The first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Church told worshipers at a downtown Washington church yesterday that there is room in the denomination for those who support his lifestyle and also for those who believe it is forbidden by Scripture.
New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson -- whose election last year has spawned a deep rift within the worldwide Anglican Communion, as well as its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church -- received a warm welcome at the Church of the Epiphany, a liberal parish that draws members from the city and suburbs and focuses much of its ministry on the homeless.
Some parishes in Northern Virginia and elsewhere in the United States have vocally criticized Robinson's elevation to bishop and are threatening to leave the church's geographical hierarchy. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, a strong opponent of allowing gay bishops, was touring the United States and proposed at a news conference in Fairfax City last week that dissenting U.S. parishes be placed under his jurisdiction.
But no opposition was visible yesterday at the church complex at 13th and G streets NW, where Robinson participated at an 8 a.m. Eucharist for about 200 homeless people, then helped serve those worshipers breakfast before speaking to an informal discussion group of about two dozen parishioners and delivering a sermon at the 11 a.m. Eucharist.
"We have this great tradition of being able to encompass such a wide range of folk," Robinson told those at the 10 a.m. discussion group. "That's our great gift. . . . We don't have to agree on every single issue in order to find unity in the great love of Jesus Christ."
Robinson said he wants room in the church to accommodate all believers, including conservatives such as Akinola. "We're going to be in heaven together, and we're going to get along, because God wouldn't have it any other way," he said of himself and the Nigerian prelate. "So, I figure, if we're going to get along in the long run, we might as well practice right now."
The 57-year-old bishop was presented with a National Equality Award on Friday night by the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay advocacy group. He was invited to the Church of the Epiphany by its rector, Randolph C. Charles, a friend from college and the seminary.
Robinson, who was accompanied at church by his partner of 17 years, said he will take seriously the recommendations to be issued Oct. 18 in the Lambeth Report, the culmination of a commission set up by the church to address the divisions created in the wake of his elevation to bishop.
But he cautioned in an interview that the issue of homosexual bishops is not limited to his tenure, saying that other openly gay priests occupy senior positions in the U.S. church and could be selected as bishops in coming years.
"That toothpaste isn't going to go back in the tube," Robinson said, his words steeped in the twang of rural Kentucky, where he grew up the son of sharecroppers and a seventh-generation member of a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist church.
About 315 people attended the 11 a.m. Eucharist -- more than twice the usual number, a spokesman for the Diocese of Washington said. Same-sex pairs stood in the pews among heterosexual couples. There were single twenty-somethings, young families and long-married couples with matching wrinkles and gray hair. Many in the racially mixed crowd said they had come from other area parishes to meet Robinson, to ask for his blessing or to show their support.
"I'm glad that our church has taken the lead in saying Christian churches can embrace gay people completely," said Jean Bruder of Chevy Chase. A 30-year member of All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, she said she was troubled that its rector opposed Robinson's election and was considering affiliating with a conservative group of churches that have formed in response to it. "It's very stressful," Bruder said. "We have always been a very broad church and able to hold in all the broad spectrum of people."
Will Stewart, a past president of the gay Episcopal group Integrity Washington, came to the Eucharist with his partner of 11 years. Stewart said he was glad Robinson did not mention the gay clergy issue in his sermon. It was enough, Stewart said, to know that the bishop who spoke and who helped offer Communion openly shared his lifestyle.
"If you're a black man, and you constantly see white people in the pulpit, it's nice to see a black face now and then," Stewart said. He added, however, that it was equally important to him that his own pastor, who is not gay, respects him and his partner and their relationship.
Janice Robinson, who is on sabbatical from her post as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, came to Church of the Epiphany with her partner, Berit Lakey. Robinson, who is not related to the bishop but has known him for years, knelt to receive his blessing after the service. She said those in her denomination who are focusing on opposing gay bishops would do better to concentrate on feeding the poor and clothing the needy.
While acknowledging "some friction" in the church over whether to allow openly gay bishops, she said the wounds will not be fatal to the Anglican Communion, which is descended from the Church of England and has 77 million members worldwide, 2.3 million of them Episcopalians in the United States.
"I don't think the church will die over it," she said. "The church has been embroiled in differences over theology since the church began."