Bishop Robinson and Our Struggle against Fear
In London, Angelo Berbotto Witnesses First Hand the Current Struggle in the Anglican Communion and Remembers His Own Struggle for Acceptance
by Angelo Berbotto
St. Mary's Church in Putney, near London
Angelo was sitting feet away from a violent heckler
Bishop Robinson spoke at the Affirmation Conference in Washington DC
"There is a knob on only one side of the door...
Our God respects us so much that he waits for us to open up"
Affirmation Member Witnesses Hate, Homophobia
See video clip of the incident by the BBC
Bishop Robinson's remarks at the Affirmation conference
It was a lovely evening on Sunday, when my boyfriend and I went to St. Mary's Church in Putney, about 25 minutes by car from my home in South London. The church was crammed full. It was good that we got there about 1 hour in advance, and that Jonathan was wearing his dog collar, which proved useful in securing access to the cafe and then to the first row of pews as we were "safe" in the words of Giles Fraser, the rector of St Mary's (i.e., we were not going to cause any trouble during the service).
(I met Jonathan in March 2008 at a same-sex ballroom dancing class; he is a vicar, or parish priest, in the Church of England. He commented that it was the first time we sat together for worship as he usually is on duty every time we go to church.)
The music was beautiful, and there Bishop Robinson stood, in front of the altar.
He bowed his head and said, "Lord, I feel like a boy."
It was a reference to the reading from Jeremiah 1:4-9:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
Cameras were clicking non-stop and Bishop Robinson said the press would take advantage of the 90 seconds granted them to take photos of the bishop of New Hampshire doing this radical thing -- preaching in a church in England.
'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'
Then I said, 'Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how
to speak, for I am only a boy.' But the Lord God said to me,
'Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to
whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I
command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with
you to deliver you, says the Lord.
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched
my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
'Now I have put my words in your mouth.'
We were focused on Gene Robinson. The reaction of many to his simple words, "Lord, I feel like a boy," was immediate and powerful. Some closed their eyes. Some wiped their eyes. Some bowed their heads. Several nodded. I felt the spirit. This little man, barely my height (5'5"), was a giant in spirit, and I felt the presence of something bigger that was surrounding us.
After the photographers were escorted out, he continued. "There is a lot of fear around. Have you noticed?" More nods.
He mentioned fears of terrorist attacks, fears of losing one's job, fears about the economy.
"Fear does terrible things" to people, he said.
Just about then, a heckler stood up in the second row, right behind me, and began shouting at the bishop, who stepped back, folded his hands and stood in silence. I saw people near the man telling him to stop. I started saying, "Go, go away." He was broad shouldered and intimidating. Others began a steady clapping to drown him out and the choir started singing a hymn and the congregation joined in. By this time the man was being led out. I was distressed and confused. I was fearful.
Unknowingly, and certainly unintentionally, this man had provided a perfect illustration of the power of fear to cause people to do unloving things to the object of their fears—to "the other."
After he was gone and the hymn ended, Bishop Robinson stepped forward again, and said, "Pray for that man." He was clearly shaken by the man's hate-filled face and his brutal words, he was a bit teary. I smiled at him. I was very touched by the entire thing. Then he spoke of God's love overcoming fear and he quickly regained his equilibrium, going on with grace and humor to make his points.
"The opposite of love is not hate," he said, "but fear."
He observed that the idea that the Anglican Communion might split over two men loving one another or two women loving each other "must break God's heart." I sat there in awe: These people may be in disagreement, but nobody excommunicates anyone! It is about understanding, or trying to listen at the very least. I thought of my own journey—my personal exodus from Mormonism, which was not entirely self-imposed, but forced.
He reminded the crowd that the words "Fear not!" bookended Jesus' life—they were the first words the angel Gabriel said to Mary just before she agreed to be the God Bearer; it was what the angels said to the shepherds at his birth. After his death, it was the first words out of Jesus' mouth at every one of his post-Resurrection appearances. "Do not be afraid." I was by this stage on the brink of tears: He was leading me into a journey through my own history, revisiting memories that I had not retrieved for a while. It was painful, but I was doing my best not to fear. "All is well," I thought, "all is well."
He talked about how people were fearful for the church, but reminded us that "the church is not ours to save or lose—it is God's gift to us." He said it is time to get over our fear for the church and start being good stewards of this gift, so that it can become the church God wants. And it hit me at this point: For these people, the church is a completely different place. And I rejoiced at the idea that my beloved LDS Church may reach adulthood, too.
Then he announced he was going to reveal the "homosexual agenda."
"It is Jesus," he said. "Certainly that is the agenda for this homosexual—the Jesus I know in my life, who communicates God's unwavering love for me in my life and in my relationships."
"I don't know what causes you to feel less than worthy, not worthy of God's love, but whatever it is, the God of all that is is willing to heal that," he added.
He told people of the revivals he attended while growing up in Kentucky, where, in the heat of the summer, they would listen to hours of preaching and singing and altar calls while fanning themselves with fans provided by the local funeral home. These fans were invariably adorned with a picture of a blond Jesus knocking at a heart-shaped door. When he was older, he did some research on that illustration, and realized that there was a knob on only one side of the door.
"Our God respects us so much that he waits for us to open the door," he said.
I think he shared this story with us during the Affirmation conference in Washington DC. He was not saying anything new to me, but he was talking to my soul and I felt so much peace.
He went on to say that the church's discussion of homosexuality is interesting in what it reveals about people's idea of God. When the church treats women and gays like second-class people it does not make people outside the church want to know more about God. Indeed, it does just the opposite.
He told a story first shared by Archbishop Tutu's daughter about her mother-in-law. The family was upset because of one's son choice of a sweetheart. His parents were not pleased with about the woman, and it was causing much uproar in the family. Then one night, her mother-in-law went to bed and prayed about it. The next day she told her family what God had made clear to her—she had put herself on the wrong committee.
"I'm not on the selection committee," she said. "I'm in the welcome committee. It's my son's job to choose. It's my job to welcome the person he loves."
"We don't get to be on the selection committee," Bishop Robinson said. "God chooses. We get to welcome." The reactions from the congregation were electric. It was very powerful!
He reminded us that by virtue of our baptisms, we are brothers and sisters in Christ with all other Christians, whether or not we agree with them or like.
"Peter Akinola is my brother, and we will be in heaven together one day," he said. "And we'll get along, because God won't have it any other way. Our job is to love those God loves."
Gene Robinson is in England for the once-every-10-year gathering of Anglican bishops known as the Lambeth Conference. He said, "I'm going to Lambeth unafraid," and yes, from time to time he will feel like a boy, and yes, the job will feel overwhelming, "changing hearts one by one until we get to the kingdom."
But God wants us to be unafraid. "God wants you to open up your hearts," he said, to someone "you know who needs you to tell them how God has worked in your life. We're changing this church, getting closer to God's idea of church. Whatever it is that's holding you back from making that witness, get over it."
He reminded the listeners of the story in Acts chapter 3, about the lame man carried each day to the gate of the Temple, into which he was not allowed to go because the Temple leaders said his lameness was caused by sins of his parents or grandparents. But Peter cured him in the name of Jesus, and he got up and not only walked, but ran and leaped and danced his way into the Temple.
Too many of us, Bishop Robinson said, women and gays especially, have been told they can come to the gate but can't come all the way in. Have we not heard this before? That was the deal I had been offered: Be celibate, come to the LDS Church, but you will not love, you will hate what you are.
Yesterday, at Putney, the deal was different: Gene Robinson was saying that I was no less deserving of the blessings, there was no reason to stay at the gate: "Listen to me. Whatever it is, God can heal you. Come dance your way inside."
God gave us the Church, he said. "How silly of God to trust us with it"--yet God has, and we are worthy of the task.
"The God of all that is, is with you. Do not be afraid."
As he ended his sermon, we broke into loud applause.
Then the Eucharist, or Sacrament, followed, celebrated by Giles Fraser, vicar of St. Mary's Putney. I accompanied Jonathan to the altar and then we got back to our seats. Jonathan lovingly laid his hand on my leg. I just closed my eyes, I did not want to cry, but the emotion was overwhelming! It had, after all, been in a church that I had been so spiritually damaged, and it had taken me long to get back to believe again—to believe that God was not the vindictive entity that had created me in order to play games with me or demanding a loveless life of me. For being gay is not about sex—it is about love. It is about loving myself as I was created. It is about accepting that my diversity may be a blessing in the life of others. It is about sharing and giving and being.
I am happy that the voices are beginning to be heard, the wider community is listening and many of our straight brethren are leaving fear behind and coming to meet us.
It was yesterday, on a beautiful Sunday evening, holding my boyfriend's hand and listening to the words of Gene Robinson that I heard the still, small voice whispering to me, as I had in the troubled days of my mission. I thought about that naive 19-year-old for a moment, then I concentrated on the still small voice which repeated to me, "All is well, Angelo, all is well!"