Openly gay bishop astounded by 'progress'

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Ten years ago this month, Gene Robinson was ordained in New Hampshire as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church -- and in his own words, "all hell broke loose" in the denomination and among its global partners in the Anglican Communion.

The now-retired Bishop Robinson, speaking to a small but supportive audience at East Liberty Presbyterian Church Saturday, said he's astounded at the changes in the political and religious climate in the past decade.

Gay marriage has become legal in about 15 states -- when Bishop Robinson was ordained a bishop, there was no place in the country where he could legally marry his longtime partner, which he was eventually able to do in New Hampshire. And while homosexuality continues to be debated and opposed in many religious denominations, Bishop Robinson noted that the ordination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's first openly gay bishop in September in California made a blip in the news.

"I can't believe the progress we have made," Bishop Robinson said. "If you are anywhere around my age, you could not have dreamt in your growing up that you would see what you have lived to see."

Bishop Robinson said the recent changes are due to decades of activism and of gay people identifying themselves as such.

"Coming out is the most political thing you can do," Bishop Robinson said, citing the murdered gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk. "If they know us, they'll love us."

Bishop Robinson spoke to about 50 people in a fellowship hall whose ceiling was festooned with rainbow-colored banners. All of those who commented during the meeting or in interviews afterward said they supported Robinson's message.

Much of Bishop Robinson's talk centered on disputing traditional interpretations of biblical passages on same-sex relations. He argued that in the ancient context of Bible times, no one held the concept of someone being born with an innate homosexual orientation. He said some of the same-sex practices of ancient times, such as an older male exploiting a younger male, deserve condemnation and are not to be compared with two adults in an equal, loving relationship.

Bishop Robinson was dressed in the purple garb signifying his status as bishop, but he began his talk in a black-and-gold scarf, quipping that it could give him extra street cred in Steelers country.

But amid the optimistic tone of his talk, Robinson acknowledged longstanding opposition to homosexuality remains in both church and state, and he noted that Pittsburgh has been "ground zero" in that debate, central to the church realignment that followed. In 2008, a majority of parishes and clergy in the Episcopal Diocese left to help form the Anglican Church in North America. But others stayed behind in diocese.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has seen its own divisions over homosexuality. After decades of debate, the denomination ratified an amendment in 2011 allowing the ordination of gays and lesbians. And in 2012, its General Assembly, meeting in Pittsburgh, only narrowly voted against redefining marriage to allow for same-sex couples. Several congregations from the Pittsburgh Presbytery and elsewhere have voted to leave for more conservative Presbyterian denominations.

The Rev. Randy Bush, pastor of East Liberty, said the church hosted Bishop Robinson in 2012 and the church was looking for an opportunity to host him again. "I'm always struck by the clarity of his message," Mr. Bush said. The bishop will be preaching at today's service.

One member of the audience, Regis Smolko, asked Bishop Robinson how he responded to critics such as some African Anglican bishops who had spoken of homosexuality as satanic or animal behavior.

Bishop Robinson said the "most important thing I've learned in the past 10 years is that how someone treats me does not relieve me of my responsibility to treat them like the child of God they are." Some day, he said, "I'm going to be in heaven with those guys."

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416

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