Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in Christian History Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

V. Gene Robinson was selected by New Hampshire clergy and parishioners and confirmed as the state’s ninth Anglican bishop. His consecration and investment created a historic schism among conservatives in the worldwide Anglican communion, especially in Africa. The controversy led also to the establishment of a commission, called for by the archbishop of Canterbury, to address the schism.

Summary of Event

Historically, the Anglican Church and its representative Episcopal Church Episcopal Church in the United States have been more liberal than Roman Catholicism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, and most other Christian denominations. Unlike evangelicals and biblical literalists, Episcopalians found their theology on a “three-legged stool” of faith, tradition, and, perhaps most significantly, reason. [kw]Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in Christian History (Mar. 7, 2004) [kw]Out Gay Bishop in Christian History, Robinson Becomes First (Mar. 7, 2004) [kw]Out Gay Bishop in Christian History, Robinson Becomes First (Mar. 7, 2004) [kw]Gay Bishop in Christian History, Robinson Becomes First Out (Mar. 7, 2004) [kw]Bishop in Christian History, Robinson Becomes First Out Gay (Mar. 7, 2004) [kw]Christian History, Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in (Mar. 7, 2004) Anglican Church;and gay clergy[gay clergy] Christian church;and gay and lesbian clergy[gay and lesbian clergy] Religion;gay and lesbian Christians [c]Religion;Mar. 7, 2004: Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in Christian History[2760] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 7, 2004: Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in Christian History[2760] [c]Civil rights;Mar. 7, 2004: Robinson Becomes First Out Gay Bishop in Christian History[2760] Robinson, V. Gene Akinola, Peter Williams, Rowan

The unusual emphasis on reason has fostered pragmatic, progressive debates on homosexuality, abortion, women’s rights, and other social issues. In 1976, Episcopalians officially began ordaining female priests, and liberal Episcopal clergy (such as Bishop John Shelby Spong) Spong, John Shelby argue that ancient passages traditionally considered to be proscriptions against homosexuality—embedded in Leviticus and elsewhere in Scripture—have little modern relevance and should be interpreted only in a historical context.

The liberalism of many Episcopalians, however, has not gone uncontested, nor is it shared with many in the Anglican communion’s conservative African and Asian territories. Out gay clergyman V. Gene Robinson was ordained as the bishop of New Hampshire in November, 2003, and invested on March 7, 2004, to become Christianity’s first serving bishop who is gay and out. (A former bishop, Otis Charles of Utah, came out as gay but did so after retirement.) Episcopalian and Anglican traditionalists soon believed their theology was under assault from a growing liberal majority.

Conservative bishops resented that Robinson’s sexuality was being framed as a civil rights issue, not a theological one. Many of Robinson’s fellow Anglicans still refused to accept women priests, sex education, birth control, or gay and lesbian parishioners. They were concerned that Robinson was not only gay but also divorced from a heterosexual marriage, was noncelibate, and was living with his male partner of many years. Though conservatives framed Robinson as a symbol of family disintegration, the dissolution of Robinson’s 1972 marriage to Isabella Martin was mutual, with Robinson and Martin pledging to raise their two daughters jointly. Moreover, before their marriage, Robinson confided to Martin that he had undergone two years of counseling, while still a seminarian, about his sexual identity. Apart from the “impropriety” of being gay, Robinson is, in his words, “orthodox” in faithfully interpreting all relevant areas of Anglican ritual and doctrine.

Although Episcopalians have a presiding bishop and Anglicans accept a spiritual leader in the archbishop of Canterbury, the controversies surrounding Robinson have been exacerbated because Anglicans recognize no centralized authority (such as a pope) who can decree final judgments on policy issues. Instead, Anglicans distribute authority across regional, autonomous bishoprics; periodically, bishops worldwide congregate around the archbishop of Canterbury at the Lambeth Conference Lambeth Conference, Anglican Church to draw resolutions and air grievances; often, little is accomplished. Anglicans pride themselves on their civility, but excessive diplomatic politesse can lead to ambiguity and contradiction. For example, in 1998, the conference issued a statement promising inclusion of gay and lesbian voices but took no firm stand supporting gay and lesbian rights, and while the presiding bishop and the archbishop privately support church liberalization, they are obliged to project a noncommittal centrism for the sake of Anglican unity.

In 2003, however, a Lambeth commission was established at the request of the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to address the concerns raised by Robinson’s consecration and investiture. The commission’s mandate was to explore tensions within the communion but not to address the ethics of homosexuality or same-gender unions. The commission issued the Windsor Report Windsor Report (Anglican Church) in 2004, concluding, in part, that on the matter of human sexuality, there should be ongoing, open, and frank study and discussion among and within the church’s provinces.


Since the time of Bishop V. Gene Robinson’s investment, conservatives had warned of a cataclysmic schism in the Anglican communion and have threatened that an angry diocese would split from the church. The schism arrived, and the Windsor Report addressed it.

Robinson’s most hostile opponents have been African Anglican Church in Africa, and gay clergy archbishops, most notably Nigeria’s Peter Akinola but also Uganda’s Henry Luke Orombi and Kenya’s Benjamin Nzimbi. Their rhetoric is reminiscent of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, infamous for calling homosexuals “lower than dogs.” African conservatives have been engaged in a kind of economic blackmail, threatening either to withhold contributions to or to reject outright donations from any diocese supporting Robinson’s investment. Unfortunately, impoverished Africans needing Western aid have suffered from an ideological conflict they probably knew little about.

African Anglicans have considered the acceptance of gay clergy as a modern, colonialist imposition upon their faith, without realizing that their own biases originate from the influence of nineteenth century missionaries. While Africans see the Robinson affair as another example of the West’s intrusive, unilateral foreign policies, liberals argue that Episcopalian support for Robinson benefits a disenfranchised minority only, not the powers-that-be, and is thus in keeping with Christian teaching. Episcopalian liberals also have chided African conservatives for obsessing about homosexuality while condoning the rape and stoning of women, polygamy, and other un-Christian practices routinely tolerated on the African continent. Furthermore, in a November, 2005, speech, retired Anglican archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu Tutu, Desmond called on Anglicans around the world to support Bishop Robinson and to oppose all forms of discrimination.

To bolster their ranks, Episcopal conservatives have joined forces with African bishops, whose voices were heretofore considered marginal; meanwhile, the archbishop of Uganda has taken under his oversight at least three conservative Episcopalian parishes in Los Angeles that support the African dissension. Anglican leaders in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda have claimed a state of “impaired” communion with American Episcopalians, and a small but growing number of conservative Episcopal dioceses, including the Church of the Redeemer and St. Mark’s Church in Robinson’s home state of New Hampshire, have demanded a visiting bishop attend to their needs in lieu of Robinson. As of the fall of 2004, the Episcopal Church had lost only an estimated 7 percent of its operating budget as a result of boycotts by conservatives.

For centuries, it has been known that a disproportionate number of clergymen, which some estimates place at 25 percent or more, are gay. Clerical celibacy had often been the only socially acceptable vehicle to mask homosexual desire, and gradually it became a convenient cultural answer to a dominant theological problem. Bishop Robinson’s investment not only has delivered homosexuality from the clerical closet but also has forever raised the stakes by elevating the discussion of gay clergy from alarmist, reactionary stories about pedophilic priests to the story of a devout, monogamous gay man risen to an unprecedented position of hierarchical authority. Anglican Church;and gay clergy[gay clergy] Christian church;and gay and lesbian clergy[gay and lesbian clergy] Religion;gay and lesbian Christians

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyd, Malcolm. Take off the Masks: The Classic Spiritual Autobiography. 1978. Rev. ed. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
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    xlink:type="simple">Clatworthy, Jonathan, and David Bruce Taylor, eds. The Windsor Report: A Liberal Response. Winchester, England: O Books, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Episcopal Church, Diocese of New Hampshire: Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Web site includes a biography, interview, and personal statements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linzey, Andrew, and Richard Kirker, eds. Gays and the Future of Anglicanism: Responses to the Windsor Report. New York: O Books, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Righter, Walter. A Pilgrim’s Way. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spong, Shelby S. Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperCollins, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Temple, Gray, et al. Gospel Opportunity or Gospel Threat? The Church’s Debate on Sexuality. New York: Church, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">The Unofficial Anglican Pages of Louie Crew. A comprehensive online database maintained by Louie Crew, member of the Executive Council, Episcopal Church.

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Categories: History