Rev. Susan Russell

Episcopal priest and activist from Pasadena, Calif.

And Here’s to You, Bishop Robinson

In November 2003 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to ordain the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. For the record, V. Gene Robinson was not the first gay bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church, much less Christendom, but he was the first one to be honest about it. And so his ordination as the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire included pomp, circumstance and metal detectors. The assembled crowd included clergy, choirs and CNN.  And as we filed into the arena where the service would be held, we were greeted by ushers, reporters and bomb sniffing dogs.

In 2003 we were a country where marriage equality was still a dream, “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was in force and the president of the United States was backing a federal marriage amendment that would write discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans into the U.S. Constitution. And we were a church with an organized and mobilized conservative bloc reaching into their deep pockets in an effort to turn the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire into the schism that they hadn’t managed to pull off in the 1970s, when they had tried to split the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women.

What a difference nine years makes.

In November 2012 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to celebrate the retirement of Bishop Gene Robinson after nine years as their bishop. An ice sculpture of the diocesan logo took center stage on the buffet table as ladies in plaid skirts and gentlemen in blue blazers sipped tea and munched on brie. Gene circulated around the room hugging necks, posing for pictures and receiving the thanks of a diocese grateful for nine years of work and witness together.  It was an afternoon event marked by nothing so much as its quintessentially Episcopalian ordinariness — and there was not a metal detector or a reporter in sight.

And in 2012 we are a country where nine states (and the District of Columbia) have civil marriage equality, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed over a year ago and the president of the United States not only has “evolved” to become an outspoken supporter of marriage equality but is leading the charge to send DOMA (the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”) into the dustbin of history. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church has come out on the other side of the inclusion wars with a robust commitment to full inclusion for LGBT people that includes a General Convention that voted overwhelmingly to support federal marriage equality and to approve liturgies for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” but he didn’t say it bends easily or quickly, nor did he say there wouldn’t be some cracks along the way. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” a song that includes this wisdom: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

What the Diocese of New Hampshire did on June 7, 2003, when they elected V. Gene Robinson as their ninth bishop — and what the Episcopal Church did on Nov. 2, 2012, in consecrating him — was create a crack in systemic homophobia that let the light in: the light of equality, justice and compassion that shone far beyond our little corner of Christianity in some powerful and prophetic ways.

Ordination of Hirschfeld as Bishop Coadjutor in New Hampshire

In his letter to Bishop Robinson on the occasion of his retirement, President Obama wrote:

As you reflect on your many accomplishments, I hope you take tremendous pride in all you have done to fight AIDS, poverty and intolerance around the world. Your efforts remind us that we all have the power to create a better world when we do God’s work here on earth and your legacy will inspire generations to come.

I not only know that will be true, but I know that it is already true in the legacy that Bishop Robinson leaves as he concludes his tenure as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Ever an advocate for the most marginalized, Bishop Robinson has asked that donations in his name be made to support a chaplaincy program for the New Hampshire Prison for Women, which he describes in this moving video clip:

The Bible tells us in Matthew 25 that Jesus is a whole lot more interested in how we treat “the least of these” than he is in our theologies or our liturgies, our doctrines or our dogmas. And so the legacy that Bishop Robinson leaves as he concludes his ministry as Bishop of New Hampshire is so much greater than just being the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. It is a legacy of using the platform of privilege he has been given to continue to make a difference — to continue to get the light through the cracks — for absolutely anyone who has been told that they are outside the light of God’s love.