Bishop V. Gene Robinson, whose consecration as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church set off a historic rift in the global Anglican Communion, announced to his New Hampshire diocese on Saturday that he intended to step down.Read it all here.
He plans to retire in January 2013 after nine years as bishop, to give the diocese enough time to elect a new bishop and get the approval of the national church, a process that can take two years.
The news took some by surprise because Bishop Robinson is an energetic 63-year-old, and mandatory retirement age for Episcopal bishops is 72. He has led a relatively stable and healthy diocese, despite predictions by some that his election would undermine the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire.
The reason to depart, he said in a speech delivered at the close of the annual convention of his diocese, is that being at the center of an international uproar has taken a toll on him and on the diocese.
“Death threats, and the now worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark” and on Episcopalians in the state, he said.
But those who know Bishop Robinson say he has no intention of retiring from public life. His status as a symbol in the international gay rights movement means that after he steps down, he will have no shortage of platforms from which to preach his message that God blesses gay relationships too. (Through a spokesman, he declined interview requests.)
Bishop Robinson has become a national figure. In 2009, he gave the invocation for the opening event of the inauguration of President Obama. He also sees himself as an evangelist to people alienated from Christianity.
The election of Bishop Robinson in a church in Concord, N. H., in 2003 was the shot heard round the Christian world. It cracked open a longstanding divide between theological liberals and conservatives in both the Episcopal Church and its parent body, the Anglican Communion — those churches affiliated with the Church of England in more than 160 countries.
Since 2003, the Communion’s leaders have labored to save it from outright schism, not just over homosexuality, but also over female bishops and priests.
The current strategy, pushed by the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is for each regional province to sign a “covenant” of common beliefs.
The covenant has been slowly making its way through laborious writing and approval processes, which could take years.
Late last month, an international coalition of liberal Anglicans started a campaign to reject the covenant, saying, “The covenant seeks to narrow the range of acceptable belief within Anglicanism.”
The group, Anglicans for Comprehensive Unity, said, “Rather than bringing peace to the Communion, we predict that the covenant text itself could become the cause of future bickering and that its centralized dispute-resolution mechanisms could beget interminable quarrels and resentments.”
The church in New Hampshire suffered less fallout under Bishop Robinson than the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion. Only one New Hampshire congregation departed during his tenure, a congregation long unhappy with the direction of the Episcopal Church, according to diocesan leaders.
The number of active members in New Hampshire fell 3 percent, from 15,259 in 2003 to 14,787 in 2009. In that period, the Episcopal Church, like most mainline Protestant denominations, lost about 10 percent of its members. (It had about two million in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available.)
Bishop Robinson won critics over with a leadership style that was decisive but collaborative, said Margaret Porter, moderator of the diocesan council.
“The people who were skeptics, that did not last,” she said. “He was willing to meet them where they were. There were churches that were reluctant to have him visit as bishop for a time, and I think he now visits every congregation and is welcomed.”
But the pressure on Bishop Robinson became apparent in 2006. He took a monthlong leave to be treated for alcoholism. He said Saturday that he was in his fifth year of sobriety.
He and his partner of more than 20 years had a civil union ceremony in New Hampshire in 2008.
Bishop Robinson is no longer the only openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Mary D. Glasspool was consecrated in Los Angeles earlier this year.
In his resignation speech in New Hampshire, Bishop Robinson said: “This is the one place on earth where I am not ‘the gay bishop.’ I believe that you elected me because you believed me to be the right person to lead you at this time. The world has sometimes questioned that, but I hope you never did.”