Going to Heaven

I’m currently reading a copy of “Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinsonâ€? by Elizabeth Adams, which as the title suggests tells the story of Bishop Gene Robinson, particularly with regards to his election as Bishop of New Hampshire. I’d wanted to read the book for a while, putting in an order almost immediately with Amazon, but found that the order kept being pushed back and back as they tried to import it from the States, so I jumped at an offer from Richard Nash, the publisher of the book in the US (who even gets a thank-you in the preface of the book from the author) who arranged a review copy for me direct from the UK distributor.

Before reading it I had been expecting the book to cover similar ground to “A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexualityâ€? by Stephen Bates, which although it included a picture of Gene Robinson on the cover, was primarily about the appointment and subsequent withdrawal of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. It is interesting to note that the massive furore that arose here over the appointment of Jeffrey John has died away, much as I expected it would once Gene Robinson had been elected across the pond. Indeed as I have commented, when Canon John was invested as Dean of St Albans, despite the best efforts of some groups to kick up a fuss, only a single protester showed up – a far cry from the increased security, armed police, bullet proof vests and bodyguards that were needed for the ceremony in New Hampshire. In fact the only mention of Jeffrey John in the Adams book so far is a somewhat misleading quote that the decision to appoint him was only made by Bishop Richard. For clarification, as with the appointment of a parish priest in the Church of England what happens currently is a much more consultative process, even if on paper it seems to be a one person decision. In the case of Jeffrey John, as with the current process for a successor to Bishop Richard in which we were involved, a committee that includes a lay element was appointed to oversee the process, and they took contributions from the wider Church. Jeffrey John was backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and also backed by the committee who interviewed the candidates. Ultimately it was one of the lay members of that committee, Philip Giddings who after agreeing to the appointment took the lead in the campaign to get Jeffrey John to stand down and became convenor of Anglican Mainstream. There is more detail on that whole process, including extensive interviews with Giddings himself in the Stephen Bates book.

Anyway, Going to Heaven is a very different book, in a large part I think because of the contribution of Gene Robinson himself, so there is a lot about his background, and also a lot of detail of his life in the Church prior to his election. There are also numerous contributions from people across the Episcopal Church including a number of people who on paper you would expect to be opposed to the appointment of a ‘gay bishop’, but supported Gene Robinson because of the work he had done for both his diocese and the Episcopal Church as a whole for many years before his election. In fact through these passages what comes through most clearly is that for many he wasn’t elected because he was gay, but he was elected because he was the best person for the job, in spite of the fact he was gay. Many of the people who backed him were willing to do so not because of some great ideal to bring the issue to the fore, but because they, and the majority of the people in the diocese believed that he was the right man for the job. This certainly contrasts with what happens in the UK where although we have involvement in the process for choosing a Bishop, ultimately we don’t see who the candidates were, and we are then told who has been appointed. In the Episcopal Church the process is much more open, with a shortlist of candidates being drawn up, and a long process of consultation where the candidates meet people from across the diocese, leading ultimately to an election with representatives from across the diocese.

Another element of the book is in drawing a comparison with the campaign for the ordination of Women, and the subsequent appointment of women Bishops, and of course as of November 1st, a woman as primate of the Episcopal Church as a whole. What struck me as interesting was the differences in the way the two issues were addressed. What I was unaware of was that it was that the first ordinations of Women in the US were conducted illegally, ahead of the approval from the General Convention. In comparison, New Hampshire were scrupulous in ensuring that the election was carried out properly, so there would be no question over his appointment. This of course has ultimately been what has caused much of the hand wringing and arguments across the Anglican Communion as a whole, as under the rules of the Church Gene Robinson has been appointed entirely properly.

One thing that is also clear is that it is apparent that nobody really expected the events that have happened since, and the worldwide element that his appointment took on. Looking again at the ordination of Women issue, there is disagreement across the Anglican Communion as a whole over the issue, but the communion has remained largely in tact. It certainly seems that many people in New Hampshire thought that whatever outcry there would be would die down, which of course it hasn’t. Bishop Gene Robinson has ended up being the trigger for a battle over what it means to be an Anglican itself.

As such, the book contains quite a few comments and anecdotes putting the liberal side of the argument. There are two points that I will repeat here. The first, is that whatever parts of the Anglican church may like to say, the Church is based on a combination of Scripture, Tradition and Reason – Richard Hooker often credited alongside Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker as being one of the founders of Anglican theological thought. Whilst some may have you believe that it is a recent idea, way back in the sixteenth century he was arguing that the scriptures should be read in their historical context, and be looked at in the light of the specific situations for which they were written. Elizabeth Adams book includes the application of this tenet to the various passages of scripture often raised by opponents that Gene Robinson himself used during and after the process that elected him as Bishop.

The second point is a bit different, and is an analogy:

There are four soldiers fighting in the war. One of their number is killed, and the other three find a Church and a priest, and ask the priest to bury their friend. This he does, but the cemetery in the churchyard is only for baptised Christians, so the priest enquires from the three as to their friends religious background. They do not know if he is baptised, so the priest says that he can only bury their friend outside the Church fence.

Later, as they are returning home from the war, the three remaining friends decide to go and visit the grave of the fourth friend, but when they get to the Church they find that there is no longer a grave outside the fence, so they go and seek out the priest. The priest remembers these soldiers, and explains. “After you left,â€? he says, “I thought about it, and what I had told you and felt that it was wrong. I couldn’t change where your friend was buried, but I did what I could, I moved the fence.â€?

The book is an excellent read, and certainly goes a long way towards providing a more rounded view of both Gene Robinson, and the events surrounding his election as Bishop, putting to rest a lot of the misinformation that came out through some of the UK tabloid press at the time. Fundamentally it provides a way to move from thinking of the man as a label, or a single issue, into understanding why the people of New Hampshire wanted him as their Bishop.

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