Bishop Robinson and the Numbers

A friend wrote, "This will probably stir up a row but please bear with me because I am limping between two opinions of this. Today's 'Independent' has some figures re: schism. While most of you are rejoicing over Gene Robinson, I am confused. I understand that a bishop is neant to be a focus of unity - within his/her diocese and with the wider Church. Yet it would seem that 60 million Anglicans object to him and 6 million either tolerate or accept him."

No row -- just some thoughts.

I suspect roughly the same figures would apply to the acceptance of our women bishops by other bishops within the Anglican Communion, and, then, of course, still other bishops claiming to speak for the vast majority of Catholic Christians in the world are of the opinion that all our priests and bishops, including Peter Akinola, Bob Duncan, Rowan Williams, and Gene Robinson, are impostors. Numbers really don't get us anywhere, except, perhaps, right out of the Anglican Communion itself.

Bishop RobinsonAnd I would want to say that a bishop is -- not "is meant to be", but is -- a sacramental sign of the unity in Christ (who is the real "focus" of unity) of the sacramental Church, rather than a juridical figure the authenticity of whose "authority" is accepted or rejected according to whether or not one accepts or rejects her gender, orientation, skin color, or one's perception of his "morality" or lack of it. Like it or not, Gene Robinson is now a Catholic bishop, duly and prayerfully elected by the people of his diocese and approved and ordained by "the bishops of the same province" (Cyprian) As such, Gene Robinson is now a sign of the Church's unity in Christ, no matter how many in the Calvinist provinces are unable to see it.

Was it a "prudent" thing to do at this juncture? Would it have been better for the people of New Hampshire to have put aside their conviction that Gene was far and away the best of all candidates to be their bishop and that his sexuality was totally irrelevant to their determination? Perhaps, if we were talking secular politics, it might have been. But I remember vividly a conversation I had many years ago with a Russian Orthodox priest, in the U.S. as a representative of the Patriarch of Moscow. It was in the years leading up to the ordination of women, and, although open to the idea, I was fearful of the adverse effects it might have on our ecumenical relations with the Orthodox. His beard quivered as he looked at me rather fiercely and said, "That is not an issue. The issue is 'do you believe this to be the work of the Holy Spirit?' If you come to the conclusion that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, you must do it. You have no choice. YOU MUST DO IT!"

I, along with the great majority of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., have prayerfully and not without considering the consequences come to the conviction that the election, confirmation, and ordination of Gene Robinson has been the surprising and sometimes dreadfully disruptive work of the Holy Spirit. We had no choice; we had to do it, now. And we're willing to accept the consequences of our obedience.

Finally, I wonder what, exactly, is the vaunted "unity" of the Anglican Communion? Has it ever really existed beyond a sentimental attachment to a "heritage" or, perhaps, as a political construct -- as the right wing is fond of saying, "the glue that holds the British Commonwealth together"? I do know that if that unity can only be preserved at the expense of the continued rejection and persecution of some of the most marginalized and despised daughters and sons of God on earth, it couldn't have been worth much to begin with.

I don't know whether the Anglican Communion is going to split irrevocably or not; I certainly am not praying for it. But I do not for a moment believe that the ordination of Gene Robinson, or even homosexuality itself is the cause of the present divisions. I think the divisions go much, much deeper and that if every lesbian, gay, bi, or trans bishop, priest, deacon, and lay person went back into the closet tomorrow, other issues would immediately arise to take its place.

But even as the compromises forged over the political and religious issues of the 16th Century begin to come apart under the pressures of new realities, I'm enough of a revolutionary optimist to see that the other side of this dissolution is a growing unity among those Christians of every communion who understand the social content, the liberating dynamic of the Christian Faith. "Denominational" lines and brand names like "Anglican" increasingly lose their grip on us. Networks of "Kingdom-oriented" Christians are being built between and outside them, and, in a tentative way, new, largely local, institutions are being built that can equip the Church for the work of the coming centuries. Perhaps if we spent a little less time wringing our hands over the break-up of the cocoon, our eyes might be able to see the emerging wings of the butterfly.

At least so I dare to hope,

Ted Mellor
Los Angeles
November 4, 2003