Today, in a ceremony with less media attention than the prior consecration service and no protests, A. Robert Hirschfield was installed as the 10th Bishop of New Hampshire, succeeding Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson.
My first contact with Bishop Gene Robinson came when I was a teenager in my confirmation class just over 30 years ago. He was Rev. Gene then, running Sign of the Dove Retreat Center for the diocese of New Hampshire. He was to be the latest victim of my favorite game at the time: stump the priest. I tried to lure him into a conundrum of explaining to me, "Where did God come from?" But instead of me stumping him, he blew me away. He smiled with his trademark grin of excitement and joy and exclaimed, "That is a GREAT question! I don't know! But I have faith that there is a God." His willingness to engage me, and take my question seriously, not only disarmed me; it was one of the few times in my youth that a priest in the Episcopal Church told me I'd asked a "great" question, one that opened an avenue for a discussion much more meaningful than I had anticipated. Suddenly, I wasn't some punk kid who didn't ask "the right questions"; I was making a valid inquiry, one worthy of adult attention. Like I said, it blew me away.
What I have loved so much about +Gene in his public role as the bishop, standing out as "the gay bishop" for most of the Anglican Communion, is that he has kept the same enthusiasm and enjoyment in engaging people that I remembered from my youth. He is a genuine, kind, funny, and a real believer. Certainly, he's been a bright light for me as a lesbian Episcopalian living in a diocese that insists on sitting in darkness. The fact that my "homies" elected him makes me proud to be a native of New Hampshire. Recently, +Gene noted in an interview that one of the many great things about New Hampshire is that when he was there, he was simply, "the bishop" without the "gay" adjective. That's because the people of New Hampshire seem to be the only adults in the Anglican Communion.
His election gave me tremendous hope. I had already walked away from the Episcopal Church because it seemed that being gay and being an Episcopalian was incompatible. He made it clear that I had been listening to the wrong shepherd. I was delighted when I learned that my mom, as a member of the choir at Christ Church Exeter, would be among the many voices raising the roof in song at UNH (the hockey arena was the only venue large enough in the state to accommodate the crush of media interest). I hooked her up with the producers of "This Way Out," the international gay and lesbian radio magazine out of Los Angeles, and she was their "embedded" reporter, giving her eyewitness account in an interview with Greg Gordon, with supplemental sound provided courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio. Greg was kind enough to send me a cassette copy of the program so I could hear the story. I remember driving along the streets of Tallahassee, smiling as I listened. Then the music bed from the service played:
For all the saints from whom their labors rest
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy Name, O Jesus, before ever blessed.
The smile evaporated and tears started streaming down my face. The tune was so familiar, the news was so good... and the Episcopal Church in my immediate circumstance of Tallahassee was so foreign to me and so deeply opposed to +Gene (and, by extension, ANY gay person) that all I could do was cry and wonder aloud, "Why? Why are we so hated?"
+Gene faced that hatred every day, with death threats, hate mail, and the crowning moment when the now retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, announced that +Gene would not be allowed to attend the big Bishop bash called the Lambeth Conference. Gene became the proverbial Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer of the Anglican Communion. The snub was hurtful and insulting to him, to all LGBT Anglicans, and especially to the people of the diocese of New Hampshire. And again, I cried, "Why? Why are we so hated?"
In truth, I still have never received a reasonable answer to THAT question. Perhaps because there is no reasonable answer, not when the overwhelming message of the Gospel is one of Love.
Things are better now in Tallahassee. Schisms happened, and the "Angricans" have moved down the street, leaving St. John's to those who would populate it with a mind toward inclusion and love. Our diocese remains one in darkness when it comes to pastoral care toward the LGBT community, but it's more like dusk rather than the dead of night. Bishop Gene's service to the church has given many the confidence to let their own lights shine. But he can't illuminate all sectors of the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion; that's the job of those of us in these darkened areas to follow his example, be bold and yet not hard-hearted as we listen to those who still have fear.
I thought it was appropriate that this morning's daily office started us off in the story of Joshua taking up the mantle of Moses upon the patriarch's death. The repeated phrase, "Be strong and courageous" seems to be a good mantra as +Rob takes over in New Hampshire. Those are wise words for all of us who carry on in the Episcopal Church, post +Gene.
I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’--Joshua 1:9