-racism training for the diocese and Province I.

A 1969 graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, he has a B.A. in American Studies/History. In 1973, he completed the M. Div. at General Seminary and after ordination served as curate at Christ Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Upon moving to New Hampshire in 1975, Robinson co-owned and directed an accredited girls' summer camp and horse farm. As founding director of Sign of the Dove Retreat Center in Temple, New Hampshire, he facilitated spiritual direction and designed programs for a variety of groups. He also managed the diocesan Living into Our Baptism program of spiritual growth and development. From 1978-1985, Robinson was youth ministries coordinator for Province I, serving for two years on the National Youth Ministries Development Team and helping originate the national Episcopal Youth Event.

A leader in the diocese's partnership with the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund for affordable housing, he is on the board of the New Hampshire Endowment for Health, a foundation working for access to health care for the uninsured. He is one of the founders of Concord Outright, a support group for gay/lesbian/questioning teens.

Value opposing views

In his answers to questions posed to all candidates by the diocesan search committee, posted on the diocesan web site, Robinson said, 'The particular answer to these questions is less important to me than how we as a Church deliberate about them. Are we prayerful about them, listening for God's voice instead of our own egos? Do we truly value the people who hold an opposing view, while disagreeing with their position? And most of all, can we continue to come to the communion rail, humbly receive the Body and Blood of Christ, respecting the dignity of those who disagree with us. I believe we can. And must.'

Robinson described accepting Christ 'as my personal Lord and Savior' at the age of 12 in a Disciples of Christ congregation in rural Kentucky. He became an Episcopalian while in college, was ordained in 1973, and served his first parish in Ridgewood, New Jersey. In 1975, he and his wife left the parish for New Hampshire.

It was in New Hampshire, Robinson said, that he 'answered God's call to acknowledge myself as a gay man. My wife and I, in order to KEEP our wedding vow to 'honor [each other] in the Name of God,' made the decision to let each other go. We returned to church, where our marriage had begun, and in the context of the eucharist, released each other from our wedding vows, asked each other's forgiveness, cried a lot, pledged ourselves to the joint raising of our children, and shared the Body and Blood of Christ.

'Risking the loss of my children and the exercise of my ordained ministry in the Church was the biggest risk I've ever taken, but it left me with two unshakable things: my integrity and my God,' he continued. 'It won the hearts of my daughters, whom I feared losing, and, later, the love of a wonderful partner, with whom I've made a home for the past 13 years.' The father of two grown daughters, Jamee and Ella, Robinson lives with his partner Mark Andrew outside Concord, New Hampshire.

A local priest, a bishop--and Mister Rogers

Asked to describe three 'contemporary saints,' Robinson cited a local priest, the Rev. Carl Schaller; Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman elected bishop in the Anglican Communion; and public television's Mister Rogers: ''Won't you be my neighbor?' Not a bad role model for a bishop!'

Robinson identified three questions as indicators of key trends in the life of the Episcopal Church: 'Can we live together while we fight? Will our faith have children? Are we a people in community, or is it 'us' versus 'them?''

Answering the last question, Robinson wrote, 'There is no room for 'them' and 'us' in the Church, because in God's economy, there is NO 'them.' A bishop ought not only to preach that message, but with God's help, to embody it in his or her ministry.'

News of the bishop search in New Hampshire is available at the website of the Diocese of New Hampshire.