By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 26, 2008
CANTERBURY, England -- Gene Robinson's bodyguard didn't have to worry this time.
The 40-year-old man who rushed over to Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican church, just wanted to shake his hand. "Thank you for bringing the church into the 21st century, for moving things forward," said Martin MacCiarrain, a government employee.
The bodyguard, a retired policeman who trails the American bishop because of death threats, eased back. On Sunday during a sermon Robinson delivered in London, a long-haired man had suddenly leapt up screaming at the American bishop: "Repent! Repent!"
Since Robinson, 61, was consecrated as bishop in New Hampshire five years ago, his presence has threatened to split the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest church. A traditionalist wing of the church whose leaders include Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who condemns homosexuality as an abomination against God's teaching, has been so at odds with welcoming gay people and women that it held its own breakaway meeting in Jerusalem last month.
Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the Communion, did not invite Robinson to the church's gathering in Canterbury, known as the Lambeth Conference, in an attempt to calm any move toward formal schism. Even so, Akinola and more than 200 bishops, many from Africa, have boycotted the conference, held once every 10 years.
But 650 of the 880 bishops invited did come. Robinson, with no invitation, showed up, too, though he cannot go to the official meetings. On Monday, he worked the sidelines as his fellow bishops -- nearly all wearing shirts of the same deep purple -- quietly strode across the campus of the University of Kent toward discussion and prayer meetings.
"I would rather be on the inside. It's never okay to be relegated to the fringe by someone," said Robinson, a charismatic man with short graying hair and rimless glasses. If he succeeds in explaining how he can be "unabashedly gay and unabashedly Christian" to even one more person who cannot fathom it, he said, "it will have been worth it."
The last Lambeth conference, in 1998, produced a resolution that declared active homosexuality to be incompatible with the teachings of the Bible. Robinson's elevation to bishop five years later by the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, accelerated the clash. More than a dozen Episcopal congregations in Virginia voted in late 2006 and early 2007 to break with the U.S. church, including the influential Falls Church in Falls Church and Truro Church in Fairfax. Most of these are now aligned with Akinola, the archbishop in Nigeria.
Moreover, the Episcopal Church is now led by a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Many conservative members of the faith continue to oppose appointment of women priests and bishops, but no issue has stirred division globally as much as treatment of gays and lesbians in the church. In some countries, homosexual acts are a crime, several Lambeth participants pointed out, noting that Robinson brought his longtime partner, Mark Andrew, to the conference.
On Monday, shaking hands and smiling, Robinson worked an area called the Marketplace, where bishops and believers milled around booths that sold such items as gold crosses and books about spirituality. He moved from one TV interview to the next, saying over and over that there is place for gay men and lesbians in the church. "If Jesus were here, rather than be with the powers that be on the inside, he'd be outside, on the fringe," he said.
Robinson hastened to add that there are already many gay bishops and priests in the church -- they just aren't public about it.
To follow Robinson around is to watch a celebrity with a mission -- he is readily recognized by many who wave, applaud and urge him on. Others quietly grumble that his presence overshadows all other issues, such as the bishops' pleas for more governmental action against extreme poverty.
Ramiro Delgado Vera, a bishop from Mexico, said the consecration of Robinson "for some of the bishops is a big concern. For others, it is not."
"We are praying that despite the troubles, we leave more comforted and with a feeling that we are one church," he said.
"It's a new thing for us," said Paul Dupare, a bishop from India. "It's difficult to understand. It may take time."
A group of American bishops at the conference invited their counterparts from other parts of the world to privately meet Robinson. They met behind closed doors, Robinson said, because some wouldn't want to be seen or photographed near him.
Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham, England, told reporters at the start of the conference last weekend that Americans had stirred up the current problems in the church. He likened it to the United States starting the Iraq war. "George Bush said he was going to invade Iraq. Everyone told him not to because there would be consequences, but he did it anyway. The Americans floated the balloon in 2003 when they consecrated Gene Robinson. . . . They knew it would be unacceptable" to most people in the Communion, Wright was quoted in British newspapers as saying.
Along with keeping his distance from Robinson, Archbishop Williams has ensured that the conference will hold no formal votes that could highlight divisions.
"Are we heading for schism? Well, let's see," Williams said at a news conference. "If it is the end, I do not think anyone has told most of the people here."
Robinson said some people in the church are fearful of change and fearful that supporting gay people is contrary to Scripture.
Over the years, he said, "Scripture has been used to denigrate women, justify slavery and not welcome divorced people." Thinking does change, he said, and "it's not a matter of if, but when people will accept homosexuality" in the highest ranks of the church.
On a hill overlooking the medieval Canterbury Cathedral, Robinson noted the physical distance between where he stood and the seat of the mother church of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England.
Then he turned toward the camera for a live interview on the evening news and said he is optimistic the gap will close: "I will be only 71 at the next Lambeth Conference," he said, "so perhaps I will come back with other gay and lesbian bishops."