Sunday, January 6, 2013

God Believes in Love

I just finished reading God Believes in Love: Straight Talk on Gay Marriage, written by the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, ninth Bishop of New Hampshire and only recently retired.

I have met Bishop Robinson exactly twice and only in passing; he has no idea who I am. When I was a young curate in Connecticut I met him when he was still the Canon to the Ordinary in New Hampshire. That was probably 20 years ago. And then this past summer, I met him in line at Starbucks at General Convention. I wrote about that experience here.

What struck me about this book and those two (admittedly) brief encounters is how kind he is. He seems (in spite of death threats and hatred directed at him for almost a decade now for having the courage to be open about his sexuality and serve a Bishop in the Church he loves) to not harbor ill will toward those who still struggle with questions such as the one this book addresses: gay marriage. Amazing!

He begins by telling a bit of his story and his two marriages: his first marriage to a woman named "Boo" Martin and his second marriage to Mark Andrew, his partner for 25 years before they could legally marry in New Hampshire. He thanks both of them in the opening chapter of the book before going on to address in a conversational style some of the questions he has been asked, including: "Why Gay Marriage Now?" and "Doesn't the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?" and "Don't Children Need a Mother and a Father?"

This book will not change the minds of any "hardliners" who are convinced that homosexuality is a sin. And for those for whom this is "no big deal" there is nothing terribly new here. The chapter on the Bible is essentially a distillation of what serious Biblical scholarship has said about the "seven texts" that supposedly deal with this topic that are found in both testaments. This is not in any way to dismiss this chapter or any of the book; the fact is that many faithful people really do believe, based on what they have heard from some preachers, that the Bible is clearly against homosexuality and therefore, presumably gay marriage. In fact the kind of clear writing here needs to be stated again and again to counter that false sense of what the Scriptures do and do not say.

The best audience for this book are open-minded people who are still struggling with the idea of gay marriage; people who do have gay and lesbian friends and want to be supportive but who may genuinely feel like the world is changing rapidly, and maybe even too rapidly. And who are not sure that religion ought to be delving into all of this. I believe that such persons would find this book helpful.

I personally needed no convincing. The book was given to me as a gift and I read it gladly. The Church has been talking about these things for decades now and I think it is time for us to fully embrace the ministries of all the baptized, as I have previously stated in this blog. I am proud to be part of a denomination that has approved a rite for same-sex blessings and to have voted for that rite this summer at General Convention. In reading this book, I found myself simply saying "amen" a lot as I read each chapter.

There were two vignettes that I am left with after reading this book. One is the brief history about the gay rights movement. Bishop Robinson suggests that it was the AIDs crisis that precipitated people "coming out" to their families. Prior to that, people could legitimately say "I don't know any gay people." Bishop Robinson was born in the south in 1947 when, as he puts it, "homosexuality was hardly ever referred to in polite conversation, and when it was, it was always in a whisper." (page 19) People could go the movies to see Rock Hudson or James Dean and never dream that they were gay. I have heard this same kind of comment again and again from church people who might ask, quite sincerely: "what will happen if we start ordaining gay and lesbian clergy? I often have known, for a fact, that they had been served by (closeted) gay priests whom they adored, but without a clue about their private lives. 

Bishop Robinson notes that there is almost no one left in America who can legitimately claim now that they do not know a gay or lesbian person: a co-worker or a child or grandchild or neighbor. The issue is not that there are more gay and lesbian people, but that these persons are now able to be more open about who they are. Clearly this is what the conversations in the Church have been about over the past few decades.

A related point, for me, is the compelling story Bishop Robinson tells about a speech he made at Colby College in Maine. In his speech he admits to having made an overly glib and frivolous comment: "I don't know how any of you straight white guys get it!" One of those straight white males came up to him after the speech to tell him he had an answer to the question: "we listen to you....and then we believe you." (page 45)

This, too, it seems to me is something my denomination has been working at. Rather than talking about people as if they are not in the room, we are learning (with God's help and with the courageous witness of people like Gene Robinson) to listen to the lived experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. People are being empowered to tell their own stories, in their own words, and many of us believe them.

This, for me, is the real value of not only this book but of the ministry of Gene Robinson to all the Church. My prayer is that he and Mark Andrew may enjoy the next chapter of "retirement"- and that the rest of us might honor his ministry by learning how better to listen and believe the experience of our LGBT neighbors and friends.

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