Editorial Note: Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal church, has been given the honor of kicking off Obama’s inauguration with a prayer. The reason for this seems obvious enough. In recent weeks, the selection of Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural convocation speech has prompted an outcry from progressives and gay activists, all of whom who have denounced Warren’s antigay rhetoric and role in the passage of Proposition 8. Robinson, whose election as Bishop has caused a rift in the Episcopal Church, would seem to be Obama’s response to this criticism. And a good response it is.
In the past five years, the Episcopal Church has found itself pushed to the forefront of the culture wars. After Gene Robinson, an openly gay man with a longterm partner, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, Anglican bishops from all over the world quickly decried the move. Conservative congregations in the US and Canada left the national churches. Some aligned themselves with the Anglican Church of Nigeria and its outspoken homophobic leader, Archbishop Peter Akinola. On December 3 of this year, these conservatives announced the creation of a new denomination, one that will compete openly with the Episcopalians for congregations and tithes. While not recognized by the Anglican Communion, the New York Times described this latest move as “the biggest challenge yet to the authority of the Episcopal Church,” which “threatens the fragile unity of the Anglican Communion.”
The Anglican conservatives have argued that the Episcopal Church acted too rashly in its acceptance of gays and lesbians into the leadership of the church. Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone of America, called Gene Robinson’s election “a slap in the face of the Anglican Church around the world.” Reverend Nyhan of St. James the Just described it as “hubris of Biblical proportions, and that’s a polite way of saying diabolical.”
But in fact, Robinson’s election was less an example of cavalier decision-making than the outgrowth of a long and thoughtful debate within the church. Following a request from the Lambeth Commission, the Episcopalian Church published a 135-page document etitled “To Set Our Hope in Christ,” which detailed how the church had come to include homosexuals as equal members of the congregation. Presenting both a theological and legislative argument for gay and lesbian equality, the document includes a long list of commission findings and carefully worded resolutions stating repeatedly how the Episcopal Church is “not of one mind” on matters of sexuality but is committed to “promot[ing] the continu[ed] use of dialogue.” There’s the 1976 Commission on Human Affairs asserting that “homosexual persons are children of God, who have a full and equal claim with all other persons on love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church,” or the creation of a moderately liberal guide on sexuality in the 1980s.