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Tom Chaney: The Elephant in the Room

Of Writers And Their Books: The Elephant in the Room. Tom reviews Bluegrass native Gene Robinson's In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, an account of his election as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. This column first appeared 6 July 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Putting Hands on Heaven's Clock

By Tom Chaney

The Elephant in the Room

We see it. We sense its presence. We walk around it. But elephants don't belong in rooms; so we don't talk about it, though the floor joists creak and it sits in the only chair.

Then along comes Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire who has the temerity to say to his church and the rest of us, "You know, there is an elephant in the room. What must we do about it?"

How refreshing to read an account of the life of a priest so imbued with the ineffable joy of his religion!

Robinson's election as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 marked the first time that an openly gay priest was elevated by his church to such a position. That event and its context is the subject of his latest book In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God [Seabury Books, 2008].

Robinson, son of a Bluegrass tenant farmer, acknowledges that acceptance of the elephant in the room flies in the face of several millennia of church practice and biblical interpretation. Nonetheless the elephant is present and there is no door marked "EXIT."

The Bishop calls the church to the joy of service by his example. He has devoted his career to caring for those on the margins of society -- prisoners; abused women; victims of racial injustice; the ill, especially those with HIV/AIDS; those in the gay community.

The reader goes with him behind the walls of a New Hampshire prison for women whose inmates, rejected by society, welcome him with open arms as he welcomes them into the church's fellowship.

He takes us to the Blessed Minority Christian Fellowship in Hong Kong where gay Christians gather in secret behind closed doors, for to do otherwise would involve great risk with serious consequences. "Many of these young people worship at their own churches on Sunday morning, but they don't bring their entire selves to those gatherings. In their 'regular churches,' they cannot speak of the person God made them to be and called good.... [T]hese young people have no hope of putting their sexuality and their spirituality together. And so on Sunday afternoons they come to a secret place to sing songs of praise and to worship the God who redeemed them and loves them exactly as they are."

It comes as no surprise that acknowledging the presence of the elephant in the living room has caused major consternation in the world-wide Anglican fellowship. Some churches, some dioceses have tried to move to another room where elephants are not spoken of.

Bishop Robinson argues for the toughest form of love in the face of the elephant crisis in his church. That is reconciliation.

Look at the New Testament, he says. "Paul didn't write all those letters to the Christians in Corinth and Rome and Galatia to pat them on the back and tell them to keep up the good work. He wrote those letters to try to keep all those newly minted Christians from tearing each other apart with one fight or another."

Reconciliation happens when someone comes from the margin of society -- church, political party, whatever organization -- "and speaks truth to power; and with great difficulty and turmoil, empire then rethinks its own history to include those who are marginalized -- and then does something to set right the wrong in response."

That has happened in Robinson's church with matters of race and to some extent the role of women. It is time, he argues, for the same process to happen with elephants.

Every ten years on the eights the Anglican Communion holds the Lambeth Conference of bishops where problems are aired in the "listening process." The bishops have called in 1978, '88, and '98 for the church to listen to the stories of its gay and lesbian members.

"Yet when the conference convenes again in 2008, little real listening will have gone on."

In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury has discouraged Bishop Robinson's attendance at the conference. In response, the American bishops are hosting a listening session of their own to introduce Bishop Robinson to those of the larger fellowship who wish to hear.

Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wrote the foreword for his fellow bishop's book. After giving thanks to the world-wide Anglican Communion for its role in overturning apartheid, he mentions how his eyes were then opened to the issue of gender discrimination. This insight led to his own role in the process of allowing the ordination of women.

He continues.

"I could not stand by while people were being penalized again for something about which they could do nothing -- their sexual orientation. I am humbled and honored to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who seek to end this egregious wrong inflicted on God's children.... Forgive us for all the pain we have caused you and which we continue to inflict on you."

And elephants remember kindness.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

PBS Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly Feature
Gene Robinson: In the Eye of the Storm
May 2, 2008 Episode no. 1135

This story was posted on 2013-07-07 06:20:35
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