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Interview With Gay Bishop-Elect Gene Robinson

Aired June 10, 2003 - 19:35   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, moving on to other news, the Episcopal Church with 77 million members worldwide could make news next month. The U.S. convention will meet and vote on whether to confirm its first openly gay bishop. Reverend Gene Robinson was elected just this weekend in New Hampshire.
Now some members of the church, which has been divided by the issue of homosexuality for decades, have threatened to quit if he's confirmed.

We're going to speak to him in a moment. But first, CNN's Michael Okwu takes a look at how he got to the center of all this controversy.


MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This may look like a walk in the park, but you're witnessing history. On Saturday, Episcopalians in the dioceses members New Hampshire elected over three other candidates, Reverend Gene Robinson as their bishop, the first openly gay bishop anywhere in the worldwide Anglican community.

REV. GENE ROBINSON, DIOCESE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: My nomination and my election is problematic for lots of people around and lots of nasty comments come your way. So it's not an easy thing to say yes to.

OKWU: At 56, Robinson has survived his share of hardships in Christian life. He was born into a strict fundamentalist church in Kentucky with little tolerance for homosexuality.

In 1969, he entered his seminary, the same year as the Stonewall Revolt, a major clash between gays and police in New York, often considered the beginning of the militant gay rights movement. He was married and amicably divorced after telling himself he could no longer live a lie. Two years later, Robinson met his new partner. Later, the reverend introduced him to his daughters.

Robinson has served 16 years as the right hand of the current bishop. In the past, some of his colleagues did not support the idea of a homosexual as bishop.

Today, many of them say Reverend Robinson is a role model.

HAYS JUNKIN, DIOCESE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: He's a tremendous, tremendous pastor. Great administrator. Very intellectual. Tremendous preacher. People genuinely like Gene.

OKWU: The retiring bishop, Douglas Theuner, says Robinson's election is a challenge to the church to live up to its ideals.

BISHOP DOUGLAS THEUNER, DIOCESE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: It's a challenge for the church to be honest. I mean, we talk a lot in the church about being open and inclusive, about sexual orientation not being a barrier to the ordination process or to leadership.

OKWU: Robinson will lead the diocese if he wins the consent of bishops and other representatives at a general convention next month. It may be another hurdle for him to face.

(on camera): If Robinson is confirmed, he would become the ninth bishop in the New Hampshire diocese, presiding over a flock of 17,000. After his election, some of those congregants threaten to leave the church.

(voice-over): But on the quiet streets of Concord, New Hampshire, just blocks from his office, the general sentiment was supportive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's fabulous. I think that people's personal lives in that way have nothing to do with the ability to lead and a bishop is a leader.

OKWU: Asked how he might lead change for gay followers as bishop, Reverend Robinson said the best thing to do is be a good bishop, not a gay one.

Michael Okwu, CNN, Concord, New Hampshire.


COOPER: Well, I spoke with the Reverend Gene Robinson, whose title until he takes office is actually Canon Robinson, shortly after his election.


COOPER: Canon Robinson, did you -- when you realized you were gay, did you think you had any future in the church?

ROBINSON: It was a terrible risk. I thought I might not have a future as an ordained person in the church. I'd hoped that the church wouldn't reject me, but I thought my ordained ministry might be over.

COOPER: Because this was back in 1986, right?

ROBINSON: And it's hard to remember how the world was just that few years ago. It was a very tough place to come out, and the church really hadn't dealt with these issues yet.

COOPER: As you well know, there are many conservatives in the church who say the scriptures condemn homosexuality. How do you -- how do you respond to that? ROBINSON: We'd need two days to talk about that. But what I would say is what we're talking today about faithful, monogamous, lifelong intentioned relationships between people of the same sex is just simply not addressed in scripture. The references there are to people who are thought to be heterosexually oriented who are acting in homosexual, which is against their nature. The whole notice of sexual orientation is only about 100 years old.

COOPER: Can you minister to those who oppose you to bishop?

ROBINSON: Absolutely. I have done that for 17 years as the assistant to the bishop in the diocese of New Hampshire. I've worked with people for whom this a very troubling issue, and they, I think, would tell you that they've come to know me as a faithful pastor and that I'm able to serve them.

COOPER: You have been elected -- you were one of four candidates nominated, I believe.

ROBINSON: That's right.

COOPER: Now elected. But it won't be official unless approved in July by the larger church body.

ROBINSON: That's right.

COOPER: That's going to be a very divisive meeting?

ROBINSON: It might be, but I also expect it to be a very prayerful, thoughtful meeting. Bishops are elected to be bishops of the whole church and so there's this consent process that confirms an election in a local diocese.

COOPER: And what would you say -- I mean, I don't know if you -- I don't know if you speak at these kinds of things, but if you were to speak -- I mean, if you were to argue your case, if you will, why should you be a bishop?

ROBINSON: Partly because the diocese of New Hampshire has elected me and in our church, a diocese chooses their own leader. But also because the diocese of New Hampshire -- sexual orientation was almost a footnote in this election. They were looking at my experiences, their experience of me over 28 years and my orientation had little or nothing to do with what they thought qualified me to be the bishop.

COOPER: When you were elected, your two children were there.

ROBINSON: My son-in-law.

COOPER: Your son-in-law and your partner, as well.

ROBINSON: Absolutely.

COOPER: What was that moment like? ROBINSON: Well, wonderful because they've lived through a couple of other elections with me in which I wasn't as fortunate and it was a wonderful thing for our whole family. And they have been so supportive. My two grown daughters are just my greatest friends in all this.

Well, and my partner already left his career with the peace corps to come and be with me in New Hampshire with me and my girls were young. And so he stood by me all the way.

COOPER: You know, those that oppose you becoming bishop, do you understand -- I mean, without sort of getting into the arguments so much as you said it would take days to argue the case -- but I mean, do you understand where they coming from? So you see -- can you walk in their shoes?

ROBINSON: Absolutely. And we've walked in this road before. When we were considering the ordination of women and women to be bishops, you can find scripture against that, as well. And so any time you're changing the tradition of the church and feeling that the spirit is moving you into a new, different direction, that's a tough thing for people. And I can understand that. None of us like change. But I do believe this is of the spirit.

COOPER: All right. Reverend Gene Robinson, thank you very much for being with us.

ROBINSON: You're welcome.


COOPER: And we will find out at the end of July whether, in fact, he does become the bishop in the Episcopal Church.


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